Divide & conquer: habitat loss and fragmentation
It makes sense that if we are to see more hedgehogs around, we need to ensure that there is suitable habitat in which they can live. Perhaps more importantly than this, though, is that the habitat be connected, allowing dispersal and immigration. Historically, hedgehogs probably benefitted from the Inclosure Acts that saw Britain’s landscape of open fields and common land divided into smaller fields during the late eighteenth and early 19th centuries. Large areas were improved, particularly with drainage, making the land more valuable – it was then enclosed, often by planting hedges. The result was an increase in the number of small fields, delineated by hedgerows, with crops or livestock – what we now think of as traditional, organic farming.
Small fields with livestock producing dung in which a variety of insects can be found, surrounded by hedges that not only provide shelter but also food are ideal for hedgehogs. The inter-war and post-war years saw an increase in mechanised farming and many hedgerows were removed to allow easier access to fields for increasingly large farm machinery. We don’t know how much hedgerow has been lost since, but some estimates suggest that the total length of Britain’s hedgerows halved between the 1950s and the 2007 Countryside Survey.
Hedgerows aren’t just important for the food and shelter they provide; they also connect areas of habitat and many species migrate along them. It not just hedges, either. Roads, walls, fences, housing developments and even badgers, the latter of which may cause a ‘behavioural fragmentation’ because hedgehogs tend to avoid them (see QA), all serve to reduce a hedgehog’s ability to move within and between habitats. The progressive ‘urbanization’ of Britain is not a new phenomenon and in his review of the hedgehog in London, published in 1966, Pat Morris wrote that there were few private gardens large enough in central London to support hedgehog, commenting how:
“Here the most serious threat to the animal is urban development. Many old houses standing in large gardens are now being pulled down so that a greater number of small houses can be erected in their place. During this process the old gardens are built over or tidied up and rendered uninhabitable to mammals, at least temporarily.”
We have already discussed Tom Moorhouse’s findings that hedgehogs need sizeable areas of connected land for populations to be sustainable – without these hedgehog populations are at risk.
Despite the problems, there is some good news; more hedgehogs than ever are being taken in by humans, treated and released. The plight of hedgehogs is also now growing in people’s minds and there are steps being taken (albeit slowly) to redress the decline. We are, however, still lacking much basic data on hedgehog biology and behaviour – even with the work that has been conducted to date, much more is required if we are to understand and offer effective protection for our “tiggy-winkles”.
At the European scale, hedgehogs are listed in Appendix III of the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, which was adopted by 50 countries, 45 EU member states and five non-EU members, in 1979. (The convention was adopted in Bern, Switzerland and, consequently, is often abbreviated to the Bern Convention.) The UK ratified the Bern Convention in October 1982 and their inclusion on Appendix III means hedgehogs require protection and may be hunted or exploited only in exceptional circumstances. Hedgehogs are also protected to some extent in the UK under Schedule 6 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (WCA 1981/1987), although it has proven difficult to get successful prosecutions, even where deliberate and unprovoked violence can be proven.
Recently, there have been calls to raise the hedgehog’s status from Schedule 6 to Schedule 5 of the WCA, which would require housebuilders and property developers to take steps to accommodate hedgehogs in their planning. The Wild Mammals (Protection) Act of 1996 makes cruelty towards a hedgehog illegal, punishable by imprisonment or a £5,000 fine and the hedgehog is covered by Schedules 6 and 7 of the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order (1985), the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act (2002), and Welfare of Animals Act Northern Ireland (2011). More broadly in the UK, the Animal Welfare Act (2006) prohibits causing unnecessary suffering to any non-human animal.
Hedgehogs were added to the list of priority species covered under the British government’s Biodiversity Action Plan (UK BAP) in 2007. The UK BAP was published in 1994, a response to the Convention on Biological Diversity that the UK signed up to in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, and set out a detailed action plan for species and habitat conservation. Devolution in 1998 resulted in each individual country setting their own conservation priorities and a subsequent change in strategic thinking resulted in the UK BAP being succeeded by the UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework in July 2012 – you can read more about the history of UK BAP on the JNCC website. Regardless of the changes, the framework identifies, among other things, the need for routine surveys of the population and preservation/restoration of hedgerow systems and wooded areas around arable land as conservation priorities for hedgehogs.
Elsewhere, Erinaceus is well protected throughout most of Europe, with heavy fines and even prison sentences for those convicted of keeping or killing them without authorisation. In the Republic of Estonia, for example, hedgehogs have been afforded legal protection since 1982, making it illegal to trap or kill them without a licence.