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Wednesday, 21 November 2012

More on the plight of the WESTERN HEDGEHOG in the UK - could its demise really be down to the increase in Badgers

After processing Richard Broughton's comments and trying to understand the science behind his arguments, I phoned up one of the organisations charged with looking after many hundreds of injured, sick or poisoned Hedgehogs to see what they had to say. Having not the time nor the inclination to do an in-depth study before I put pen to paper unlike Richard, I have to admit that my statements were based on conjecture and a falasy of what I had come to believe was the key factor in their decline. It does look as though my comments were baseless - and I commend Richard for quickly pointing this out in a highly reasonable fashion. I raised the issue of slug pellets and was surprised at how little affect they do seem to be having on the UK Hedgehog population. I cannot thank the organisation highly enough and they spent some 40 minutes discussing the plight with me, and emailed me a lot of literature on the subject. This is a summary of the key points that were raised and gleaned from the respective information -:


The Mammal Society and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society now believe the UK population of Hedgehogs has crashed in recent years and it has even been suggested that they could become extinct in many places before the end of the decade. Little work has been done on the reasons for this steep decline, but it is very likely that loss of habitat, combined with the relentless toll of accidents, is a major factor in their decline. A number of reasons are put forward for the alarming and steep decline. One is intensive farming, with the loss of hedgerows and the increase in pesticides, depriving hedgehogs of their prey of slugs and insects. Another is increased vehicle numbers leading to increased road kills, and a third is urban development, with tidier gardens and better fences meaning urban populations of hedgehogs cannot move about, become fragmented and die out.

And there could be another reason...........

Contrary to popular belief, Western Hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) are more common in towns and villages than they are in the open countryside. The reasons for this are not fully understood, but perhaps, as Richard intimated (and somewhat a revelation to me and could explain why my own Hedgehogs have gone), their natural enemy, the Badger, tended (until recently) to steer clear of human habitation, offering it some protection, while much of the persecution they formally suffered at the hands of farmers and game keepers, would have been largely absent in these places. Badgers are the hedgehog's only British predator – their powerful front claws can uncurl the hedgehog's tight defensive ball of spines – and in recent decades their numbers have increased enormously, almost certainly because of the warmer winters brought about by climate change. Badgers eat hedgehogs readily, and hedgehogs are terrified of them.

Ironically though, this protection comes at a price, as being in such close proximity to humans, has left them vulnerable to our destructive and wasteful activities. Animal charities in the UK in a typical year see a hugely disproportionate number of Hedgehogs bought to their door compared to other species of wild animal (or certainly did so in the first decade of the New Millenium).

Hedgehogs are, by the nature of their structure, somewhat ungainly and although they can climb well and are good swimmers, they cannot climb out of broken drains or uncovered post holes and trenches, while their swimming skills are quickly defeated by steep-sided ponds and uncovered swimming pools. They are also often the victims of entanglement in plastic garden netting, while attacks by domestic dogs are an increasing problem (and their spines offer very little protection, especially when terrier breeds are involved). Additionally, burning in bonfires, garden pesticides, broken glass and litter and discarded games netting, all take their toll on the population.

During their breeding season (which begins in April and extends right through until October) many nests are dug out by dogs or destroyed by gardeners. A typical hedgehog nest comprises a football-sized ball of woven grasses, leaves, plastic bags and litter, situated just below the surface and they can be difficult to spot.

Electric strimmers, too, are a common cause of injury and death, as many hedgehogs, especially in very warm weather, will sleep in the open, usually in long grass and undergrowth.

In many areas of the Southeast, unprecedented house building has taken place in the past few years, with large gardens often being sold off to developers, who then squeeze three or four new houses into the one space, removing at a stroke, much prime hedgehog habitat. Hedgehogs it seems do not like such disturbance and often, soon afterwards, disappear completely.

Amazingly, hedgehogs enjoy very little legal protection. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 makes it illegal to catch, trap or kill them without a licence and The Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996 protects them from cruelty, but that’s about it.

The facts relating to this decline are frightening and of major concern. In the past 20 years or so, Hedgehogs have disappeared from much of Britain. This has not really registered yet in the public consciousness, but it is an astounding phenomenon. There were an estimated 30 million Hedgehogs in Britain in the 1950's, but now it is believed that less than half a million survive, and recently the rate of decline has grown even steeper.

Lee G R Evans