Friday, 22 February 2013

Hedgehog population in dramatic decline

The once common sight of hedgehogs in gardens could become a thing of the past, with the spiny species having suffered a dramatic decline in recent years on a par with the loss of starlings, red squirrels and other quintessentially British wildlife.

Ecologists this week published figures suggesting hedgehog numbers declined by over a third between 2003 and 2012.

Such a precipitous drop means the hedgehog, celebrated in culture from Beatrix Potter's Mrs Tiggy-Winkle to Philip Larkin's poetry, is becoming an increasingly rare sight in the UK's gardens, parks and hedgerows.

The People's Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), a charity which has been running counts of hedgehogs for over a decade and compiled the figures, believes there are now fewer than a million hedgehogs left in the UK, down from estimates of around 2m in the mid-1990s and 36m in the 1950s. David Wembridge, PTES's surveys officer, said the fall should "ring alarm bells."

Ecologists stress more work needs to be done to pinpoint the reasons behind their decline, but said likely candidates are habitat loss, poor management of hedgerows and fragmentation of habitat, due to new roads, housing and other developments. Tens of thousands are killed by road traffic each year.

Climate change, which increases the likelihood of extreme weather such as heavy rainfall that can flood the homes of hibernating badgers, is also considered a potential factor.

Hugh Warwick, author and spokesman for British Hedgehog Preservation Society, told the Guardian: "The most obvious thing is habitat loss. But the biggest thing is habitat fragmentation. It comes in many different forms - you put a big road through the middle of a hedgehog habitat, and then a crossroads, and the hedgehog habitat becomes smaller and smaller. In each of those habitats, the risks become more dangerous, for example if you have an outbreak of parasites."

The hedgerows which give the species their name were no longer being grubbed up, he said, but were not as "rich" or "vibrant" in the worms and other food eaten by hedgehogs due to poor management. Warwick said that at talks he gave to Women's Institute meetings in recent years, he was regularly approached by people asking him why they were seeing fewer hedgehogs in their gardens.

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