How did things get so bad for hedgehogs? Here's how to save them

Small hedgehog
Hedgehogs have changed little in 15 million years but are no longer thriving Credit: Alamy

What a standout mammal the hedgehog is, a prize among the hirsute with its armory of quills – hollow hairs made of stiff keratin instead of fur – which means that hibernating is the only option to get through the chill of winter. It is an emblem of conservation and, officially, Britain’s most-loved wild animal. A 2013 BBC Wildlife poll declared the prickly insectivore to be Britain’s top “wildlife icon”. But for how much longer?

Hedgehog numbers are in sharp decline

The hedgehog is struggling. The RSPB’s citizen science survey, published last month, found that the number of people who have never seen a hedgehog in their garden rose to 24 per cent last year, up three per cent on 2014. And that only begins to tell the full, sad story.

Research by hedgehog champions including the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, British Hedgehog Preservation Society and British Trust for Ornithology shows that in 1950 there were an estimated 30 million hedgehogs in Britain. By 1995, there were 1.5 million. Today, that figure could be as low as a million – a precipitous drop in a single human generation.

Chemical treatments mean that many macro-invertebrates – the hedgehog’s main diet – have been killed off

And if these highly adaptable animals – having changed little in 15 million years, they seem to have found a way of fitting into our modern world – aren’t thriving, then all is not well in the environment at large. So where have they all gone?

Hedgehogs are nocturnal and more likely to be seen in towns, so it is difficult to get realistic numbers. One method for figuring out the increase or decrease of hedgehogs is studying how many become roadkill: counter-intuitively, the more hedgehogs you spot by the roadside, the better. This also offers the chance to check carcasses for parasites, viruses and bacteria to see if other problems lurk.

How did things get so bad?

Hedgehogs are under threat in the countryside and in towns. The countryside story is familiar. The way we farm has changed dramatically over the decades. Chemical treatments mean that many macro-invertebrates, such as worms, beetles, caterpillars, slugs and millipedes – the hedgehog’s main diet – have been killed off. Monocultures, too, support a smaller variety of creepy crawlies. “We’re farming harder, so there is less space for wildlife,” says natural history crusader Peter Smith.

Added to this is the trend towards increased tillage (for crops), rather than permanent grassland, which held greater opportunities for hedgehog foraging. Hedgehog specialist and ecologist Hugh Warwick says that the conversion from rough pasture to intensive crops can mean a 90 per cent reduction in macro-invertebrates.

There has also been a loss in hedges due to the post-war drive for increased productivity. Today, hedges may be flailed annually, causing disturbance, or left unmanaged without coppicing or laying, which leads to a decline in quality. This has taken away valuable hedgehog nesting sites, corridors for movement and cover from predators.

Badgers are part of the picture, too,  competing with hedgehogs for worms and beetles, and also preying on them. Hedgehogs avoid areas where badgers live, which may affect numbers.

“It seems likely that when conditions are good, when there is enough food for both species, badgers and hedgehogs are simply competitors for worms and beetles, with the badger being at an advantage, able to eat as many worms as six hedgehogs,” says Warwick. “But when conditions deteriorate, the relationship becomes predatory.” (This has nothing to do with the badger cull, which was not set up to protect wildlife.)

Countryfile's Ellie Harrison with a baby hedgehog

These countryside issues mean that our suburbs, particularly neighbourhoods with parks, commonland, woods and, of course, gardens, have become an essential refuge for hedgehogs. But here, too, hedgehogs are being squeezed. Decking, driveways, infill development, concrete-based fences and roads make safe foraging difficult.

Research by Dr Tom Moorhouse from Oxford University shows that in the best hedgehog habitat, a viable population needs an unfragmented area of at least 90ha to thrive. It’s difficult to find blocks of land that size that aren’t riddled by roads or other obstacles. And as populations of hedgehogs become smaller, a single adverse event can wipe out large numbers. A whole neighbourhood can lose all its hedgehogs very quickly.

This gloomy picture worsens when the uncertain effects of climate change, disease and wildlife rehabilitation are taken into account. 

Gardeners, it’s time to step up 

This is not a plea to convert your garden to squalor for the sake of the animals. In 2008, I worked on the BBC’s Wild About Your Garden, a series that redesigned gardens with the main aim of attracting local wildlife. We also set out to show that wildlife gardens could be beautiful for those who put in the hard work – and not so much as a single nettle was required. Instead of garden scruffiness, even small gestures can go a long way towards making a difference to hedgehog populations.

  1. Make sure there are gaps along garden boundaries. Less than 20cm2 is all that is needed. Why make a hedgehog-friendly garden if none can get in?
  2. Consider gardening as organically as you can to allow creepy crawlies to thrive. Garden chemicals have been a big problem. In our programme, I had a heated discussion with a group of understandably protective allotment growers on their use of slug pellets. They had tried every alternative: coffee granules, brass tape, eggshells, beer and more, but the slugs still rampaged. I was newly returned from a hedgehog rescue centre where I had watched the death throes of one wretched individual that has ingested slug pellets, via a slug. In the wild, hedgehogs will die from respiratory failure after suffering for many days. This one was lucky, it could be euthanised. Now, I am no gardener, but a friend of mine is and happily offers an alternative to the blue pellets of evil: nematodes, parasites that enjoy the offerings of most host species on earth, including slugs.
  3. Try lying on the ground for a hedgehog’s view on where they can find cover in your garden. Let the neighbours talk.
  4. You can offer fresh water and meaty pet food or chopped unsalted nuts, avoiding the bread and milk.
  5. If you have a water feature, make sure it has gently sloping sides or add rocks for an escape route.
  6. Check long grass before strimming or bonfires before lighting.
  7. In our garden we also installed a hedgehog box. Like so many homemade wooden box homes in gardens and the countryside, it was occupied by a completely different species (common lizards), but if nature is in your heart and carpentry isn’t, you’ll be delighted with any tenant.
A rescued baby hedgehog Credit: Alamy

For even more offerings, you can sign up to Hedgehog Street, a project set up to connect thousands of hectares of hedgehog habitat, or join the RSPB’s Give Nature a Home campaign.

On a light evening, sitting quietly, you may well be rewarded with the sound of a hedgehog’s snuffling snout. As it becomes darker, you can use a torch with red gel taped across the beam to get a better look without disturbing them. And while hedgehogs won’t stay loyal to you, if you have created a garden that allows them to thrive, all those less sexy micro-beasts that are so important to the system as a whole, certainly will.