We have an interesting guest staying with us at the moment. As I was walking across the field the other night I met a very ill-looking hedgehog. The obvious initial sign was the large number of ticks all across the face and body (we eventually removed 28!) but closer inspection showed a nasty gash on the head, possibly from a barbed wire fence. She was lethargic, unfocused and incapable of defending herself against anything, so a safe haven was an essential requirement.
Hedgehogs are complicated members of the UK’s fauna, instantly recognisable and famously anthropomorphised into the ‘Mrs Tiggy-Winkle’ of Beatrix Potter’s stories, but disliked for being spiny and carrying fleas. They were once one of our most common mammal species, occurring across the UK from the coast to the upland tree line. Closely associated with hedges they were most abundant where grassland was found next to woodland, eating ground living insects but also taking carrion, eggs or the like when the opportunity arose.
However in 2007 hedgehogs were added to the national list of species in need of protection. Hedgehog numbers in the UK were estimated at about 1.5 million in 1995, a massive decrease from the 30 million estimated in the 1950s. Road casualty counts carried out between 1990 and 2001 suggest declines of 50% in that decade alone. But you will note the use of the term “estimated”; it is notoriously difficult to survey for hedgehogs. The Mammal Society are trialling a new technique which hopes to use footprint records to assess population levels.
The problem is what to recommend that will make some inroads into the alarming decrease in hedgehog numbers. Their decline is probably due to rural habitat fragmentation, and pesticide use both at the farm and garden level which reduces available prey and hedgerow loss. They need that in-between habitat - not quite woodland but not entirely grassland – that is difficult to define and poorly recognised in either grant or policy support. Putting more trees in the landscape can definitely help; there doesn’t have to be loads, just a few trees in the right place joining up suitable habitat patches, and areas of longer vegetation left to their own devices.
And Spike? (- all hedgehogs are Spike on first acquaintance, it is only if they stay around that they develop into a new identity.) She is fine; after a couple of nights without the blood-sucking ticks and now her head wound is closed, she is eating well and will be going back to her hedge this evening. I look forward to meeting her again under better circumstances.
Frances Winder, Conservation Policy Officer (and official hedgehog rescuer)