Europe's Love of Robotic Lawnmowers Is Putting Hedgehogs in Peril

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Attention hedgehogs: Beware grass-trimming robots in the garden. (Photo: Tero Laakso/Flickr)

Pity the European hedgehog.

While there have been increased efforts to protect and accommodate this curious little critter, the threats are plentiful: habitat loss brought on by development, land fragmentation, car collisions, pesticides and other agricultural chemicals, bonfires, drain pipes, rude dogs, errant soup cans, plastic, ponds, swimming pools, wire fences, and natural predators such as badgers and foxes.

To top it off, European hedgehogs are now facing a formidable new threat in the form of robotic lawnmowers.

As detailed in a sobering article for Wired, hedgehog advocacy groups are "sounding the alarms" about sensor-driven landscaping machines that are able to avoid plowing into and over objects like trees and rocks but small mammals that are curled up into a tight ball — not so much. While other animals that could potentially have a fatal backyard run-in with a robo-mower can easily scamper or fly away before impact, the natural defense mechanism of hedgehogs renders them an easy target.

The push for hedgehog-friendlier landscaping machines

The increasing number of injurious and deadly encounters that hedgehogs are having with robotic lawnmowers is uniquely European on two fronts.

Firstly, native wild hedgehogs are extinct in the Americas. (Although, as Wired points out, this hasn't stopped housewares and clothing designers from stamping the likeness of hedgehogs on just about everything imaginable. They don't exist here but yet they're everywhere.) In Europe, where the spiny mammal is ranked as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, it's a completely different story despite the numerous aforementioned threats. The population is stable and in many countries the prickly erinaceids enjoy legal protection.

In Great Britain, hedgehogs are both emblematic and believed to be in rapid decline. Although still somewhat ubiquitous, the prolific insect-munchers are an increasingly less common sight in gardens both rural and urban. Over the past two decades, the British hedgehog population has decreased by 66 percent prompting numerous public awareness campaigns and initiatives to help their numbers rebound. Per the People's Trust for Endangered Species, the estimated population of hedgehogs in the U.K. is less than 1 million.

Robotic lawnmower
Although not hugely popular in the United States, robotic lawnmowers are all the rage in Europe. (Photo: David Short/Flickr)

What's more, robotic lawnmowers enjoy significantly greater popularity in Europe than in North America where manual push mowers still rule the market. As Wired reports, global sales of robotic lawnmowers are expected to top $3 billion by 2023 with Swedish outdoor power tool company Husqvarna leading the charge.

Digital Trends speculates this might be because Americans tend to have larger yards that require a machine more substantial than a grass-clipping Roomba geared for petite Euro plots. (Husqvarna's solar-powered Automower actually predates the first robotic vacuum cleaner by several years.) The price for a standard robotic lawnmower, which has dropped dramatically in Europe in recent years because they've been around that much longer, could also be an issue. Whatever the case, Husqvarna hopes to expand its North American market by tapping into the stateside obsession with smart home gadgetrythe company's new Automower line will be able to communicate with Amazon Alexa.

While a non-concern for American consumers, Husqvarna is also at the forefront of making its lawn-trimming bots safer for hedgehogs. Margaretha Finnstedt, public relations director for the company, tells Wired that although the overall number of hedgehogs maimed or killed by Automowers (that they're aware) of is relatively low, "any number is too big."

To address this, the company uses less powerful — and thus less deadly — pivoting blades in lieu of fixed blades. Husqvarna is also considering incorporating other hedgehog-friendly features into its machines including animal-detecting cameras and special brooms affixed to the undercarriage of the mowers that can sweep small animals and other objects out of the way as it passes.

Hedgehog conservation groups also routinely perform test runs on new robotic lawnmowers using apples to represent juvenile hedgehogs and cabbages for adults.

Explains Wired: "The produce is placed around lawns and different robot mowers are let loose. The tests found that mowers with a clearance of more than 2 inches were the most dangerous, because they were high enough to glide over a young hedgehog, creating room for its blades to cut the animal."

And although one of the perks of robotic lawnmowers is the ability to operate them at any time without so much as lifting a finger, conservationists recommend against using them at night given that hedgehogs are nocturnal. Still, it's not impossible for hedgehogs — particularly young hedgehogs, which are more active during the day — to be swiped by the blades of a robo-mower before the sun goes down.

hedgehog on path
While largely nocturnal animals, hedgehogs do sometimes poke around during the day. It's recommended that hedgehog-conscious robo-lawnmower users not use the machines at night. (Photo: Andrew Wilkinson/Flickr)

Cars remain top hedgehog killer

Although Husqvarna suggests that instances of hedgehogs being killed or injured by robotic lawnmowers is minimal, Erika Heller with Swiss hedgehog welfare group Igelstation Winterthur has noticed a rise in the number of robot lawnmower-injured hedgehogs that have been rescued and surrendered to the organization by good Samaritans over the past couple of years. She tells Wired that roughly half of the hedgehogs brought in have been injured by robotic lawnmowers. "The ones that have died we don't see, because they don't get brought here," she adds.

Liliane Männlein of Verein Pro Igel, another Swiss hedgehog conservation group, describes the injuries sustained by the animals in rather gruesome terms.

"More and more hedgehogs are being scalped by robot lawnmowers, while baby hedgehogs are being completely minced up," she tells Swiss newspaper 20 Minuten.

As for the U.K., the Daily Mail reports that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) isn't aware of the impact that battery-powered turf-manicuring tools are having on hedgehogs or if the mowers play any role in their overall decline. Still, the RSPCA notes that hedgehog fatalities due to manual lawnmowers aren't entirely uncommon.

"Sadly, every year the RSPCA receives calls about wild animals with distressing and often fatal gardening related injuries which in most cases are completely avoidable," explains the organization. "Hedgehogs are one of the most affected as they are often well hidden in long vegetation or curl up into a ball when they sense danger, making it hard to spot them."

Despite the growing threat of robotic lawnmowers, the top cause of hedgehog deaths are — no big shocker here — cars. This makes the creation of special hedgehog corridors that enable the animals to move seamlessly from garden-to-garden without needing to detour and cross busy roadways all the more vital.