Britain's hedgehogs desperately need our help. These much loved mammals, once commonplace in our gardens and open spaces, have been in precipitous decline in recent years. The British Hedgehog Preservation Society estimates that urban populations have reduced by a third, and rural populations by more than half, since the beginning of this century. The longer term trends give even more cause for concern, with numbers thought to have declined from 30 million in the 1950s to around a million today.
In recognition of this sad situation, The Times newspaper chose to feature the British Hedgehog Preservation Society in its Christmas charity appeal. However, in doing so, it inferred that the hedgehog's decline was due in large part to increases in badger numbers because badgers 'prey on hedgehogs and also compete with them for the same sources of food', and that studies showing increases in hedgehog numbers following badger removal could strengthen the case for the culling of badgers.
This claim amounts to little more than a thinly veiled attempt by the newspaper to broaden the justification for the ineffective, inhumane and unnecessary licensed badger culls that are part of the Government's strategy for controlling the spread of bovine tuberculosis among cattle.
The relationship between badgers and hedgehogs is undoubtedly complex. Described by ecologists as an Asymmetric Intraguild Predatory Relationship, the two species often compete for the same food sources, principally macroinvertebrates such as earthworms and slugs. When food is scarce, badgers will occasionally prey on hedgehogs, and in turn hedgehogs will often avoid areas frequented by badgers.
So it is no real surprise that when you remove badgers from shared areas, the hedgehog numbers tend to go up. This is known as 'mesopredator release' -in other words if you remove the competition, the species that remains will benefit to some extent.
But this doesn't by any means suggest that badgers are a major cause of hedgehog decline.
Hedgehogs and badgers have co-existed across our land for millennia. What has changed in recent years is the way we manage land, which has been more detrimental to hedgehogs than it has to badgers. The move towards larger agricultural field sizes has resulted in the loss of hedgerows and permanent grasslands, reducing suitable hedgehog habitat. Intensive agricultural practices and the widespread use of pesticides impoverish our soils and reduce the availability of invertebrates, which has a particularly harmful impact on hedgehogs whose dietary requirements are more exacting than those of badgers. Our tendency to keep tidy, relatively sterile gardens and to surround them with fences is also restricting access to suitable urban and suburban foraging grounds for hedgehogs, and the inappropriate management of amenity land is further reducing hedgehog habitat. Badgers are better at adapting to the changes we impose on both our rural and urban landscapes.
Hedgehogs are clearly in need of all the help they can get. Agricultural practices need to be examined to ensure they are more sympathetic to wildlife in general and hedgehogs in particular. Individuals can make a huge difference by leaving an area of their garden 'wild'; providing suitable hedgehog 'homes'; avoiding the use of toxic chemicals such as slug pellets; ensuring that netting, other garden implements and bonfires are sited and managed so as to avoid entangling or injuring hedgehogs; making one side of garden ponds gently sloping to reduce the risk of drowning; and making a hole in their garden fence so that hedgehogs can roam freely from garden to garden. There are also many people offering rescue and rehabilitation for sick or injured hedgehogs up and down the country; Born Free Foundation's own Tarnya Knight provides just such a service.
The British Hedgehog Preservation Society gives excellent advice on hedgehog-friendly actions people can take, and provides contact details for more specialist help and advice. Alongside the People's Trust for Endangered Species, they also recognise that hedgehog declines should not be used as an excuse for targeting badgers, emphasising in a joint statement that they 'join leading wildlife scientists in arguing against a cull of badgers to control bovine TB', that they 'would not advocate culling badgers to benefit hedgehogs', and that 'culling any species in an effort to conserve another is undesirable given better environmental approaches'.
We cannot continue to play our precious indigenous species off against each other. If wild animals are survive and thrive, we need to develop a much better understanding of the impacts our activities have on the species we share the land with, the effects these impacts have on the complex relationships between different species, and the things we can do both individually and collectively to mitigate these effects.
Only then will we be better placed to implement real solutions to reverse the devastating declines in hedgehogs and so much of Britain's wildlife.