Prickly question of how to save our hedgehogs: Author tries to pin down dwindling sightings of spiny creature
- Tom Moorhouse attempts to nail why we see less of Britain’s beloved hedgehogs
- Author’s key suspects are motor cars, badgers and agricultural development
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GHOSTS IN THE HEDGEROW
by Tom Moorhouse (Doubleday £16.99, 263pp)
When did you last see a hedgehog? Unless you’re very lucky, you probably haven’t set eyes on one for years, possibly decades.
Once a familiar sight meandering down country lanes at dusk, or snuffling through gardens in search of food, hedgehogs are now classed as vulnerable to extinction in the UK. Children who have grown up reading Beatrix Potter’s The Tale Of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle may never see a live hedgehog.
It’s commonly accepted that hedgehog numbers have fallen from 36 million in the 1950s to 550,000 today, although author Tom Moorhouse, a conservation research scientist, points out that these figures are pretty unreliable. Stock image used
How did it come to this? After all, we are a nation of hedgehog lovers; a 2016 survey of Britain’s favourite mammals put the hedgehog in first place.
They are tranquil, easy-going creatures who feel quite comfortable living close to humans, they don’t dig up your lawn or eat your plants and there can be few people who wouldn’t be delighted to have one ambling around their garden.
It’s commonly accepted that hedgehog numbers have fallen from 36 million in the 1950s to 550,000 today, although author Tom Moorhouse, a conservation research scientist, points out that these figures are pretty unreliable.
Hedgehogs are notoriously difficult to count because they roam far and wide, and attaching a tracking device to them is tricky. Whatever the actual numbers, though, no one is in any doubt that there has been a calamitous collapse in the hedgehog population.
So who is to blame? Moorhouse’s first suspect is the motor car. During the period when hedgehogs have declined most sharply, the number of cars went up sixfold. Male hedgehogs are particularly active on summer evenings in their search for a mate and as they’re slow movers, many of them get squashed by cars.
Hedgehogs are notoriously difficult to count because they roam far and wide, and attaching a tracking device to them is tricky. Stock image used
Suspect number two is the badger. Badgers not only eat the same kinds of beetles, worms and caterpillars as hedgehogs do, depleting their food supply, they also eat hedgehogs.
Next, Moorhouse points the finger at agriculture. As the name suggests, the hedgehog is very partial to hedges, which are safe spots for nesting and hibernation, as well as being a good place to find food. In 1940, when hedgehogs were still a common sight, there were about a million kilometres of hedgerows in Britain.
Within 40 years, 60 per cent had been removed as part of a huge drive to increase field sizes, while the use of pesticides soared. The result was disastrous for birds, as well as hedgehogs.
In other words, Moorhouse says, ‘Modern life has ganged up on a beloved animal’.
Yet there is a glimmer of hope, and it comes from Britain’s 22 million gardeners. Surveys suggest the hedgehog population is gently increasing in urban areas. A quarter of the average village or town is made up of gardens, and by making small changes to our own plots we can make them hedgehog-friendly.
To ensure hedgehogs can travel between gardens, cut a hole the size of a CD case at the bottom of the fence. Put food down for them (meat-based cat and dog food does nicely); supplementary food results in bigger litters and increases their survival prospects. And pick up your postman’s discarded rubber bands, as hedgehogs eat them, thinking they’re worms, and avoid using chemicals. Above all, Moorhouse writes, we should stop being so tidy. A messy garden, with log piles and long grass to attract insects, plus water, is just what wildlife needs.
Behind Moorhouse’s relentlessly jaunty tone, you sense his despair. Despite his best efforts, he admits, he hasn’t managed to attract a hedgehog into his own garden.
Yet this inspiring book points out that plants and insects have the ability to bounce back quickly and if that happened, the hedgehogs would follow, with a little help from us.
It doesn’t seem a lot to ask in return for the possibility of one day seeing a spiny rump disappearing into the undergrowth.
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