Hedgehog death squads get ready to exterminate invaders

Mainland mammals are to be culled for preying on an island's birds, but animal rights activists are trying to save them. Stephen Khan reports
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The Independent Online

The islanders of Uist off Scotland's West Coast have for decades fought battles over land and rustled whisky from stricken vessels grounded on rocky shores, but now they are gearing up for the ultimate stand-off.

For the local population of hedgehogs is about to be blasted into extinction by shotgun-wielding government agents. And while few locals will shed a tear for the spiky creatures which are not native to the isles, animal rights activists are doing all they can to spare as many lives as possible.

The problem began in the 1970s when a gardener introduced the animals to control slugs on his land. Within 30 years 5,000 had colonised the three-island Hebridean archipelago of North and South Uist and Benbecula.

So when environmental watchdogs realised the mammals were playing havoc with the fragile ecosystem by threatening the local population of wading birds, it was decided there could be only one solution - hedgehog genocide.

The operation is led by Scottish Natural Heritage, which claims the invaders threaten dunlin by eating their eggs. On North Uist the final, most grisly, phase is due to begin next Monday. Hundreds of the animals have already been poisoned or gassed, but anti-hunt legislation means the few remaining will have to be flushed out with dogs and gunned down.

That has brought a furious response from animal rights activists. Over the past few years, Uist Hedgehog Rescue has been airlifting animals to sanctuaries on the mainland, offering islanders £5 each for them. As strategies go it was inspired - hundreds of hedgehogs have been rescued. Not that the people of the Western Isles are particularly renowned for having a softly, softly approach to wildlife. No, they're just a canny bunch.

During the Second World War, when a ship carrying bottles of whisky ran aground islanders slowly sneaked the precious cargo ashore. The escapade found fame in the novel Whisky Galore, which was subsequently filmed.

Most islanders now back the plan to get rid of the hedgehogs. "It's a difficult situation, but they have to go," said James McLetchie, who runs wildlife tours around the islands. "The birds are in danger if the hedgehogs are not removed."

Meanwhile, celebrities such as Sir Paul McCartney, Twiggy and Sting have backed the rescue mission and offered to house refugee animals.

Ross Minett of Uist Hedgehog Rescue promised the group would do everything it could to save the remaining hedgehogs: "There is a simple, ethical and humane solution, which is to move the animals to the mainland."

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