God Save the Hedgehog!

The hedgie is Britain’s national species, but adoring these cuties won’t be enough to save them.

May 04, 2015

Photo: Ting Chen/Flickr

With its wrinkly nose, beady eyes, chill disposition, and hip haircut, the European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus) is one of the United Kingdom’s most adored wild animals. People build houses and feeding stations for this little prickly mammal in their backyards, and some keep them as pets. Brits even voted in 2013 to declare the hedgehog their national species

But despite its popularity and the protections it receives under Britain’s Wildlife and Countryside Act, the hedgie’s numbers have been in steady decline for at least the last half-century. Three separate surveys estimate that fewer than a million of these precious pincushions remain. That may sound plentiful, until you realize that, since 2002, the hedgehog population in the United Kingdom has taken a 30 percent dive.

What’s killing the kindly hedgehog? Basically, we are. Habitat loss and fragmentation are major problems, as is loss of prey. (Hedgies make a living by slurping up worms, insects, and other bite-size creatures killed off by our pesticides.) Accidents in the form of cars, lawn mowers, bonfires, and compost piles also factor in heavily.

Sadly, this story is all too common for the British Isles. When the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds published its inaugural State of Nature report in 2013, it estimated that 60 percent of the U.K.’s wildlife species have declined over the last 50 years. After evaluating more than 6,000 species, the group found that one in ten were threatened with extinction.

Joining the hedgies on the British Isles’ endangered list are the hazel dormouse (of snoring fame!), water voles, red squirrels, greater horseshoe bats, stag beetles, five reptile species, three dozen bird species, and many other amphibians, fishes, invertebrates, and plants.

The good news is that even in the worst-case scenario—in which all the hedgehogs, otters, pine martens, and other threatened species in Britain go kaput—the animals would still exist elsewhere in the world (usually in mainland Europe). In a way, the British biodiversity crisis is a local one, a symptom of too many competing interests on a group of islands.

The locally extinct label, however, puts U.K. conservationists in an awkward position. The Save-the-Hedgies contingent can’t appeal to the looming finality of, say, a tiger or rhino extinction. If the Brits kill off all their hedgehogs, the little guys would still exist from Portugal to Russia.

But that’s bollocks. What kind of society lets its wildlife die off simply because they’re not unique?

“Hedgehogs, in particular, are a species that really thrive in gardens and alongside humans. It doesn’t take much to make room for them,” says Henry Johnson of the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, a London-based conservation organization.

“If we can’t conserve animals like this,” he says, “then it’s a grim prospect for some of the less popular animals, like insects and beetles, things that we really depend on in terms of pollination.”

As PTES’s Hedgehog Officer, which is in the running for best job title in conservation, Johnson oversees several citizen science campaigns that raise awareness about the creature’s plight and get people involved in monitoring the population.

One program, Hedgehog Street, encourages more than 33,000 volunteer “hedgehog champions” to talk to their communities about ways to make backyards more friendly to hogs, including making hedgie-sized holes in fences so the animals can roam, avoiding pesticides and slug pellets, and being careful when burning detritus and turning compost piles. (Hedgehogs rely on their spines for protection, so they tend to stay put when threatened—not a good strategy when encountering a bonfire or a pitchfork.)

Turns out English gardens can be dangerous places, but hedgehog numbers are also dropping in rural Ireland and on remote Scottish islands. The reasons for those drop-offs, Johnson says, are less clear.

In postwar Britain, the government decided it would be a good idea to rely less on imports. So the United Kingdom began industrializing its agriculture sector. That had ramifications for iconic British hedgerows, which became shorter and of poorer quality. Hedgehogs depend on those bushy corridors to move across the landscape.

Many Britons also blame badgers for the hedgie downswing. These members of the weasel family not only compete with hedgehogs for food, they sometimes turn hedgehogs into food by unraveling them from their tight, defensive ball position and tearing through their soft underside. Some special interests, notably livestock owners, say this is yet another reason why the government should cull badgers. (Badgers can spread bovine tuberculosis, an unfortunate fact that’s landed the black-and-white mammal in the middle of a bitter culling controversy.)

Johnson doesn’t buy that. He says, “It’s a very human thing to point the finger at another species when a lot of the drivers for hedgehog declines are almost certainly more about the way we manage the land.”

Will the sun ever set on the British hedgehog? That’s up to the Brits.


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