By James Duncan
Learning and Engagement Officer
Roaming the countryside far and wide, the much-loved Hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus) was once considered an exceedingly numerous species, one we very much took for granted. Current Hedgehog sightings are reportedly a whole lot rarer, particularly in that once commonly frequented habitat - our gardens. The Hedgehog is of course an unobtrusive nocturnal predator that spends a third of its year in hibernation, so it seems peculiar that our sightings should so precisely illustrate their total numbers. Anecdotally, the volume of unfortunate Hedgehogs deceased on our roads seems very much lower in recent years. Paradoxically, it's strange that this should be considered a 'bad thing' but that's the crux. The predominant driving force behind the very notion of declining Hedgehogs is our own vehicle-based travel - there are simply fewer casualties owing to there being fewer Hedgehogs. Their numbers have always been incredibly difficult to quantify, there being no distinctly reliable method for accurately recording numbers. Estimates, through extrapolation with limited data, put them at more than 30 million during the 1950's, recalculated to around 1.5 million in the 1990's, perhaps less than a million today. Seems rather conclusive. The problem is there just isn't any precise data, with surveys and trends showing not just wild fluctuation year-upon-year but dramatic changes in population distribution, indicating their decline is an incredibly complicated issue.
The bewildering complexity in interpreting Hedgehog numbers doesn't, however, change two key facts; the first being that the long-term trend is still indicative of ongoing decline, though it may be slowing; the second being that Hedgehogs face an awful number of major threats in modern Britain. Rural dwellers have long been at the mercy of intensified agricultural practices, where the loss of pasture, field margins and hedgerows has been devastating. Even the name 'Hedgehog' is entirely characteristic of their feeding habits, 'a snuffling creature below the hedges.' Pesticides and insecticides have no doubt wiped out a significant quantity of their food, poisoning them in the process. Habitats have been continuously fragmented, making their nightly territorial forays that much more difficult. Of course this isn't restricted to rural locations and the unsympathetic development and virtual imprisonment within urban habitats has led to a similar issue. Hedgehogs are also a fan of 'mess', requiring places to sleep and breed - our innate desire to 'tidy-up' hasn't complimented their habitual preferences. Though seen less regularly upon them, our roads continue to be a seriously hostile environment. Even gardens themselves pose a threat through mowers, bonfires and garden chemicals. Unfortunately these are but a few of the problems they face, and when combined with the effects of natural predation and climate change on both food supplies and the intricacies of hibernation, it appears to add up to a gloomy picture.
Though hedgehogs aren't the only British mammals to face these threats, the flip-side to the somewhat distressing outlook is the sheer volume of protective measures that are now being put in place to help. Far more people than ever now build 'wildlife-friendly' gardens and ponds. People put out hibernacula to aid their winter survival and significant quantitates of food to supplement their typical diet, around 75% of which is beetles, earthworms, caterpillars, slugs and eggs. There is now far more widespread publicity surrounding ways to keep bonfires and lawn-mowing safe and how to more appropriately care for the needs of our Hedgehogs. Huge numbers of volunteers and public donations help to rescue, rehabilitate and release injured individuals and the love shown for our native Hedgehog is stronger than its ever been. Outside of the protection championed by both conservation charities and individuals, the Hedgehog was included on the 2007 British Government Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP), composed to draw up a detailed strategy for exactly how resources should assist species in serious trouble. The modern-day Hedgehog family has survived on Earth for an awfully long time, existing unchanged for fifteen million years. The ancestry of the Hedgehog goes back a whole lot further, possibly to a time when the Dinosaurs roamed. But the threats they now face are greater than ever and it's absolutely vital to carefully monitor numbers to avoid one of our most charismatic mammals from disappearing altogether.
Hedgehog © Tom Marshall