They’ve been around for 15 million years; hedgehogs roamed Britain with mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers. But in a single lifetime the much-loved mammals have been driven towards extinction, their national population apparently plummeting more than thirtyfold.
As Philip Larkin wrote in The Mower – a poem composed after he killed a hedgehog while cutting long grass – we have “mauled” their “unobtrusive world”. And their decline is all the more significant since – like butterflies – they are known to be an “indicator species”, whose fate mirrors what is happening to the natural world as a whole.
Today we are having new fence panels delivered, in order to create an opening for hedgehogs to travel between the gardens in our road a little hedgehog hole will be made.
Eight years ago the animal was officially designated as a conservation priority and now some 33,000 households have joined a Hedgehog Street campaign to make it welcome in their gardens. It’s easy to help you just need to cut a space like this, e are lucky enough to have hedges all around our garden so there is plenty of access for our prickly friends but practicality necessitates a fence by the driveway so we will just make sure it is wildlife friendly.
Why are Hedgehogs disappearing? The clue is in their name. Since the Second World War we have grubbed up 200,000 miles of hedges in Britain, enough to encircle the world eight times over, as intensive farming has advanced. This no longer happens on anything like the same scale, but ecologists say that even the remaining hedgerows are less rich in wildlife than they used to be because they are less well maintained.
As development spreads, this and other hedgehog habitat becomes more and more fragmented: garden walls and fences add to the problem by blocking the way for the animals, which can roam for up to two miles a night. And there are other hazards too. Many take refuge in bonfires, only to be burned alive when they are lit. Unknown numbers perished in last year’s floods. Pesticides kill their prey. And tens of thousands are squashed every year by their second greatest predator – the car.
There has never been a full national census of hedgehogs in Britain but, back in the Fifties it was estimated that there were 36.5 million of them. In 1995 a better, but still incomplete, survey put their numbers at just 1.55 million.
And there is good evidence that they have continued to disappear since. Three more recent surveys suggest that we lost another third between 2002 and 2012, and sightings fell by 4 per cent last year alone. Now a fifth of Britons say they never see the prickly creatures at all.
The problem is that habitats have been shrinking, leaving hedgehogs without ecosystems to sustain them – and places to hide from predators.
Where hedgehogs do remain as strong as ever is in the public’s affections: in a survey two years ago, more than two in every five Britons picked them as the animals that best represent the country, while a nation of gardeners is constantly grateful for their help with pests.
So if you have a fence go make a Hedgehog Hole. Very much more will be needed, but at least a start is being made while, as Larkin ends his poem, “there is still time”. Here are two links to RSBP sites that will give you some more tips to help our beautiful Hedgehogs.