Hedgehogs and the Uists

Uist Hedgehogs – lessons learnt in wildlife management

Ten years ago the media first picked up on this story – of how the hedgehogs that had been introduced to the Outer Hebridean island of South Uist in 1974 had spread northwards, across Benbecula and into North Uist. And how hedgehogs were the prime cause for the dramatic collapse in the breeding success of internationally important populations of wading birds.

I had been aware of this story for some time. I had met the ornithologist at the centre of the research, Digger Jackson, at a British Ecological Society meeting and had been fascinated as it mirrored my own experiences, to some extent. I had investigated the same story but up on North Ronaldsay, the most northerly of the Orkneys. There it had been the postman, John Tulloch, who had brought two hedgehogs over in 1974 with a view to controlling slugs in his greenhouse. And again, the hedgehogs were accused of laying wast the ground nesting birds.

But I had not become more involved with the Uist story – other than handing over all of my research notes to the academic who was undertaking a study of what to do … I was busy with a pregnant wife and a report about GM crops in the USA. That was until the news picked it up.

I became very involved in the whole story from April 2003. Initially I was on the islands to record a piece for BBC Radio 4’s Natural History Unit. But soon I was deeply troubled by some of the messages being handed out to the press (who had descended on the Uists for the first night of a cull that had stirred up enormous contention). One of the most troubling was the way that the small team of concerned organisations and individuals who were also on the islands to try and rescue as many hedgehogs as possible were being portrayed as dangerous animal rights activists. I had just interviewed them and they were not at all dangerous.

I ended up helping those who were campaigning against the cull. I undertook a research project that helped get the cull stopped. I will not go into the details of the long saga here, but I do want to tell you that I am thrilled to have written a ‘comment’ piece for British Wildlife – in which I explore the history of the conflict and also try and tease out the lessons we might learn. How did we get the cull stopped? How did we end up with the two combative sides working together for the overall good of the biodiversity of these amazing islands? How can we reduce the chances of such a problem becoming a fight?

I interviewed key players in the story – from all sides of the debate. So I heard from the person now running the Uist Wader Research project up on the islands, from a senior academic who was highly critical of the proposals for the cull and from the rescuers and wildlife rehabilitators who got their hands dirty, looking after the hedgehogs.

I imagined that everyone would be saying the key issue was down to research – there needed to be more/better studies of the relationship between the reduction in breeding success of dunlin, ringed plover, snipe and redshank. And yes, there did need to be more/better work done (it is underway now thanks to the BTO). But what surprised me was the unanimity of opinion. The key lesson learnt was that communication is key. Many of the biggest contributions to the sense of hostility came from some very careless talk by people defending the cull.

I conclude in the piece for British Wildlife:

‘I doubt that will be the end of such wildlife management sagas, but it is hoped that, in the future, when there is a such a problem, and there are people outside the management process who care intelligently and deeply about what is happening, they will be able to communicate their objections and will be listened to with respect.’

Wildlife management is packaged as an objective science – but this is a delusion instilled at an early stage (I did my MSc in Wildlife Management). Wildlife management is, at its heart, entirely subjective. Yes, there can and must be objective research underpinning decisions, but the truth is that the decision to manage wildlife is the subjective decision – from which else everything follows. Accept that and you are a large part of the way to communicating more clearly about often highly complicated and contentious stories.

 

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