I have been studying our only prickly mammal over the last 25 years. Initially I was working as an ecologist, looking at how they behaved, but the more time I spent with them in their nocturnal world, the more I realised that these charismatic beasts were actually rather special.
I helped stop the cull of hedgehogs up in the Outer Hebrides (they were accused of eating eggs of ground-nesting birds) – proving that they could moved to the mainland without the sorts of problems that the authorities imagined. And through this I began to work more closely with the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (http://www.britishhedgehogs.org.uk) and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (http://www.ptes.org)
We were all getting worried about hedgehogs. The population seemed to be in decline from all the surveys we had run, so we handed all the data we had over to the statisticians at the British Trust for Ornithology and they gave us a dramatic answer. Conservatively the number of hedgehogs in Britain has fallen 25% in the last 10 years alone. And the fall before that is likely to have been as dramatic, but we did not have the data.
One of the main problems is habitat fragmentation – the splitting up of good hedgehog habitat into smaller pieces with roads, industrial farming, housing and even changes in gardens. With this in mind we launched Hedgehog Street (http://www.hedgehogstreet.org) and have already recruited nearly 23,000 households to the cause. You can see it on Countryfile this Sunday (BBC 1, 1930) – and learn how to make your garden more hedgehog friendly, and, most importantly realise that however hedgehog friendly it is, it is useless unless hedgehogs can get in! So, get talking to your neighbours about making holes in the fence!
Why should we care so much? Well, as I mentioned at the beginning, they are a very important species. We could just look at their diet of macro-invertebrates – things like slugs and snails – to see how great they are to have in the garden. We could also consider that they are yet another piece of the great web of life. Imagine your favourite jumper – it can cope with a few moth holes, but there comes a time when a hole appears in just the wrong place and everything begins to unravel; well, that is like the ecosystem. And we can never know which is the crucial piece of the puzzle.
But that is not why I think they are so important. Hedgehogs give us a chance to see a really wild animal at close quarters. There are very few other beasts out there with which we can get so close – I have been nose-to-nose with a hedgehog, looking into its beady, bright eyes. I first did it with a hedgehog called Nigel. As it happened it dawned on me that the large conservation and wildlife charities have got it wrong. We are not going to be seduced into loving the natural world through the charismatic mega fauna, the lions and whales. That is like assuming we will form meaningful relationships with the people pictured in Heat or Hello magazines.
We are going to fall in love with the girl or the boy next door – not an A-List member of the charismatic mega-fauna of celebrity. And the hedgehog is the animal equivalent. We actually have a chance to get close to and understand a little about the hedgehog. So, if you meet one, get down on your tummy, get nose-to-nose and look for the glint of wild in its eyes. And then, just possibly, you will be seduced into really falling in love with the world around you.
Hugh Warwick is the author of A Prickly Affair and, most recently, The Beauty in the Beast. He also maintains an active and eccentric blog: http://www.urchin.info
Thank you Hugh Warwick for all of your great contributions and continued support! You can follow Hugh on twitter @hedgehoghugh