As autumn rolls around, bonfires are planned and thoughts turn to our prickly friends; the humble European hedgehog.
Once referred to as ‘hedgepigs’, and even ‘urchins’ if we look further into history, the hedgehog is one of Britain’s most iconic and engaging mammals. There is something about their furry little faces which makes them irresistible to children – and adults alike – and the reason I used one (called Hilda!) in a children’s book designed to engage young children in nature.
Aside from being seen as ‘cute’ or charismatic, the hedgehog – like every species on this planet – plays an important role within the ecosystems they inhabit. They eat earthworms, slugs, beetles and almost any other insect they can catch – keeping that all important balance whilst helping gardeners and ‘allotmenteers’ no end. They are also known to occasionally eat the eggs and chicks of ground nesting birds. Listed as vulnerable in the UK (that’s one step before endangered) on the IUCN Red List, the species sits beside the Serotine and Barbastelle bat, the Orkney Vole and the Hazel Dormouse in its worrying conservation status.
There is a common misconception that some of Britain’s carnivorous mammals – red fox and badger for example, are causing their decline. But, as with the hedgehog itself, when one of these animals preys on a hedgehog they are doing what they have done for centuries – maintaining balance. They are simply playing their instinctive role as part of the web of life.
It is human activity that is causing the decline of the hedgehog – whose numbers have declined by at least 46% over the last 13 years (IUCN Red list, 2020). According to The Mammal Society, the main threats they face include: “the change from pastoral farming to arable crops, and increasing field size with the removal of hedgerows over the last 30 years.” Also, “The use of chemicals in gardens and for intensive farming kills the creatures hedgehogs need for food and may also poison them directly. Many are also killed on the roads.” As far as anthropogenic factors go, the road fatality matter has been personally notable. I have seen at least three hedgehogs who have died on a small stretch of road in Sidbury in the last year alone. Habitat loss is thought to be the most concerning factor though,with the monocultures (fields composed of a single crop/ plant species) created through intensive livestock and arable farming reducing the abundance and diversity of the hedgehogs’ prey insects and/or killing them off all together with pesticides.
I have painted a pretty bleak picture here and, sadly, it is the truth. Biodiversity loss is a huge issue that is already affecting how we interact with the natural world and how we will continue to thrive as a species. The UK’s most recent biodiversity assessment – The State of Nature Report 2023 – has just been released and has reported that one in six species are at risk of extinction in Britain alone – among other worrying facts. But some positives drawn from the report show that continued conservation efforts are creating positive change and, with support, things can improve.
What can we do for our hedgehogs? Make your garden a haven for hedgehog food by not using chemicals. Use your vote to empower those willing to make positive change for nature – it’s not working now. Ensure there are safe passages between outdoor spaces by creating gaps in fences. Sign petitions. Don’t leave netting or other items that might entangle wildlife laying around your garden. Write to your MP. Build hedgehog houses. And, before you snuggle up in cosy jumpers, crack open the marshmallows and light the bonfire, please check the bonfire for wildlife, they need all the help we can give them.
Thank you to Budleigh’s Hog Shack Rescue for allowing us to take pictures
Picture credits The Hog Shack.
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