Hedgehogs are one of the oldest mammals on the planet. They are Britain’s only spiny mammal and a national favourite. But their numbers have fallen from over 30 million in the 1950s to less than one million today. So why is an animal that is loved by everyone and has survived over 15 million years suddenly in so much trouble? Let’s find out.
Why Are Hedgehogs Endangered?
It’s complicated. There are a whole range of factors working against hedgehogs and reducing their numbers year on year.
Of course, for most of the 15 million years that hedgehogs have been on the planet farms weren’t even a thing. Neither were humans.
Over the past few hundred years though, farms had become a useful hedgehog habitat. But with modern farming practices, all that has changed.
Small fields growing varied crops and interlaced with hedgerows, copses and ponds offered a wealth of nesting sites, foraging grounds and food for hedgehogs.
These have now been replaced by vast fields, often bounded by fences. With not a copse or pond in sight.
There is nowhere on a modern farm for a hedgehog to nest. Foraging habitat and the invertebrates that live in it have disappeared.
And even the few creatures that survive in crops are destroyed by pesticides and monoculture farming. This is the growing of just one crop over a huge area. Which doesn’t offer the diversity that wildlife needs.
The art of hedging, which is a very skilled trade, is gradually dying out. So that the hedgerows that remain are badly managed and “gappy” at the bottom. In this state they offer few nesting sites.
Modern farms are an uninhabitable desert for hedgehogs and most other wildlife.
Roads, railways, industrial and housing developments all carve up the countryside making life difficult for hedgehogs.
Hedgehogs need to roam about a mile each night to get the food they need.
Solid walls and fences make this difficult.
Roads and railways can make it deadly. The People’s Trust of Endangered Species calculates that 100,000 hedgehogs are killed on our roads each year. This is 10% of the total population and a major factor in their decline.
It’s not just finding food that can become more difficult in developed areas. It’s finding mates too. We looked at breeding populations in our recent article on grey squirrels. Development separates populations of hedgehogs making breeding groups too small to survive.
A garden can be a haven for hedgehogs. But not all gardens are.
Decking, gravel and paving offer little for hedgehogs or other wildlife.
Very neat, cut back gardens with trimmed lawns, tidy borders and no trees or bushes aren’t much use to our prickly friends either. And pesticides and herbicides not only kill the bugs that hedgehogs eat, but also get into the hedgehogs diet, causing them to become ill.
The badger is the hedgehog’s main predator. They are the only creature that can unroll a hedgehog from its defensive ball.
Whilst hedgehogs are in decline, badger numbers have increased by 85% since the 1980’s.
Badgers and hedgehogs live in the same environments. When food and space are plentiful they will avoid one another. But as these become more scarce they are pushed together and badgers now pose a significant threat to the hedgehog population.
Warmer winters and early-start springs mean hedgehogs are likely to wake more during hibernation, or come out of hibernation early.
Either way, they are likely to emerge into a world that offers them little or no food. Which makes their chances of surviving into another breeding season slim.
Ready for Some Good News?
Phew – that made grim reading didn’t it?
You’ll be happy to hear that there is some good news.
In farming the focus of farm subsidies is moving away from paying farmers to produce food that no-one wants to eat. Instead, following Brexit, farmers will be subsidised for land stewardship and encouraging biodiversity. They will be encouraged to put back hedgerows, copses and ponds on their land. This is great news for our hedgehogs and all our other wildlife.
The growing popularity of organic produce also means that more farms are moving away from the use of pesticides – another win for the hogs!
The British Hedgehog Preservation Society ran a successful campaign to ensure that all new housing developments include hedgehog highways. This will help to give hogs the room they need to roam and find food and suitable mates.
And whilst numbers of hogs are still in steep decline in the countryside, in urban and suburban areas things are looking slightly better.
The move towards wildlife gardening and the great work done by the Hedgehog Street campaign means that more and more gardens up and down the country are becoming hedgehog havens.
Conclusion: Light at the End of The Tunnel?
After 15 million years of snuffling around happily minding their own business hedgehogs have had a tough time for the last century.
In the UK, we have come so close to wiping them out completely.
Changing attitudes to nature and the environment may have come just in time for the hedgehog.
But we can’t afford to take our eye off the ball. There is still a huge amount to do and we can each do our part in helping to ensure that this unique creature survives.
For more information on how to help hedgehogs take a look at our hedgehog library here.
We hope you’ve found this article useful. If you have questions or suggestions we would love to hear them. Please leave us a comment.