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Could Hedgehogs Become a Protected Species in the UK?

Intro

Hedgehogs are what we call in conservation a ‘charismatic species’. A species that is instantly recognisable with striking features, one that is well embedded within the national psyche.

If you strike up a conversation with someone about hedgehogs, as I often do on site with clients, or with friends, you will likely hear the same things ‘I used to see them a lot more’… ‘you barely even see them as roadkill anymore’. It probably comes as no surprise then to find out that current estimates and studies on hedgehog populations in the UK show a downward trend in their population. Therefore, the question of whether or not hedgehogs could become a protected species can be asked.

What is a protected species?

Before we move on, let’s clearly define what ‘protected species’ means in the UK. Firstly, all mammals have a degree of protection (Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996), summarised eloquently by the Sussex Wildlife Trust: ”…All mammals are protected from deliberate acts of cruelty by this act. So if, for example, someone kicks a hedgehog they commit an offence under this legislation.

Usually however, in the UK when we refer to ‘protected species’ it is in reference to species that have additional protection, which makes them more of a planning and development consideration. In general these are either European protected species (such as all bats, otters and great crested newts) covered under The habitat regs 2017, Schedule 5 species of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (such as common reptiles and water voles) or Schedule 1 birds (such as barn owls and peregrine falcons).

Theoretically then, if hedgehogs were to become a protected species in the UK, they would likely be one listed on Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act; as they are not birds and are not considered a rare species at the European scale. Schedule 5 species have varying levels of protection themselves, the important ones are the offences of: Intentionally killing, inuring or taking [i.e takes from the wild], some Schedule 5 species, such as water voles, are also protected from having their burrows destroyed or obstructed, and from being disturbed whilst in their burrows.

Myth Busting Hedgehog Population Size

Before we begin, we must clear up a myth. Many mainstream news websites will claim that the population of hedgehogs in the 1950s, in the UK, was 30 million, or 36 million. None provide a reliable reference for this figure, however. Even mainstream media sites fall into this trap, including the BBC, The Guardian and The Daily Mail. The figure of 36 million appears to be an estimation from a 1969 book by Maurice Burton (The Hedgehog: A Survival Book). The figure is from a calculation; based on the estimated number of hedgehogs per acre, and multiplying it by the suitable habitat present in the UK. Essentially it is a very rough estimate, of a rough calculation, as opposed to a detailed scientific study. Therefore, any current population estimates for hedgehogs which use this figure as a comparison is misleading. Even Burton himself admitted this figure was derived largely from guess work.

It’s only in 1995 when the first comprehensive hedgehog census was undertaken, this time using more detailed knowledge of hedgehog distribution in the UK, coming up with a figure of aproximately 1.55 million hedgehogs the UK. However, even this figure is uncertain, the author noting: ‘This clearly is an approximate figure, because there were few data available on hedgehog densities in different habitat types.’

Comparing the 1995 estimation with recent hedgehog estimations from 2016 by a comprehensive review of mammal populations in the UK, gives a figure of 522,000 hedgehogs currently in the UK, making an estimated decline of around one third in two decades, however, once again, the study calls hedgehog population estimations ‘extremely uncertain’. Ultimately trying to work out populations of a nocturnal animal, which is widespread, and uses a range of habitat types, is fraught with difficulties.

So, whilst exact figures are not attainable, the downward trend is backed up by loss of habitat and an increase in traffic – almost 10 million more people living in the UK in today when compared with 1995. However, the most recent 2018 ‘state of hedgehog report’ shows that their urban populations may be stabilising.

A rising badger population may be contributing to a decline of hedgehogs in rural areas, which not only eat the same food as hedgehogs, but are known to prey on hedgehogs too – however it is not known how common this is.

In conclusion, it is probably more valuable to quantify habitat loss/degradation on a UK-wide scale and come to the conclusion that this will have a knock on effect on hedgehogs, rather than trying to come up with an exact figure for their population size.

How do Hedgehog Populations Compare to Existing Schedule 5 Species?

Let’s open up another can of slow worms and take a brief look at how hedgehog population compares to Schedule 5 species.

Using common reptiles listed under Schedule 5 as examples (these are: common lizard, slow worm, grass snake and adder) we find that there are no current estimates for their population sizes. The lack of population data for some species listed above is a probably a testament to how few individuals there are to count, with adders, for example, often having very small populations (under 10 individuals) across multiple different sites. These species are not quite as tolerant to urban developments as hedgehogs and are somewhat ‘picky’ when it comes to habitat selection, typically favouring a mosaic of habitat types, as well as rarer UK habitats such as heathlands (i.e. adder).

Comparing these protected species to hedgehogs, you can see how the hedgehog, a generalist species in its habitat and prey, has a natural advantage when compared to more specialist species, which require particular habitats to thrive.

Conclusion

A Government response to a petition asking for hedgehogs to have full Schedule 5 protection (including protection from disturbance/resting place destruction) argued that existing protection on hedgehogs is sufficient enough, as there is no evidence suggesting that people are deliberately killing hedgehogs; and, as their ‘resting places’ and habitats are very general and widespread, to impose planning restrictions and make it an offence to disturb or destroy these habitats would be too draconian, particularly on home owners.

Taking the argument to its logical conclusion, most people probably would not be too keen to have to hire an ecologist to assess a wood pile in their garden before they are allowed to touch it, for example. Many ecological reports and councils include hedgehogs within the recommendations now, ensuring that they are they are considered as part of site works, despite not having Schedule 5 protection.

We agree with the decision to not include hedgehogs onto Schedule 5 here at Bio Net Gain. Rather than focusing on more protections at the species level, we believe that for a species like hedgehogs, large scale habitat schemes are the answer. The new Environmental Bill is probably the best piece of documentation a hedgehog could ask for, emphasising on controlling habitat loss and degradation, and maximising connectivity.

References

  1. Harris, S., Morris, P., Wray, S. and Yalden, D. (1995) A Review of British
    Mammals: Population estimates and conservation status of British
    mammals other than Cetaceans.JNCC, Peterborough
  2. Croft, S., Chauvenet, A.L. and Smith, G.C. (2017) A systematic approach
    to estimate the distribution and total abundance of British mammals.
    PloS One, 12(6): e0176339
  3. Harris,S., Morris,P., Wray,S. & Yalden,D.W. (1995). A Review of British Mammals: Population Estimates and Conservation Status of British Mammals Other than Cetaceans. Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough (JNCC download page).

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