Last year, by the light of a spring moon, I spent a night creeping the flowerbeds and secluded corners of London's Regent's Park. Until the early hours of the morning I silently roamed the lawns listening out for rustling, seeking out something I'd never encountered there before.
Before you jump to conclusions, it was nothing untoward. I was volunteering with a team of surveyors looking for the last remaining population of hedgehogs in London's Royal Parks. Okay, one of our tasks was to examine their unmentionables, but this was part of the scientific process. Our aim was to count - as well as monitor the behaviour and habitat of - hedgehogs living in the park. The more we know about the hedgehogs in Regent's Park, the easier it will be to ensure that this population, at least, can survive. In each of the other six Royal Parks in London the hedgehogs have perished and no one is sure why.
Overall the outlook for the hedgehog is bleak in the UK. In the 1950's there were an estimated 30 million hedgehogs. By 2006 this had plummeted to three million. If this decline continues, some conservationists predict they'll be extinct by 2025.
Now this might sound extreme, but my night of hedgehogging is one of the best nights I've ever had in London. It didn't involve alcohol or secret cinemas or the velveteen seats of an opera. It was like someone took my everyday environment of grey faced commuters and tapped it with a magic wand, transformed it to a silent city where suddenly wild things roamed. It was so exciting when my team found our first hedgehog. A gorgeous little animal with shining blackcurrant eyes and a twitching snout like a tiny dog's. We carefully tagged and photographed it, then it hurried off into the grass on surprisingly long bow legs, perhaps to cross paths with other night dwelling humans in its search for slugs and beetles. (I've written more about it here if you're interested).
What do you think about this? Does it charm you to think of one of these spiny chaps snuffling through the grass metres away from you as you tread the concrete home from a night in the pub?
Or would you rather we just bulldozed its home and obliterated it for good?
Oh sorry, not the latter? Well I hate to tell you friend but the reason I'm writing this is because that is precisely what's going to happen.
The Regent's Park hedgehog surveys have consistently showed that the ZSL London Zoo car park is vital habitat for the Park's hogs. They live in the shrubbery borders and come out to forage at night. When I did the survey my team found two of the critters while scouring our section of the park for four hours. We had to disguise our envy when the zoo car park team smugly announced finding nine. Hedgehog envy. Henvy?
Anyway, you can imagine how concerned the survey team, and staff from ZSL London Zoo were, when the government announced this very car park will be bulldozed to make way for HS2. Conservationists raised a petition to try and block the plans.
This week it's been announced their efforts were in vain. The House of Lords has overruled the petition and the car park will go. With it, one of the very last populations of hedgehogs in central London.
Maybe a small group of animals shouldn't have any influence over a major infrastructure project. I can see that point of view. Maybe one day the best thing about London won't be the surprise wildlife encounters, the blissful interactions with nature that help us unwind from stressful days at work, but the experience of speeding out of it 30 minutes faster than we used to be able to. I guess it's which you aspire to.
Personally I think we are overlooking both the practical and emotional benefits that wildlife offers us when we sideline it in favour of economics. And I think it's a dangerous path to go down to assume it's fine to wipe out vulnerable populations of wildlife to achieve our aims. We should always be looking for alternatives.
So I wasn't going to let this announcement go unmourned. I just wanted to tell you about it, so you know the decisions that are being made presumably for our benefit, since we're the taxpayers.
London is a great city because it's a green city. I believe the majority of its citizens would agree with me. We should think twice each time we commit to chipping away at the natural promise it offers us.
Take action for hedgehogs
If you're looking for ways to occupy idle hands over Christmas, and want to help hedgehogs you could try the following:
- If you don't agree with the House of Lords ruling and want to tell your MP, you can write to them
- If you want to help Royal Parks preserve the Regent's Park hedgehogs you can adopt a hedgehog
- By far the best thing we can do for hedgehogs is to provide the right habitat for them in our own gardens. The Wildlife Trusts have some handy advice on this. You can also help scientists understand threats to hedgehogs by reporting sick and dead animals to Garden Wildlife Health.