A new start after 60: I was worried about empty-nest syndrome – so I began rescuing injured hedgehogs

<span>Highway star … Kitty Johnson and hedgehog in her garden haven.</span><span>Photograph: Graham James</span>
Highway star … Kitty Johnson and hedgehog in her garden haven.Photograph: Graham James

In May 2023, Kitty Johnson made her first hedgehog rescue. The writer and creative writing teacher took a call from a family who had found one of the tiny mammals unresponsive in the middle of the park that borders her Norwich home. She rushed out of the door with a pair of latex gloves and a box filled with newspaper and began searching in the grass. “It took a while to find it but when I did, I picked the hedgehog up very carefully, placed it into the box and rushed it to my car,” she says. “From there, I drove it to a local sanctuary. It survived, and I was elated to play a part in saving its life.”

Growing up in Hertfordshire, Johnson was fascinated by nature as a child and would often go on long walks with her mother, who pointed out the names of wild flowers and trees. After moving to Norwich and beginning her writing career, she indulged her love of animals by adopting cats and several dogs. Yet her introduction to the world of hedgehogs came through her own role as a mother.

In 2023, her only child Alfie was due to begin university in Cambridge and Johnson was faced with the prospect of an empty home. “I had a friend whose son was leaving home and she was so terrified of it happening, I knew I needed to plan ahead and keep myself occupied to avoid feeling the same,” she says. “A few members of my Women’s Institute group had been volunteering with Hodmedods Hedgehog Support, and it seemed like a worthy cause. I decided to join them.”

Since adopting injured hedgehogs seemed dangerous with her rescue dog Walter at home, Johnson opted for a role on the helpline fielding calls, but soon found that phone work wasn’t for her. “Being at home waiting for calls made me feel like I should be writing. I needed to be out and about, getting fresh air and meeting people instead,” she says. “I volunteered to be a hedgehog driver, ready to transport the animals in need to safety.”

On call throughout the week, Johnson soon found herself travelling across Norwich and hunting for hedgehogs everywhere from compost bins to cemeteries and alleyways. Her remit is to rescue injured hedgehogs, ones found on private property that need rehoming, and babies that have been abandoned.

“People find hedgehogs everywhere, especially if they’re doing DIY and disturbing hidden nests,” she says. “I once had a call out for two babies abandoned by their mother on the verge of a street, and an hour later I had another call about the third hoglet from the same litter that had been picked up by a schoolgirl and taken home. Her mum rang us right away!”

A year on from her first rescue and now 65, Johnson estimates that she has completed close to 30 rescues, although not all of them come with happy endings. “I’ve had to take quite a few to the vet to be put to sleep,” she says. “Some get fly strike, where their wounds are infested by flies’ eggs, or they’re ridden with ticks. In those cases, we’re still helping by giving them a merciful ending.”

With birthing season around the corner, Johnson is preparing for her busiest time of the year, looking after hoglets and the new mums. “They’re not just cute but they’re also amazing animals, native to our country, that need protecting,” she says. “Housing developments put them at risk, as well as people cutting down hedges and putting up fences they can’t travel through.”

Her own garden has become a haven for the creatures, replete with a hedgehog feeder, holes in the fences to create a “hedgehog highway” and a wildlife camera to spot their comings and goings. The animals have also provided the inspiration for Johnson’s next novel, Prickly Company, which tells the story of a widow who becomes passionate about creating a hedgehog highway through her neighbours’ gardens and discovers their secrets in the process.

Given a new source of inspiration and a solution for her empty nest, Johnson has no plans to stop her rescue work. “It’s helped a lot doing something positive that occupies my mind and I won’t give it up since there are just too many animals that need help,” she says. “My son is supportive of it, and – although he might get fed up with me talking about hedgehogs all the time when he visits home! – I’m committed to them.”

Tell us: has your life taken a new direction after the age of 60?