What’s Happening to All the Hedgehogs in England and Wales?

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Beatrix Potter is not amused.

Few creatures are more iconic in Britain than the hedgehog. In 2013, the quilled cuties won the crown in a BBC poll to name a national species; they were also named Britain's favorite mammal by the Royal Society of Biology.

“It is a quintessentially British creature,” says Ann Widdecombe, a former MP and a patron of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. That there is a British Hedgehog Preservation Society pretty much says it all.

But numbers of the West European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus) have been dwindling, alas, thanks to what researchers are calling a “perfect storm” of intensive farming, roads and predators. According to this first systematic national survey, most of the countryside in England and Wales has become bereft of hedgehogs.

The researchers created special tunnels in 261 sites, in which they were able to ascertain hedgehog numbers by the footprints they left. They discovered that the creatures were living at just 20 percent of the sites surveyed – they used to be much more widespread.

There were no rural hedgehogs at all in southwest England, reports Damian Carrington for The Guardian. And while they can be found in suburban areas there, they are very vulnerable. “If we get lots of winter flooding, during hibernation, you potentially wipe out a large area of hedgehog population, and if there is not a local population that can repopulate the area, you get an area that is desolate,” says study leader Ben Williams, from the University of Reading.

In areas where badgers were more commonly found, hedgehog numbers were significantly less. In the UK, the population of the hedgehog’s principal predator, the Eurasian badger, has roughly doubled in the last 25 years after increased legal protection. “Badgers could potentially negatively affect hedgehog populations via direct predation and/or through increased competition for food resources,” note the report’s authors.

But even so, hedgehogs and badgers having been living together in some kind of harmony for ages – and even at least half of the hedgehog sites showed signs of coexistence. Meanwhile, a quarter of all the sites had neither animal, “showing the destruction of habitat such as hedgerows and coppices was also a major factor,” writes Carrington.

“There are lots of areas in the countryside that are not suitable for hedgehogs or badgers,” says Williams. “There is something fundamentally wrong in the rural landscape for those species and probably lots of other species as well.”

The authors discus what these “wrongs” might be. They note that habitat loss is one of the primary threats to biodiversity across the globe and the main driver of land-based species loss. They add that habitat loss is coming mostly from increased intensity of agricultural production.

“Within the UK, agricultural landscapes have changed significantly since the early 1900s, becoming more intensively managed and homogenised through practices such as the removal of hedgerows to create larger fields, the widespread application of molluscicides, insecticides and other pesticides, and increased mechanisation. In the UK, one of the hedgehog’s preferred habitats, grassland, has declined in area since the 1950s.”

And if badgers and hardcore farming weren’t enough, rural lands have become fractured by new roads, which are not only dangerous for any creature trying to cross them but create a barrier for movement as well. Earlier research has found that hedgehogs don’t necessarily like crossing busy roads, “...most likely as a response to the risk associated with crossing an increased number of lanes of traffic and/or the increased volume of traffic,” notes the paper. (I feel the same!) That kind of isolation can make a species more vulnerable.

While a lack of previous formal national surveys of hedgehog numbers makes exact figures difficult to calculate, the authors estimate that the number of hedgehogs living in the British countryside has dropped by more than half since 2000, and by at least 80 percent since the 1950s.

Mrs. Tiggy-winkle

"Mrs. Tiggy-winkle's nose went sniffle, sniffle, snuffle, and her eyes went twinkle, twinkle; and she fetched another hot iron from the fire." (Beatrix Potter/The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle)/Public Domain

If you live in hedgehog territory, the British Hedgehog Preservation Society has a fabulous guide for helping them: PDF here.

And you can read the whole report, “Reduced occupancy of hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) in rural England and Wales: The influence of habitat and an asymmetric intra-guild predator,” in Scientific Reports