How your garden can help save the hedgehog

A beloved species is in catastrophic decline. But there’s plenty we can do about it

3 October 2015

8:00 AM

3 October 2015

8:00 AM

Here’s a strange truth about British life: we love a hedgehog. Britain is conspicuously short of an anti-hedgehog lobby. No one runs down a hedgehog with malice. None of us can see a hedgehog crêpe without a twinge of regret. It takes an unfeasibly tough human to look at a hedgehog — even a photograph — without an unbidden softening of the heart.

So if wishes were hedgehogs, our country would be an erinacean paradise. Why, then, have we lost a third of our hedgehogs over the last decade? The British Trust for Ornithology — they’re experts on censusing and go beyond their original remit — cites estimates of 30 million hedgehogs in Britain in the 1950s. This fell to 1.5 million in the 1990s and now stands at fewer than a million.

The problem is not roadkill. Mr Toad and his poop-poop machines take a relatively small responsibility for the decline in British hedgehogs. They haven’t exactly helped, but the real reasons lie elsewhere.

Let’s not talk about blame. Conservation is not about recrimination. It’s about trying to set things right. The best of it lies in what you — you personally — can do to make this happen. We’ll get on to the solutions in a moment, so get ready to salute Solihull — the hedgehog capital of Britain, nothing less. But first the reasons for the decline of a creature universally loved.

We’re not running out of hedgehogs because we flatten them. We’re running out because we’ve taken away their livelihood, their food, their commuting routes, their foraging grounds and their residences. Not on purpose, but humans are infinitely capable of doing bad deeds by accident. To lose one hedgehog can be regarded as a misfortune: to lose 29 million looks like carelessness.

As we managed our countryside with increasing severity after the second world war, aiming to maximise production at the expense of all other considerations, so we tidied up all the scruffy bits, grubbed out miles of hedge — the animals in question are keen on such things, the clue being in the name — and generally converted the countryside into an outdoor food factory.

This involved copious used of pesticides and herbicides, with the result that populations of invertebrates crashed. Real bioabundance — the time when you had to wipe your windscreen every few miles during a summer’s journey, something that those of us who were alive in the 1950s well remember — is a thing of the past.

It follows, then, that creatures who eat invertebrates are somewhat compromised. A hedgehog eats about 100 decent-sized beasts in a night: beetles, slugs and earthworms. If we destroy the places where these creatures can be found and poison them in places where they’re still about, we’re going to run short of hedgehogs.

There are long-term possibilities for hedgehogs that involve gentler management of farmland, under such schemes as Higher Level Stewardship. These can provide untreated field margins and restored hedges for the hogs to savour. But there’s another resource that can also be called in, because of the British delight in hedgehogs.

Gardens. It’s been estimated that our gardens cover more acreage than all the nature reserves in the country. It’s also a fact that hedgehogs are pretty comfortable in suburbia — and for that matter, urbia — so long as we humans are prepared to lend them a paw.

There are two great British vices when it comes to our gardens. The first is to fortify them against invaders with walls and fences. The second is to hammer the lawn with chemicals until it no longer looks like real grass. Both are anti-hedgehog.

Hedgehogs like to roam a couple of kilometres in a night. They can cope with cats and dogs, being prickly customers (their one serious natural predator is the badger). But climbing is not their long suit. They need to move from garden to garden, preferably at ground level. So you can, if you choose, be like the citizens of Solihull and leave or create a hole or two in your fortifications. A gate with a three-inch ground clearance is enough. A five-inch hole is enough to get them through a fence. You can also permit your lawn to support life other than grass.

Simon Thompson of Warwickshire Wildlife Trust is running the Hedgehog Improvement Area scheme with support from the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (of course there is one). ‘It’s a community project,’ he said. ‘It involves the local council and the people who live here.’

So it’s about joining the people up with the wildlife of their town, joining up one garden with another, joining these up with local parks and joining the whole lot up with the hedgehogs. A well-managed golf course is a fine hedgehog habitat. Hedgehogs love a ‘gradient of sward’: that is to say, if you can provide them with fairway, semi-rough and rough they’re happy hedgehogs, so long as you go easy on the herbicides and pesticides.

Earlier this year I saw half a dozen hedgehogs in ten minutes on a nocturnal visit to Alderney golf course. This island has an introduced population of hedgehogs, one that spread from a few individuals brought in during the 1950s — two of them, according to legend, from a Harrods bag. Certainly Harrods used to sell hedgehogs. Fascinating fact: nearly half the Alderney hedgehogs are blond. The population has a recessive gene for leucism, or pale colouring.

If you’re not fortunate enough to live in Solihull, you can still live on Hedgehog Street. This is a project run by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, and it’s encouraging you at long range to do what people of Solihull are doing. You can register online and report your hedgehog sightings. You can also read about ways to make your garden more attractive to hedgehogs: log-piles, leaf-piles, nectar plants to bring in the invertebrates, fresh water on hot nights.

The fact is that there is a vast amount of goodwill for wildlife in this country: a reservoir of quiet enthusiasm for the whole notion of looking after the natural world. This is not something that gets a high priority in government circles and not something we hear about at election-time. Nevertheless, all things being equal, the British people want the country to be a little bit wilder than it is.

The hedgehogs make that quite clear. Hedgehogs give universal delight without a hint of ambiguity. It follows, then, that direct action can become powerful. It’s possible for Britain to reverse the decline in hedgehogs — and much more of our wild inheritance — if we can only summon up the will. Where the hedgehog leads, so we can follow.

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Show comments
  • Molly NooNar

    I haven’t seen a hedgehog for many years, it is bloody awful what we are doing to these and other creatures.

  • SchtenGraby

    We have an owl and a snake in the garden, but not – to my knowledge – a hedgehog.
    We have no fences or pest/herbicides and plenty of bugs.
    Does anyone know what else one might do to attract them?
    Does dog food work? Are there specialist foods one can buy?

    • starfish

      We have loads of wildlife in our garden but no hedgehogs (we even have weasels from time to time)

      We don’t use any pesticides and are surrounded by fields that are mostly used as pasture with Cornish hedging (I suspect that is a real barrier to hedgehogs but there are gates)

      The only time we have had regualr hedgehog vists was when we lived in a town

      • ButcombeMan

        Because Badger are fairly rare in towns hedgehog have a chance..

        Badger are merciless killers, being protected unnecessarily.

        • Abie Vee

          Do they kill for sport, like humans, or do they just kill to live?

          • ButcombeMan

            I do not know about badgers,

            Fox just kill. One fox in a hen house will kill the lot.

            I suspect badger may be the same but do not know for certain.

            With badger it is the astonishing number that are the problem, they slaughter so much.

          • Abie Vee

            Kill the lot? There’s a very good reason why he does. Foxes much prefer to eat carrion (an important source of food in most ecosystems). When he kills the lot, he does so because he expects to find their rotting corpses later. Yummy.

          • sfin

            If you’re going to contribute to an important topic, then at least do some basic research before you spout any utter nonsense that fits your narrative…

            It saves you making an almighty fool of yourself.

          • Abie Vee

            I stand insulted (but not corrected).

            What makes you think I haven’t done any “basic research”? It might confound you to know that when I lived on the Scottish borders I took an active pro-hunting stance during the ferocious debates that raged in my small town. In such public circumstances, one has to have at least a gasp, a modicum of understanding the subject.

            Do you actually have anything to say relevant to the comment? It’s always nice to learn something new. Do tell.

  • starfish

    If I leave a 3-5 inch gap in hedges my dog gets out

    Any suggestions, other than a reverse cat flap?

    • red2black

      A ‘Hedgehogs Only’ sign.

    • Solage 1386

      Get a 6-8 inch dog……

    • Abie Vee

      Shoot the dog.

  • sfin

    This article does nothing to address its own question:

    “Why, then, have we lost a third of our hedgehogs over the last decade?”

    Post war agriculture did indeed see a sharp increase in the use of pesticides and the removal of hedgerows, copses, woodland and the like, but in the last decade there has been a heavy drive towards eco farming where farmers attract handsome EU subsidies to leave the edges of their fields “wild”, for example – not to mention the growing ‘organic’ produce market.

    No, what happened, just over a decade ago, was The Hunting Act 2004, where a bunch of ignorant, left wing, fascists decided to wage a class war that upset the balance of nature – of which man plays his part.

    Hunting removed the sick, lame and lazy from the fox population, leaving the strong to survive and breed. That is nature’s way. Foxes are now controlled by shooting, an entirely indiscriminate method which kills the strong and allows the weak to breed.

    A strong fox will target prey like rabbits (a pest species) – hard to catch, but the nutritional returns are worth the effort. A weak fox is unable to catch rabbits and so targets easier to catch prey like our old friend the beneficial hedgehog. The nutritional returns are not so great (they can usually only manage to eat the feet) but they’ve got to eat something and rabbits are out of their league.

    It was all so predictable.

    • ButcombeMan

      Badger are what predominantly take hedgehog, not fox.

      Unlike fox, badger are uncontrolled.

      Badger should be removed from all protection (other than against baiting) for an experimental period of three years.

      • sfin

        Whilst you are correct that the badger has always been the hedgehog’s main predator, that was also true before the hunting ban when hedgehog populations more or less held steady. It has come under an increasingly two pronged attack in the last ten years by both protected badgers and a fox population that has been severely weakened by a no-hunt control policy.

        Incidentally, here in France – where hunting all of the hedgehogs potential predators, by whatever means necessary, is still allowed, the hedgehog is thriving.

        The concurrent timelines of The Hunting Act and the drastic decline in the hedgehog population is no coincidence.

        • ButcombeMan

          Well yes, France is sensibly different.

          The protection of badger brigade in the UK seem absolutely oblivious to the stuff badger takes, On my land, all hedgehog are gone, all bumblebee nests are gone and wasps nests last only a very short time. We were awash with badger until we got a new dog which does tend to keep them away as does human urine where they come through the hedges.. The killing of bees is particularly troubling.

          The only enemy of the badger in the UK, is the motor vehicle, my headcount is two in the last 12 months and i do not drive many miles.. Trouble is they then crawl away to die a painful death. I can never find them to put them out of their misery, would that even be legal? I doubt it.

          • sfin

            Precisely why ignorant legislators should leave the stewardship of our countryside to those who know what they’re talking about and have been maintaining the balance of nature for centuries.

            Britain, almost uniquely in Europe, has a mawkish sentimentality towards our natural world that is seeing species die out one by one.

          • Ivor MacAdam

            If Badgers kill Wasps, I for one am voting for them.

          • ButcombeMan

            A trivial reply but for the avoidance of doubt, Wasps are beneficial:


          • sfin

            You are right, of course.

            But it did lighten up the debate a little!

        • Mary Ann

          There are a lot more hedgerows in France.

          • sfin

            Well why don’t you say the first thing that comes into your head!

            Incorrect! France embraced industrial agriculture even more than we did – France has a far bigger agricultural industry than we do and the EU (or at least the CAP) exists, partly to support/ subsidise it.

            No, what France has, far more of, are people who engage with and actively manage their nature – instead of watching cute cuddly animals on TV.

            i.e. Hunters and fishermen.

    • red2black

      It sounds like hedgehogs stand a lot better chance of surviving in suburban and urban areas.

      • sfin

        You may well be right! Certainly safer from badgers at any rate…

        …unfortunately, another “benefit” of the hunting ban has seen the increasing urbanisation of ‘the wrong kind of foxes’ – our dustbins also provide easier pickings than going after Mr Bunny!

    • Henry Johnson

      A common enough opinion, but show me the evidence. Long running mammal surveys (e.g. PTES’ Living with Mammals: since 2003) show quite the opposite: that hedgehogs and foxes have been coexisting in gardens at high densities for many years. An adult hedgehog is quite a proposition for a fox. Despite what the media would have you think, we do not seem to be being over-run with a booming fox population (http://ptes.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/LwMsy12feedback.pdf) and hunting with hounds didn’t have a significant influence (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12214224). If anything, we should value foxes as they have adjusted to our most urban environments with aplomb. Wild nature on our doorsteps. Please base your views on science, not anecdotes!

      Henry Johnson, Hedgehog Officer PTES

      • Mary Ann

        Hunting with hounds didn’t help to reduce the fox population when the hunts were breeding foxes to hunt.

      • sfin

        Well I’m sorry Mr Johnson, but if an ecosystem needs a “people’s trust” and that “people’s trust” needs “a hedgehog officer” – then, in my view, the hedgehog is about to go the same way the wild boar did in the UK (before it’s forced reintroduction – where, without hunting, it has now become a pest) – the fox will not be long in following it.

        I applaud your zeal and commitment and I have no doubt you operate with the best of intentions but, in my view – you are part of the problem.

        The reason why the three species I mentioned, thrive in France is because France has many more acres of forest and ‘wild’ areas set aside. Why? Land in Europe is incredibly expensive and is under constant pressure from farming and property/ industrial development – France is no different to UK, except in one area. It has an immensely powerful hunting and fishing lobby. Many more people hunt in France than UK and that also means that many more people are actively involved in preserving habitats (clearing and cleaning during off seasons included – with the obvious knock on benefits to non quarry species).

        The French realise that nature has to pay its way just like anything else and if you want to preserve it, you have to participate in it, as the predator we are, and manage it so that your grandchildren will have something to shoot at! If the hedgehog (a beneficial species to us) is under threat – well let’s have a badger shoot! It’s good sport and the badger is not beneficial to us (we won’t exterminate them because the sport is good for next season).

        Your organisation advocates preserving nature for its own sake – and as far as the great British public is concerned – especially when X factor is on the telly – they don’t give a toss!

    • Abie Vee

      Oh, so fox hunting is an unnatural way to help balance the natural balance of nature. Well well, and there was me thinking it was just a blood sport.

      The natural balance of nature would suggest that as the availability of food goes down the predator populations should go down also. Does it not? Indeed, a ten year study on the Black Isle found just that! When times were hard, foxes stopped breeding (or ate their young).

      However, you’ve got it wrong about old Reynard… he doesn’t care for fresh meat so much as carrion and vermin. There’s enough road kill to keep him going.

      • sfin

        Congratulations Abie Vee – you have outdone yourself in astounding ignorance!

        I normally laugh at your posts, and as someone who cares deeply for european wildlife, I would normally be angry at your stupidity…But as I now live in France (where both hunting, the fox and the hedgehog are currently thriving), I can only say – go ahead, turn Britain into a dessert. I really don’t give a toss what you think.

        I live in a natural paradise compared to the sterile landscape you and your fellow, mawkish “animal lovers” are creating.

        • Abie Vee

          A “dessert”? Like, say, a rhubarb crumble (quite apt for the current state of UK politics wouldn’t you say)? Or something more cheesy perhaps?

          My observations are based upon a decade long study carried out on the Black Isle near Inverness. As I recall, though it was some years ago, there was no Hunt on the isle, and the local farmers agreed to stop killing foxes in exchange for a cash bounty and compensation for any stock losses.

          The report found, among many other amazing things, that the fox population is self-limiting according to the supply of food. And when you think about it, that makes perfect sense. Nature’s way.

          By definition Fox Hunting is not nature’s way, and thus, I say it is unnatural. However, you cannot conclude from that statement that I am against it. That would merely be an example of the inductive fallacy at work. Would it not?

          Tally Ho!

  • Ivor MacAdam

    A nice, and different, and not political, article. Now: Politics. This goes to show that “set-aside”, so beloved by the Green Blob, does not work. Replanting “set-aside” land with hedgerows or the equivalent thereof, may work.
    Predators: Apart from the “uncullable” Badger (are there really too many? Don’t know), we were taught at school (in the 1950’s) that a Fox will roll a hedgehog like a ball until it drops into water – it has to open up to swim. Then the Fox gets it! But with a prickled nose, no doubt. Hope this helps.

  • Terence Cain

    In summary then, there is an anti-Hedgehog lobby in the UK, but it goes by the name of the pro-Badger lobby.

  • Bob339

    We have hedgehogs in our garden but they come and go. We also get the occasional squirrel and even a few frogs. Ducks come and drink and splash in our birdbath. I wish I could do something to help the hedgehogs but, short of confining them to the garden, I do not know what to do. I am sick of finding these inoffensive little creatures dead on the roads.

    • Solage 1386

      Put the hedgehogs in your birdbath. They will thrive.

  • Solage 1386

    Hedgehog ‘n’ chips, coming to a takeaway near you soon……