They’ve been around for 15 million years; hedgehogs roamed Britain with mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers. But in a single lifetime the much-loved mammals have been driven towards extinction, their national population apparently plummeting more than thirtyfold.
As Philip Larkin wrote in The Mower – a poem composed after he killed a hedgehog while cutting long grass – we have “mauled” their “unobtrusive world”. And their decline is all the more significant since – like butterflies – they are known to be an “indicator species”, whose fate mirrors what is happening to the natural world as a whole.
There has never been a full national census of hedgehogs in Britain but, back in the Fifties – extrapolating from limited data – it was estimated that there were 36.5 million of them. In 1995 a better, but still incomplete, survey put their numbers at just 1.55 million.
And there is good evidence that they have continued to disappear since. Three more recent surveys suggest that we lost another third between 2002 and 2012, and sightings fell by 4 per cent last year alone. Now a fifth of Britons say they never see the prickly creatures at all.
Badgers, another iconic species, have lately been getting much of the blame. And it is true that they are the nocturnal animal’s main predator – nothing else is strong enough to overcome its defences. More important, though, the two mammals compete for the same prey, such as worms and slugs.
Brock’s population has been booming, as TB-hit dairy farmers know all too well, and where they are most plentiful, hedgehogs tend to be scarce. There are also some signs that their numbers have sharply increased in areas where badgers have been culled.
But it is an oversimplification to indict badgers alone. Hedgehogs have also declined sharply in areas where the bigger beasts are scarce. And, of course, the two species long coexisted. The problem is that habitats have been shrinking, leaving hedgehogs without ecosystems to sustain them – and places to hide from predators.
The clue is in their name. Since the Second World War we have grubbed up 200,000 miles of hedges in Britain, enough to encircle the world eight times over, as intensive farming has advanced. This no longer happens on anything like the same scale, but ecologists say that even the remaining hedgerows are less rich in wildlife than they used to be because they are less well maintained.
As development spreads, this and other hedgehog habitat becomes more and more fragmented: garden walls and fences add to the problem by blocking the way for the animals, which can roam for up to two miles a night. And there are other hazards too. Many take refuge in bonfires, only to be burned alive when they are lit. Unknown numbers perished in last year’s floods. Pesticides kill their prey. And tens of thousands are squashed every year by their second greatest predator – the car.
Where hedgehogs do remain as strong as ever is in the public’s affections: in a survey two years ago, more than two in every five Britons picked them as the animals that best represent the country, while a nation of gardeners is constantly grateful for their help with pests.
And they have vigorous defenders. Sixty-three-year-old Barbara Roberts – who received the British Empire Medal in the New Year Honours for “services to the rescue and rehabilitation of hedgehogs” – hosts hundreds at her Manchester semi, where even her parrot has taken to exclaiming: “Another hedgehog!”
Then there’s the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, at first sight a delightfully eccentric institution that publishes such treasures as an article on “how hedgehogs can save the world” (the secret remains elusive) and a book on the beasts in the Second World War stirringly entitled “Where Hedgehogs Dare”. Prominent members will earnestly assure you that the most important question in the coming election is “What is a politician’s position on hedgehogs?”
Yet, like its protégés, the society is less cuddly than it seems. It has taken on two Goliaths over the past decade – Scottish officialdom, and McDonald’s – and beaten both. Scottish Natural Heritage started culling hedgehogs that had overrun three Hebridean Islands – but the society was eventually able to persuade it that catching and transporting them was more humane, and much cheaper. And it forced the burger giant to change the shape of its McFlurry dessert containers after foraging hedgehogs got their heads stuck in them.
Eight years ago the animal was officially designated as a conservation priority and now some 33,000 households have joined a Hedgehog Street campaign to make it welcome in their gardens. Very much more will be needed, but at least a start is being made while, as Larkin ends his poem, “there is still time”.
This article was first published by The Telegraph on 05 Mar 2015.