At the time of initially writing this It was hedgehog awareness week an initiative started by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society a charity formed in the 1980's to bring the decline of the European Hedgehog in the UK to the public's attention raising awareness and funding research.
Over the years many Hedgehog rescues have become involved booking events to raise awareness over this week and the media also join in printing articles and stories.
For this Hedgehog Awareness week I thought that I would take the time to put some of my thoughts down on the plight and future of our beloved and iconic hedgehog.
Post writing this there has been a lot of media attention around our native hedgehog and its decline and some rather sensational headlines including extinction in 10 years. So read on...
I am, as anyone who has been to one of my talks, or met us at events or indeed follow us on Social media, a quite forthright, outspoken and passionate character. I don't always go with the flow and I don't just agree with something because other organisations are doing it.
During that time I was also an avid naturalist and surveyor for the Bat Conservation Trust and other organisations.
A good number of years ago I left publishing and retrained in Environmental Conservation since working with the natural world every day. Six years ago I along with my better half set up Willows Hedgehog Rescue a rescue that has grown every year and well beyond our original expectations.
Hedgehogs are big news at the moment and this is very welcome. There are various initiatives raising awareness and there have been a number of studies that will hopefully bare useful fruit. However...there is already an enormous wealth of knowledge out there which nationally never seems to be acknowledged or incorporated into any research, or consulted, in fact I would say is in reality totally ignored. A wealth of knowledge from people running rescues over many decades whether hedgehogs be newsworthy or not. fanfares seem to be blown anytime a new initiative comes along when rescues are sitting there thinking 'we know the answer to that if you asked' or 'we have been doing that for years without asking for loads of money or a hundred magazine articles'.
"Hedgehog decline on par with Tigers"
"Hedgehogs face Extinction in the next 10 years"
I'd rather we stayed on the topic of hedgehogs without comparing them to tigers.
Hedgehogs are NOT facing UK extinction, localised- yes. In serious decline- yes.
So, intake of breath time and lets look at what has changed and could have affected the fortunes of our native hedgehog. This is not putting down any kind of current research but human kind does seem to be very good at a few things- Putting off action and carrying out lots of studies until it is more or less too late. Ignoring the obvious. Causing catastrophic effects to our world in the name of progress. And naming things- well at least we can list the species we have lost because we have named them!
The Hedgehog- in simple terms:
A small nocturnal, solitary mammal. The UK's only spiny resident. An insectivore but with omnivorous tendencies. Native to the UK having been here since the last ice age.
Now lets do one of those wibbly wobbly television fades and go back lets say six decades.
Back in the Day..
What is different here? (In very simplistic terms)
Towns and cities are certainly smaller. There are far less vehicles on the roads and there are far less roads and super highways cutting the countryside up. The farmed landscape looks very different more that hazy summer day vision of our country with patch work fields, lots of hedgerow the air full of birdsong and the whirring and buzzing of insects. The fields apart from being smaller are also managed differently, not so intensively managed, crop collection isn't so efficient leaving spillage in the fields. Field margins are left alone. Fields have periods when they are not farmed. Farms are 'multipurpose'. The true full out war on wild life hasn't yet began.
In the towns gardens haven't yet been segregated with impenetrable fences and gravel boards. Front gardens haven't been sacrificed to house the shiny lump of metal- the car. I seriously remember on Sundays only seeing a couple of cars on the road.. there was an expression of 'getting the car out', the modern equivalent I think would be 'shall we walk?!'.
There are a good number of other differences but I think that this will suffice to see how the landscape then suited the hedgehog and what has changed since then that now causes the hedgehog problems.
Wibbly Wobbly screen effect and back to now.
Look at any old reproduction map and a current map and you will see a staggering difference.
Where towns and cities were there can been seen swathes of 'countryside' in between with distinct boundaries. With the new map the towns are much larger, the villages in between swallowed up the boundaries blurred if indeed non existent. How many people of more advanced years living in the same house remember their house being down the lane from the main town or on the edge of fields but now find their house in the town several or dozens of roads away from the 'countryside'.
With expansion and the need to commute to work comes the road infrastructure. Rivers of tarmac slicing up what were field but are now housing estates. Multi lane motorways mean we can travel further, quicker (well OK quicker once!). Two lanes become three and now four lanes, each way!
Houses are packed into small areas with handkerchief sized gardens. The hedge is too much of a hassle to cut with our busy 24 hour lifestyles and the fence becomes the boundary of choice. Wood rots in proximity to the ground so fences sit on concrete panels segregating gardens. Gardens become living rooms, so they are decked for our use, plants arranged for our pleasure and minimal maintenance. Bugs sprayed ruthlessly in case they nibble a leaf. We strim, we mow, we thrash the grass into bowling green perfection. Now we have two, three cars maybe more. The drive is a necessity so at least half the front of the house is drive if not all. The road is full of parked cars so if there is a bit of green on the front it is converted to car parking. Open plan is the rage no front garden hedge.
Out there.. where ever or whatever the 'countryside' is where the farms are things have changed drastically too. Efficiency rules, big machines mean big fields so they can get around them right to those edges. The whole 'crop' is required so pesticides, herbicides, fungicides make sure that nothing else grows amidst the main crop and nothing is going to eat any of it for free! Fertilisers ensure that once everything has been collected in we can get something else straight back out there. Consumer greed and waste ensures maximisation of every resource and consumerism pushes down the price putting smaller farms out of business to be bought out by the corporate.
Enough! I could go on.. but lets not and lets relate this to the Hedgehog.
I will let you do the comparisons but for our hedgehog it means three main things...
Factors in Decline
Loss of food- Hedgehogs are primarily insectivores. Fields and gardens bombarded with chemicals to ensure that nothing eats any of our precious crops or planting. Indeed planting that offers no food source to insects. The disease of tidiness where fallen leaves and branches offer home to insects they offend our sense of order to be cut up bagged and disposed of.
Loss of Habitat- urbanisation of previous 'countryside'. Explosion in roads cutting up areas. Smaller gardens made inaccessible by impenetrable fencing. Tidy gardens with little room for wildlife. Removal of tens of thousands of miles of hedgerow in the countryside (and in gardens).
Increased Dangers- the very real prospect of injury from strimmers, mowers, forks, spades, chemicals, cars.
There are other factors and research will I am sure bring new factors to light but if you are a hedgehog relying on insects as food and habitat in gardens and fields the above should be enough to make anyone realise that hedgehogs aren't going to do very well in a modern world.
So What do we do?
Well awareness is key and getting people to make small changes has the potential to make a massive difference. In fact a lot of beneficial changes for hedgehogs can be made quite easily by anyone.
We also study and this is some of where my bug bear comes in so prepare for what might be an inconvenient truth, may put some peoples noses out of joint, may seem critical.
Observe, Observe, Monitor, Study.. do little....
We study. We start initiatives (this is the wider ecological we) to great acclaim. We stick GPS backpacks onto study groups of hedgehogs, we stick down ink tunnels, we create 'hedgehog areas'. Now research is important and does bring new things to light so I welcome research but often it totally ignores what is already being done and what we already know. The wealth of knowledge that is already out there is ignored with rather the new project being acclaimed as 'a first, the thing that will save the hedgehog'. It isn't rocket science to understand that an insectivore will suffer with decline in insects or a species that relies on gardens will suffer from not being able to access them.
A wealth of knowledge and time served experts.
Taking into account all of the rescues around the country, some working for decades there is a wealth of knowledge, experience and data out there. Experts if you want. However they seem never to be consulted. As much as I have more qualifications than I can fit on most applications they mean little... working over many years in an area makes you the expert not letters. In fact I detest the term expert, I haven't stopped learning as yet and never will. Also carrying out a study over a few months doesn't compare to years and in some cases a lifetime of working with a species.
Lets take an example organisation A (and this is real) started a study into the dangers hedgehogs face. Excellent. We contacted them offering information. 'Ah no we aren't counting data from rescues we feel that this isn't relevant'.
I'm sorry? Just here at Willows over the last six years we have admitted well over a thousand hedgehogs. We can tell you how many come in with specific internal parasites, how many have been hit by cars, how many have been injured by gardening implements, how many have been poisoned, how many are orphans. I can simply tell you now that the majority of admission injuries and orphans are through gardening work. So me being simple me.. if I were to consolidate my efforts in changes and awareness to avoid the majority of injuries and orphans it would be on awareness in the garden. Involve and collect the data from all of the rescues around the country and the information would outweigh any project survey.
Where are the hedgehogs and where are they absent?
Rescues again although totally ignored in terms of data hold thousands, tens of thousands of records. The ones that are admitted obviously but a lot of rescues also collect data from the public of when they have seen a hedgehog. A massive resource of hot spots and absences. Also knowing the geographical area you work in means that a quick check tells you about that area... yes it's a area of 2000 new builds all with gravel boards blocking gardens off and three years ago before it went up we had sighting from the area now we don't
The British Hedgehog Preservation Society and Peoples Trust for Endangered Species 'Hedgehog Street' is a fantastic initiative. Encouraging residents to ensure that their gardens are linked for hedgehogs. Something many people can do, for no costs and as the saying goes many hands make light work.
What about reserves?. Firstly you can't drop hedgehogs into reserves. Areas need to have a population to be viable otherwise there is a reason that hedgehogs are absent. Reasons that can't be mitigated by a bit of management, there are numerous reasons that hedgehogs may not be there. I am a member of the Wildlife Trusts, I have worked with both the Trusts and RSPB, I give talks to these organisations, in fact I am in the process of writing a piece for one of the trusts magazines. I acknowledge that reserves are vital places but they are not the answer. They help conserve habitat and they create a focal point but in no way do I wan't to see hedgehog reserves and if you manage your reserves properly guess what you will already be providing habitat suitable for hedgehogs.
So rather than seeing 'flag ship' hedgehogs areas where the hedgehogs are with in reality limited impact beyond media spin I want to see the public encouraged and informed on how to make and link their garden habitats for the benefit of hedgehogs. The good news on this is that it requires no donation and as said before many hands make light work.The general public can do very simple things nationally making a massive difference rather than a constricted local project by a few individuals for possibly a short time period until good will or funding runs out. I also think that the public in general get very tired of the 'give us your money' approach.
The RSPB Homes for Nature project is one I fully support because it does not require you to send off some money it simply asks you to consider wildlife in your garden and shows you how. Ten out of ten to the RSPB.
So what am I ultimately saying here. There are a few things..
Hedgehogs are not on the brink of UK wide extinction. There are large areas of local absences but our native hedgehog is still here.
However lets not wait studying the decline of the hedgehog until they really are on the brink of extinction in the UK.
Lets please use common sense which tells us a lot of why and what we need to do to help hedgehogs right now.
Lets do research but not as the greatest discovery since sliced bread and at the expense of common sense, ignoring the obvious and already well known and getting on with actually doing something
Lets not use them as a great fundraising, in the public eye bandwagon species and try to 'conserve' them.
Lets all work together to inform and engage the public in a way that is FREE and where many people making simple changes makes a real difference on a far wider scale.
Lets recognise and celebrate the wealth and expertise of the people that work twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty five days a year for hedgehogs.
Lets actually use the knowledge of long standing rescues and not try to rewrite the book every time someone has a 'new idea'. In fact there are no new ideas.. most things that hit the media have already been being done for years by rescues but without the need or want for publicity.
Lets look at things that really cause issues and work with companies and manufacturers to mitigate and bring awareness to those. It's no good winning a campaign to great applause to fix something that injures a few tens of hedgehogs a year when thousands are injured by something else.
Lets be honest hedgehog and tiger decline aren't comparable beyond the most tenuous similarities (although it makes a good headline). We still have hedgehogs around, the numbers that are admitted into rescues and the sightings we are given prove this. Yes they are in trouble, they are declining and if, if we don't do something we may well loose them in the UK or at best they will become a rarity and have massive areas of absence.
Lets look at the good news.
We don't need to build game reserves, we don't need to buy land, we don't need teams of armed rangers to protect them, we don't need to raise a £ million. All we need is for enough people to make small changes in their gardens and even better in their ethical choices and we can make a massive difference. One Willows supporter for example put a gap in the fence and a hedgehog home in and a few days later a hedgehog was visiting and made the hedgehog home its home.. imagine that ten, ten thousand times over. One small group wanting to make change might be able to plant a hundred trees in a day.. if everyone in Europe planted one tree that would be around 750 million trees planted in one day.. that is how we need to think.
Lets actually do something now to change the fortunes of hedgehogs not waiting until they become listed as endangered and lets do it in a way that is inclusive and in that everyone can make a difference.
Finally what do I see as important ways to change the fortune of hedgehogs in our towns and cities?
Educating the public in the plight of the hedgehog.
Educating the public in managing their gardens for all wildlife.
Ensuring that new build houses have hedgehog access through gardens and that existing house owners are aware of the difference a 5" gap makes.
Ensuring that gardeners and suppliers of gardening equipment are aware of and help reduce injuries to hedgehogs.
Making everyone aware that they can help change the future for hedgehogs today without having to join an organisation, without making a donation, with minimal effort and importantly for free.