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Hedgehogs at threat: Why we’re losing the nation’s favourite mammal and how universities are helping

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Logo: Hedgehog Friendly Campus

By Jo Wilkinson, Hedgehog Friendly Campus

A recent report from the Mammal Society lists hedgehogs on Britain’s IUCN Red List as vulnerable to extinction. Their numbers have declined by as much as 50% in the last 20 years, facing such continued threats as roads and loss of natural habitat. The question is, how have we come to this point and what’s being done to turn it around?

Image: Hedgehog Friendly Campus hedgehog

The wild hedgehog is engrained in British culture, from books to movies, adverts to Christmas cards. They often top the polls for the nation’s favourite mammal and it’s very easy to see why. Hedgehogs are unmistakeably characteristic, being Britain’s only spiny mammal. In response to the threat of danger, hedgehogs use their back muscles to curl into an impregnable ball – a fascinating defence mechanism against potential predators.

Hedgehogs are incredibly secretive creatures. Being small and nocturnal, their busy night-time schedule is generally hidden from our view. They were considered a symbol of rebirth by the ancient Egyptians, emerging from months of sleep-like hibernation in the spring. Their ability to mate and give birth when covered in sharp spines also stimulates intrigue, giving rise to the famed joke “How do hedgehogs mate? Very carefully!”.

The West European hedgehog is now vulnerable to extinction in Britain (BHPS)
The West European hedgehog is now vulnerable to extinction in Britain (BHPS)

Although at first glance the hedgehog appears shrouded in mystery, we now know a great deal about hedgehogs, due to early and continuing studies into their behaviour and ecology. Unfortunately, these studies show that human actions have major impacts on hedgehogs, at both the individual and population level.

The hedgehog, once a common garden occurrence, is declining at an alarming rate in the UK, with 50% declines in rural areas and 30% declines in urban regions. Threats include loss of natural habitat due to intensive agriculture and urbanisation, with never-ending fields of monocrops and swathes of concrete paving in place of native hedgerows, scrub and woodland. Habitat loss means less natural food, exacerbated by our habitual use of pesticides and herbicides. In turn, less natural food increases pressure from competing species. We’re chopping up the landscape with deadly roads, creating physical barriers to movement for hedgehogs, who can travel up to 2 kilometres in a single night in search of resources. Likely, the last time you saw a hedgehog was flat on the side of the road, the most recent in a long line of road-kill victims. Thanks to human actions, they’re now listed as vulnerable to extinction on Britain’s IUCN Red List, just one short step behind the likes of the Red Squirrel.

Hedgehog Friendly Campus provides resources and training so that teams can get involved in hedgehog surveys on campus (Hedgehog Friendly Campus)
Hedgehog Friendly Campus provides resources and training so that teams can get involved in hedgehog surveys on campus (Hedgehog Friendly Campus)

We wait to see how and if the new Red List categorisation may lead to increased protection for the hedgehog and their habitat. A recent British Hedgehog Preservation Society petition calls on the Government to move hedgehogs to schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), affording them greater protections. Only time will tell if hedgehogs will legally require the same protection and care afforded to bats, great crested newts and red squirrels. In the meantime, it’s down to our good will and discretion.

Thankfully, an army of Hedgehog Champions is growing across the UK, ready and willing to fight the good fight. One such branch of this army is Hedgehog Friendly Campus (HFC). HFC is an accreditation scheme funded by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, providing teams of university staff and students with a toolkit to make hedgehog-friendly changes on campus. It provides the resources, knowledge and understanding to make a real difference and, with almost 80 of the roughly 130 universities across the UK already registered, this revolution is growing fast and strong.

Staff and students at the University of Sheffield undertake regular litter picks in the local area to prevent hedgehogs getting caught up and hurt (Hedgehog Friendly Campus)
Staff and students at the University of Sheffield undertake regular litter picks in the local area to prevent hedgehogs getting caught up and hurt (Hedgehog Friendly Campus)

With teams able to choose from activities such as litter picks and wildflower planting, hedgehog surveys and hedgehog-friendly building (to name a few), the accreditation suits urban and rural campuses. The campaign provides workshops and webinars, as well as physical resources, to help you help hedgehogs at your university.

The Hedgehog Friendly Campus campaign has seen some fantastic activities across the UK, including the installation of hedgehog crossing signs, modules on hedgehog ecology and first aid, rescue and rehabilitation operations and habitat creation. The campaign also trains Grounds and Landscape teams to “Think Hedgehog”. It’s a great start, but now we need more.

In the future, the campaign could be expanded, allowing colleges, schools, local authority councils and even businesses to get involved. For the moment the project’s aims are to get all universities registered to help hedgehogs in the UK, and is actively recruiting students and staff at their respective campuses. To join the fight, go to hedgehogfriendlycampus.co.uk to register and email info@hedgehogfriendlycampus.co.uk for more information.

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