By BARBARA LONGO-FLINT
ASK any child which animal they would love to meet in their garden and the answer will always be the same: a hedgehog.
But how many of those kids are going to see one?
Unless we change our habits, not only today’s children, but also their kids may never have the privilege of meeting a hedgehog.
Hedgehog numbers in the UK have dramatically declined in the last 20 years, with over 50 per cent fewer in rural areas and one third in cities and suburbs. To have a better idea, it is estimated there were over 30million hedgehogs in the 1950s. Today they are estimated to be less than a million.
Many factors are contributing to the disappearance of these little wild animals and, as suggested by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS) in their most recent reports: “To lose them would be a devastating indictment of our inability to live sustainably.”
But is the presence of hedgehogs so intimately connected with the state of the UK eco-system and can their decline be stopped?
The answer lies in the way modern life can be made sustainable and specifically how people can change small habits to preserve wild life.
Hedgehogs’ diet is rich in invertebrates (slugs, worms, millipedes), meaning the use of highly toxic pesticides, especially in agriculture, can impact directly and indirectly upon them.
Herbicides, for example, will kill earthworms, leaving hedgehogs with no food. Slug pellets are lethal if ingested by the little spiky animals.
PTES and BHPS suggest that sustainable agriculture “should avoid chemicals where possible and use organic alternatives where necessary. Wool pellets, nematode treatments, salt, seaweed, broken eggshells or coffee grounds are popular alternatives for slug control”.
The use of chemicals should also be avoided in private gardens and parks.
Enclosed gardens and parks
The way modern cities are designed have a huge impact on a hedgehog’s habitat.
One of the main reasons why these animals are declining in Britain is because fences and walls are becoming more and more secure, preventing them passing through.
Impermeable boundaries, but also modern gardens with big paved areas, slug pellets, bonfire burning, dangerous ponds and strimming are all hazards.
With this in mind, in 2011 PTES and BHPS started the Hedgehog Street campaign to raise awareness about the decline of hedgehogs within the population, but also to train local councils to manage green space thinking about hedgehogs’ needs.
The campaign aimed to reach 100,000 champions by 2025. At the time of publishing this article, there were nearly 88,000 champions registered with Hedgehog Street. The campaign also provides tips to make home gardens hedgehog friendly, like creating holes in or under garden fences and walls called “hedgehog highways”.
It has been estimated that between 167,000 and 335,000 hedgehogs are killed every year on British roads.
Rural roads often have higher speed limits and reduced lighting, meaning drivers are less able to spot the animals.
PTES and BHPS suggest that “road signs could alert drivers in areas of high hedgehog density, and green-space fencing could help channel hedgehog movement away from major roads. Well-connected green spaces, linked with surrounding gardens, will also reduce the need for hedgehogs to cross roads”.
These are just some of the factors that are totally dependent on human habits.
Much research is ongoing and help is still needed. In July 2020 the hedgehog entered the Red List of British Mammals, officially becoming vulnerable to extinction.
But as the BHPS said: “The recognition of the vulnerable status of the hedgehog is, however, an opportunity. It will give impetus to those of us campaigning to protect the habitats that the hedgehog needs to thrive, and increase the awareness of the importance of connecting those habitats.”