Hedgehogstreet

Perhaps the biggest hedgehog story for some time, and I am in the thick of it. Today, 1st June, we are launching ‘Hedgehog Street‘. And, as Melvyn Bragg is so keen on saying as he befuddles audiences on In Our Time (one of my favourite radio programmes), now I ought to ‘unpack’ that a little.

The British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species have been working together for many years, but this is our biggest effort yet. In the past we have developed projects such as HogWatch and we also support the rather unfortunate Mammals on Roads surveys (unfortunate because it relies on the murderous rampage of the motor car to help us monitor fluctuations in the hedgehog population).

What these projects have revealed is alarming. But we wanted to check that the serious decline in hedgehog numbers was ‘real’ and not just a quirk of the way the data were collected. So we employed some of the best ecological statisticians at the British Trust for Ornithology (I know, they do birds, but they also do numbers REALLY well) and they used our figures along with data they had collected. From this we can unequivocally state that in the last ten years, the hedgehog population of Britain has declined by around 25%.

This is alarming. The hedgehog is an excellent indicator of the state of our environment, it is also a wonderfully robust creature that has managed to fit brilliantly into our world. So what has changed? And what can we do about it?

The answer is something I have been banging on about for years. Habitat fragmentation.

At its most obvious, this would be a busy road being built through an area of hedgehog habitat. Hedgehogs would then be unable to get from one side to the other. But fragmentation is far more insidious. It happens in the rural landscape because fields get bigger and hedges remain unmanaged. It is exacerbated by the increase in badgers, the presence of which prevents hedgehogs moving along the remaining hedgerows. And it happens in the last refuge of the hedgehog, suburbia.

In A Prickly Affair, I wrote about the suburban doughnut … the circle of rich hedgehog territory that surrounds the desert its heart. But this doughnut of interconnected gardens is also being fragmented. Obviously, busier roads make a hedgehog’s life harder. But so does infill development, so does the destruction of wildlife friendly gardens with extensions, decking, patios and car-ports. And so do fences with concrete footings. You might have the very best hedgehog friendly garden in the city – and I have had this question asked of me many times – but no hedgehogs. Well, if they cannot get into your garden, they will not appear.

And this is where Hedgehog Street comes in. This innovative project has been set up to help us all recreate a mosaic of interconnected habitats in suburbia. There is an information pack with all the details, the website also has top tips, but what it comes down to is the simple fact that if we open out our gardens to hedgehogs by allowing them to move between them, we massively increase their chances of survival.

The figures are amazing, there are around 433,000 hectares of garden and if we could get just 0.1% of them involved, that would create a hedgehog refuge larger than Sherwood Forest!

So log on to Hedgehog Street, get your pack and get active – and don’t forget to share the fun, post your stories on the forum, get local media interest (this will be on SpringWatch soon) and get out there with a saw and a sledgehammer!

So there is plenty we can do, but there is one fact that this analysis of historic data has thrown up that shook me to my core. The population estimate for hedgehogs in Britain in 1950 was around 30 million. In 1995 it was about 1.5 million. Now, probably nearer one million. That is less than 5% of the 1950 figure. That means we have lost over 95% of our hedgehogs in just 60 years. Please re-read that sentence. It is possible that the original figure is an over-estimate. But, say, it is double what was really out there, that would still mean we have a 90% population decline on our hands.

This leads me to something else that has been bothering me for sometime. It is the idea of ‘shifting baselines’. We are worried about the substantial decline we are aware of – and there is no denying how serious it is – but this is a quite small decline compared to what we have already lost. Shifting baselines kick in when we make assessments about the state of populations based on the knowledge that we personally have. So my idea of a healthy population of hedgehogs will be heavily influenced by my early memories of abundance. That memory acts as a baseline from which I now look in distress at the current population level. But the situation is far worse than that as my baseline is drawn from an already devastated population. And this is true for everything. There is simply far less wildlife out there than there was. And the reason is because we have killed it or we have destroyed the habitat necessary for it to flourish.

This is something to feel sadness and anger about, but it is vital we do not let that beat us into submission. I know many people think my passion for hedgehogs a little eccentric, but the truth is, it is a passion for all wildlife, and the message the hedgehog tells us now is one we must heed. Remember – we might have already lost 95% of the country’s hedgehogs. Grieve, then act; give the hedgehogs a treat.

15 thoughts on “Hedgehogstreet

  1. I suggest the decline in the countryside is badger related. Habitat on this place has not changed substantially in the 40 years I have been involved. The badger population has expanded from 3 setts to 23 since the mid 70’s. Habitat is part of the mix but species balance is very important.

    • You are right that species balance is important, and one of the big problems is that hedgehogs and badgers have a competitive as well as a predator-prey relationship – so when land management reduces the macro-invertebrate populations of improved pasture, predation becomes more of a problem. Additionally, hedgehogs avoid hedges where badgers are active …. so our hope is, for now, suburbia, hence the importance of Hedgehog Street.

      • There is pasture both unimproved and semi-improved. The arable invertibrate population is very high such that IPM can be used reducing Pesticide usage.

    • Thanks Marc, yes – we have a short 4 page document that I am trying to put up on the blog, but I need to work out how to embed a pdf I think … otherwise, I can email it to you – is the sharkman address correct?

      • Thanks Hugh, but I found it (assuming it’s the one by David Wembridge) on the BHPS website. I will have a read tomorrow and make sure I cover the topic on my homepage update this weekend. Cheers, Marc.

  2. Hugh, thanks for the informative post! Also, fabulous book. Keep up the good work. I shared this link via Facebook. Let’s educate British population.

  3. Have posted the links for Hedgehog Street , BHPS and PTES on my website and will also add a link to your site (had links to a lot of sites including yours until someone tried to hack into it and I had to restart again -Wordpress then posted a warning about this problem).The hedgehog population in our area of North East Fife has suffered a dramatic decrease due to the rapid spread of Badgers. The local farmers are of the opinion that it is due to certain groups spreading them around as I had never seen or heard of badgers in this area until about ten years ago. What used to be nice safe release areas were suddenly unsafe due to the badgers. The majority of our rescues are now from the larger villages or towns in Fife or further North such as Aberdeen (60 miles) or even Inverness (100 miles).

    • Thanks Sandy – I have to sat I am sceptical about the idea of people deliberately releasing badgers … and of farmers’ rage at badgers too, for that matter. The best minds in the business know that bovine TB will not be stopped by killing badgers … but appeasement is required for votes!

      • The comment that any badger cull is merely political appeasement is a statement unworthy of a scientist. The science is not clear and is made opaque by the unscientific comments of a vocal group who do not wish to consider the diverse science in any detail. Fact – in the early 70’s TB was almost eliminated and that was in part due to a badger cull when the national population was a third of its current value. Since badger protection, the population has risen to double the fox population. The figures now emerging from the RBCT work shows a greater reduction in TB in cattle than was at first published [bear in mind that the total cull only achieved c80% sccess]. Finally in the late ’60’s a large area in Dorset smitten by TB instigated a total cull and filled in the setts; today the badgers there are in healthy numbers and NO TB. Finally the ill informed public comment inhibits balanced decision making. There is insufficient habitat for current badger numbers such that there is not enough typical habitat for them and they move into open fields and hedges – hardly normal? Let us have an informed debate in the spirit of finding a real solution to declining hedgehog and bumble bee populations and maybe TB?

        • Dear Hugh,
          I made a bit of a flip statement – but I am basing my assessment on the evidence of the RBCT – that unless the control area is spread to a politically unfeasible area, the perturbation effects identified by Prof David Macdonald will continue the spread. The control of rabies, previously unsuccessfully done by killing foxes, was achieved by using vaccines instead of poison. This is where energy should be directed to control TB.
          Do badgers control hedgehog numbers? They are one of many factors at play and to isolate them is as unscientific as my flip opening.
          Now all we need are the resources to investigate this all the more thoroughly …

  4. I am afraid the comments by Prof David were befere the latest release of the %age reduction in TB cases. In additon as I said above the cull was at best only 80% [inefficient capture methods]. Therefore the disturbance will be greater – 100% is required and then disturbance is greatly reduced [Elephant culls refer]. The issue is not TB anyway I suggest for a top predatoir there are too many badgers for too little habitat? If protection is successful then at a point [probably 5 years ago] it needs to be lifted?

  5. In the North-Eastern part of Holland we have also difficulty in finding a stretch of badger-free nature where we can put back into the wild the hedghogs that were treated in my rescue station. The number of badgers seems to increase every year.
    How should we influence the badger lobby?
    Badgers seem to be fashionable, but what about our wonderful hedghogs?
    Furthermore the public use too much snail poison which kill hedghogs.
    Large production fields of lillies are also lethal for hedghogs due to the enormous quantity of insecticides used in this production process.
    Etc. etc. How are we effectively going to rescue the hedghog in the end.?
    I keep going on but it is getting more and more complicated.
    Best greeings from Holland,
    Mrs. R. Geselschap

    • Dear Mrs Geselschap, you pose an interesting question … one we are trying to answer here in the UK. The first thing to consider is that hedgehogs and badgers normally coexist – they have what is known as an ‘asymmetric intraguild predatory relationship’ … they are competitors for the same food (macro-invertebrates – worms etc) with the badger out-competing the hedgehog. But our thought is that when the environment becomes less hospitable – i.e. there is less food, the relationship shifts into being a predatory one – with the badger feeding on the hedgehog. We (the BHPS and the PTES) are funding research at Oxford University right now trying to get a better answer to this.
      I think the problem is not so much with the badger supporters but with the people who make the land inhospitable to both species …
      And now if you can find a way for me to come back to Holland and talk about this, please let me know – did you realise that my book on hedgehogs is available there: http://www.knnvuitgeverij.nl/NL/webwinkel/0/0/7429
      best wishes
      Hugh

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