British Homeowners Unite to Create Hedgehog Highways

A campaign urges Britons to cut out small holes in their garden fences and walls to help out this beloved national icon. (Photo: Chris Isherwood [CC by 2.0]/Flickr)

The hedgehog is a quintessentially British critter — polite, pragmatic and a wee bit bristly if provoked. And like all good Brits, there’s nothing the hedgehog likes more than poking around in the garden, even if at night.

Despite beating out other contenders such as the badger, the robin and the red squirrel in a 2013 BBC Wildlife magazine poll seeking a “natural emblem for the British nation,” the humble hedgehog has yet to be bestowed with official national animal status. That honor, in England at least, goes to the Barbary lion. (Scotland is an entirely different story).

This, however, could soon very well change as part of a growing movement to lend this roly-poly insectivore a helping hand and halt rapidly declining population numbers across the United Kingdom. Once positively swarming with Erinaceus europaeus, Great Britain is now home to roughly 1 million hedgehogs. That’s a dramatic drop from the estimated 36.5 million spiny, slug-munching critters that could be found scurrying across British gardens in the 1950s. Between 2002 and 2013 alone, hedgehog numbers dropped by over a third.

There are numerous culprits behind the population decline. Habitat loss and fragmentation, fatal run-ins with motor vehicles and agricultural pesticides used to wipe out the hedgehog’s primary food source, insects, are all biggies. Frequently, hedgehogs meet more gruesome fates such as drowning in backyard ponds and pools or being inadvertently set ablaze in bonfires, which, unfortunately, in their unlit state serve as a favorite hibernation spot for the animals. It’s all enough to send Mr. Pricklepants lunging for a box of tissues.

Conservative MP and Beatrix Potter fanboy Oliver Colville is behind the push to save the hedgehog and designate it as the British national animal or, at the very least, require newly built housing developments to be hedgehog-friendly.

You see, hedgehogs, nocturnal animals, cover a lot of territory, moving from garden to garden in search of tasty invertebrates to dine on. Their insatiable appetite for scrumptious creepy crawlies commonly found in back gardens make hedgehogs a most adorable form of pest control.

Yet one thing stands in the way of these after-dark roaming machines that can cover over a mile on average per night: fences. In order to properly forage and mate, hedgehogs cannot be confined. That is, they need to be able to travel from garden to garden with minimal obstacles. Fences, of course, are one formidable barrier preventing hedgehogs from getting their snack — and rather noisy mack — on.

Colvile is pushing to require all fences, walls or other backyard barriers erected as part of new housing to have hedgehog-friendly holes that allow for safe passage from one garden to the next. One builder, Cumbria-based Russell Armer Homes, has already promised that all 56 of its upcoming residential projects in North West England will be hedgehog-friendly. Meanwhile, leading British fence purveyor Jacksons has introduced gravel board (the protective barrier between a wooden fence and the ground) with hedgehog-sized holes.

As for existing garden fences and walls, a campaign called Hedgehog Street is fostering the creation of a seamless corridor — a hedgehog superhighway, if you will — spanning across entire neighborhoods, even towns.

An initiative of the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, the call to action put forth by Hedgehog Street is straightforward, imploring Britons to create a hedgehog-friendly hole in or at the bottom of a backyard fence or wall.

Participants who pledge to do so should note each new hole on the campaign’s BIG Hedgehog Map.

As Hedgehog Street details, these links between gardens needn’t be much larger than a pet-safe 5 inches square. In addition to cutting a hole into the bottom of a fence with a saw or power tool, this could involve removing a brick at the bottom of a wall or digging a channel that creates a gap under a fence. Or, one could take down a fence or wall altogether and replace it with a big ol' barrier hedge — hedgehogs, along with other forms of wildlife, would love that.

In addition to tracking new hedgehog holes (as of publication there are well over 2,750 and growing), the BIG Hedgehog Map also serves as a hub to record hedgehog sightings, both alive and dead.

The BIG Hedgehog map also aims to foster a national network of suburban hedgehog highways that “will allow hedgehogs to move freely between gardens. A lack of connectivity is thought to be an important driver of the decline.”

The BIG Hedgehog Map, Hedgehog Street
The beginnings of a nationwide hedgehog superhighway .... (Photo: Hedgehog Street)

The beginnings of a nationwide hedgehog superhighway. (Screenshot: Hedgehog Street)

Of course, getting the neighbors involved is just as important as creating a hole or two that hedgehogs can easily pass beneath with on their journey. In order to create an effective hedgehog highway, numerous gardens need to be linked together. If a single home along a burgeoning hedgehog highway has a garden that's fully enclosed with nowhere for a hedgehog to pass through/under, it breaks the chain.

As Londoner Tim Lund, a supporter of Hedgehog Street, explains to the Times: “The problem is not being able to roam. They need an area to forage over and gardens are valuable spaces for them. If you have a barrier, that’s not good news.”

And since it's that time of year: Despite the fact that they're not at all related and have little in common aside from the fact that they both hibernate, hedgehogs are sometimes known to fill in for zonked-out groundhogs when it comes to weather forecasting duties come Feb. 2.

At the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, New Jersey, Otis the hedgehog subbed for Essex Ed — a protégé of Punxsutawney Phil, no less — this year after he failed to emerge from his slumber. And at the Oregon Zoo, Velda the spiny African pygmy hedgehog served as official prognosticator. "Hedgehogs are the real weather experts of the animal world," explains Oregon Zoo curator Michael Illig. "Punxsutawney Phil and his ilk are relative newcomers to the game. When European immigrants to the United States realized their new home didn't have hedgehogs, they turned to the groundhog out of necessity. But Velda is bringing the holiday back to its origins."

In the U.K., Hedgehog Awareness Week is observed the first week of May.

Via [NPR], [The Times]