It has been over a year since a hedgehog last visited my garden, and longer still since my last chance encounter in the rural surroundings of my hometown. Sadly, it seems that for me at least, the days of hungry hogs sharing supper on the patio or gobbling up slugs on the lawn, have well and truly passed. The glaring decline of hedgehogs here, in my own suburban garden, mirroring a woeful trend observed nationwide. As this much-loved, familiar and endearing species teeters on the brink of extinction in all corners of Britain.
The decline of hedgehogs in British gardens was recently confirmed by a survey conducted by the RSPB. Here, 139,000 properties were surveyed across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, revealing that one quarter of gardens (some 34,000 or so) recorded no sightings of hedgehogs throughout the entire year. With this figure rising to thirty-percent in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Sixty-percent of gardens included in the survey did record hedgehogs, though regardless, this represents a major decline in numbers from decades past. The results of the RSPB survey display worrying likeness to those from an earlier survey conducted by BBC Gardeners World who found only 12% of the 2,600 people surveyed saw a hedgehog regularly during 2016. With 51% of those surveyed not seeing a hedgehog at all during the same period.
During the 1950’s, it was estimated that Britain held approximately 36 million hedgehogs: an estimate based on the extrapolation of results showing an average density of 2.5 hogs per hectare in Britain at the time. While some have suggested that this may have been an overestimate due to the limited nature of the data set, it is clear that numbers have decreased monumentally since then. With a more recent (and reliable) census in 1995 estimating numbers at around 1,550,000 animals nationwide. Evidence obtained since the 1995 survey suggests that the decline has continued to the present day, with hedgehog populations falling by approximately five-percent annually in both rural and urban areas. This is thought to be the same rate of decrease observed in tiger populations worldwide, and does not paint a promising picture for the future of our beloved hogs. Indeed, there is sufficient evidence to suggest numbers have plummeted further since the time of the last, large-scale survey, and that now, Britain may hold less than one million hedgehogs.
What is causing the decline of our hedgehogs? Well, it is thought that myriad reason may putting pressure on the species in Britain. Among these, agricultural intensification in rural areas, resulting in the loss of vital hedgerows and field margins, may be a leading cause. While the fragmentation of habitat in urban areas due to an increase in fencing is also restricting the ability of hedgehogs to forage sufficiently. Add to this the impact of roads, pesticides and, perhaps more controversially, depredation by badgers, and it is clear that our remaining hedgehogs are in serious trouble.
On the subject of badgers, some, including author and ecologist Hugh Warwick strongly dispute the suggestion that badgers may be driving hedgehog declines. Although others have suggested that conflict between the two species may be an issue where the insect prey favoured by both species is depleted, and badgers are forced to adapt their diet. Studies clearly show hedgehogs to feature in the diet of badgers; though direct research on the subject is scant and, as such, the debate on this matter will likely continue for some time.
Despite the grim state of Britain’s hedgehog population, all is not yet lost, and there is plenty that each of us can do to make life easier for the spiky mammals. Firstly, we can make our gardens more appealing by planting hedgerows, removing fences, providing rough areas for shelter and by forgoing the use of harmful pesticides. While those interested in taking a more proactive approach to hedgehog conservation can involve themselves in regular counts such as the PTES Living with Mammals survey or any of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) counts which also allow for the recording of mammals. Other surveys such as Mammals on Roads also contribute valuable data and are highly recommended, while you also sign-up to the Hedgehog Preservation Society who dedicate themselves to public education, research and conservation centred on our favourite garden visitors.