The popular but prickly character topped a vote in 2013 to nominate a national species for Britain, but it has suffered as hedgerows are lost and the invertebrates it feasts on diminish. However, the survey offers a glimmer of hope as losses in towns and cities appear to have slowed and the numbers patrolling nighttime gardens may be increasing.
Counting the nocturnal animals is difficult but the data that exists shows the hedgehog is in long-term decline. There are perhaps just a million left, representing a 97% fall from the 30m estimated to have roamed in the 1950s.
More recent years have seen better surveys and confirmed the ongoing loss of the species. The new report, produced by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS), analysed a series of surveys undertaken by their members.
Records of hedgehogs killed on the roads have been kept by PTES since 2001 and show numbers have plunged in rural areas by more than half. Such losses are backed up by an independent countryside survey by the British Trust for Ornithology.
The number of hedgehogs in rural areas has fallen by half over the past two decades
Other records of hedgehogs detected in gardens go back to 2003 and show a fall of a third in the number of sites being visited by the mammals. However, at the sites where hedgehogs are seen, the total number seen has risen in the last three years.
More than 47,000 people have signed up to the PTES and BHPS campaign Hedgehog Street and pledged to make their gardens more hedgehog friendly. The most important action is to ensure there are small holes in fences, no larger than a CD, to join up gardens and give hedgehogs the space to roam. A single hedgehog travels 1-2km a night in search of food and usually ranges over an area of 10 hectares (24.7 acres),
“There is still a very big decline in the rural landscape and a decline in urban areas, but what we have taken to be a chink of hope is that the decline in urban areas at least has levelled off – a slight indication that perhaps numbers are recovering again,” said David Wembridge at PTES.
“What is most concerning is that hedgehogs are generalists – they are not particularly fussy in terms of habitat and food,” he said. “If that sort of species is declining it is indicative that there are probably problems elsewhere in the environment too in terms of biodiversity and the invertebrate prey species it is eating.”
Wembridge highlighted research published in October which revealed a loss of 75% of insects in rural Germany in the last 25 years, leaving scientists warning of “ecological Armageddon”.
Hugh Warwick, an ecologist and author on hedgehogs, said hedgehogs have a special place in people’s appreciation of nature: “They love that snuffly little nose and beady eyes.” In reality, he said: “They are fairly smelly, fairly grumpy and covered in prickles. But the reason I still love them is they let you get close. They do not have a fight-or-flight response. They just roll up in a ball and afterwards you can end up nose to nose.”
“There are many reasons hedgehogs are in trouble,” said Emily Wilson, from the Hedgehog Street campaign. “The intensification of agriculture through the loss of hedgerows and permanent grasslands, increased field sizes, and the use of pesticides which reduce the amount of prey available, are all associated with the plunge in numbers in rural areas.”
Hedgehogs will scavenge for food in towns but their preferred diet is beetles, grubs, slugs and earthworms. They also need sheltered places such as hedgerows to nest and hide from danger.
Claire Robinson, countryside adviser to the National Farmers Union, said farmers are responsible for 400,000km of hedgerows and have planted 30,000km since 1997 when they gained legal protection. She also said pesticide use has been declining since 1990.
“The reasons for the decline in hedgehog numbers are more complex than stated in the report,” she said. “It’s also worth noting that as the hedgehog population has declined, numbers of the hedgehog’s predators, have risen sharply.” Badgers are the main predator of hedgehogs but the new report notes that the two species live side-by-side in many areas.
Road deaths are also a concern, with up to 150,000 hedgehogs thought to be killed by vehicles every year. “That number could be big enough to impact [the overall population],” said Wembridge. He is optimistic the Hedgehog Street campaign could make a difference but said the current prospects for the animals are not good: “A future with very many fewer hedgehogs is not unrealistic.”