Hedgehogs galore!

The fate of 5,000 hedgehogs on the Western Isles hangs in the balance. They're a menace to local birds and it seems that culling is the only answer. But animal-lovers are up in arms. Paul Kelbie reports on the race to rescue Mrs Tiggy-Winkle

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This week, a strange scene will be played out on a group of remote Scottish islands. Armed with cardboard boxes and tins of dog food, a crew of rescuers from the mainland will be braving the elements in a race to save the lives of a few thousand spiky-but-cute little animals condemned to death. Dressed in their distinctive uniforms of waterproof coats, fleecy jumpers (several layers), woolly hats, wellies and rubber gloves, animal-rights activists will brave the gale-force winds and horizontal rain to launch one of the biggest mercy missions ever seen on British soil.

This week, a strange scene will be played out on a group of remote Scottish islands. Armed with cardboard boxes and tins of dog food, a crew of rescuers from the mainland will be braving the elements in a race to save the lives of a few thousand spiky-but-cute little animals condemned to death. Dressed in their distinctive uniforms of waterproof coats, fleecy jumpers (several layers), woolly hats, wellies and rubber gloves, animal-rights activists will brave the gale-force winds and horizontal rain to launch one of the biggest mercy missions ever seen on British soil.

It would make a touching Spielberg film. But add some real-life touches – political interference, allegations of broken promises, fear of violence, in-fighting among the rescuers and rumours of bribery among the inhabitants – and the scene is set for a classic British comedy: Local Hero meets Whisky Galore!. And in the best Ealing traditions, the chain of events that travelled around the world was started by a bureaucratic decision – to save the lives of one life form by wiping out another.

Once there were no hedgehogs on these islands; just birds. The windswept, waterlogged flatlands of South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist in the Western Isles of Scotland are home to many important colonies of birds. Dunlin, corncrake, lapwing, skylark, redshank, snipe and scores of other ground-nesting birds have thrived on these islands for generations.

But then, in 1974, a keen gardener on South Uist imported four hedgehogs to control the slug population on his allotment. Almost 30 years later, the four loveable immigrants have become a horde of 5,000 voracious predators, spreading across the islands at an alarming rate, eating anything and everything in their path. With no fleas to suck their blood, no badgers to eat them and few cars to squash them flat on the islands' single-track roads, the animals found themselves in hog heaven.

Gradually, they pushed north from South Uist, across the causeways and sand-dunes exposed at low tide, to invade Benbecula and then North Uist. Along the west coast of the islands, the flat prairie-like pastures of the unique machair land created an ideal wilderness, bordered by coarse, tufted grasslands – perfect for hibernating. Each year hundreds of thousands of birds nest on the ground there – and their eggs are a tasty smorgasbord of temptation for the hedgehogs.

For Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the problem has now become acute. All the islands, including several uncolonised offshore isles such as Baleshare, Kirki- bost and Berneray, which are linked by causeways and tidal flats over which the hedgehogs are able to swim, have now become targets. And the SNH is obliged by European law to protect the local populations of wading birds from the egg-scavenging animals.

And they have tried. First, they attempted to fence off the hedgehogs from the most important breeding grounds, only to find that rabbits were tunnelling under the barricades and the wily hedgehogs were using the holes as a highway to paradise.

"We even had suggestions of bringing in a predator for the hedgehogs, but that's akin to following the 'old woman who swallowed a fly' plan of action and could potentially create an even bigger problem," said George Anderson of the SNH. "People have suggested using the same kind of contraception that is being tried out on bush kangaroos, but that would take years before it worked. The problem is critical now. All our scientific evidence suggests that the most humane way to deal with the problem is to have an organised cull by trained staff."

Unfortunately, in announcing their intention to kill up to 5,000 hedgehogs by lethal injection, the conservationists of SNH seriously miscalculated the Beatrix Potter factor. The children's author, who is to hedgehogs what Max Clifford is to any celebrity facing a tabloid exposé, died in 1943, but she left to the nation a sentimental identification of every hedgehog with Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, the fussy domestic superwoman whose tale was published in 1905.

Nearly a century later, hedgehog fans erupted at the news of the proposed cull. SNH were castigated as "evil", "vicious" and "murderers". Letters of protest flowed in from across the UK, and from as far away as North America and New Zealand. The Oscar-winning lyricist Sir Tim Rice, a member of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS), joined the fray by offering sanctuary to about 200 of the beasts on his 33,000-acre Dundonnell estate in Wester Ross. The Duchess of Hamilton, a renowned animal-welfare campaigner, offered a home to 160 on her two East Lothian estates, and the musician Ian Anderson, the former lead singer of Jethro Tull, also agreed to save some hapless hogs.

A coalition of animal-welfare groups, including the Mammal Society, the St Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital, the BHPS, International Animal Rescue and Advocates for Animals, threatened legal action and launched an appeal to rescue the hedgehogs, raising more than £80,000. So, in a bid to stave off criticism, SNH agreed to re-examine their plan. But, after several months investigating other ways to control the population, it again approved a cull. On three occasions, the animal rescuers appealed to the Scottish Parliament to intervene but failed to stop the plans. At one point SNH discussed with the animal-welfare groups the feasibility of relocating the Uist hedgehogs en masse, but negotiations collapsed after SNH refused to co-operate with any rescue, saying that the hedgehogs would probably die in their new homes. "We will not stand in the way of this effort to 'save' them from the cull," said Dr Jeff Watson of SNH, "but in our opinion they will be saving a significant proportion of these animals from a quick painless death and condemning them to a slow one."

So, for the past week, both sides have been massing their troops. SNH have been training new recruits to hunt down the hedgehogs at night with torches, a process known as "lamping". Brandishing a long steel cage, more usually used to capture mink on the islands, an SNH spokesman showed recruits how to use pieces of rotting fish to lure the hedgehogs into a trap. Any squeamishness was quelled with the promise that, before being given a lethal injection at a designated "holding centre" – the whereabouts of which is a closely-guarded secret for fear of attacks – the hedgehogs will be anaesthetised, using a gas, to prevent undue stress. "They won't feel a thing," the spokesman promised. Let's hope not – the cull, which will go on until 23 May, began last night.

At the same time, a coalition force of hog-rescuers have been arriving on the islands under the banner of Uist Hedgehog Rescue (UHR), on a mission to capture as many of the animals as possible before they are culled. So far, their success has been less than overwhelming: in eight days, they have saved a grand total of 19 hedgehogs.

They began by dropping leaflets through the door of every house on the island, calling on local residents to surrender their hedgehogs – with the promise of a £5 reward for every one handed in – rather than let them fall into the hands of the SNH hunters. Despite criticisms that the bounty was "treating these animals as lemonade bottles being cashed in for money", they had their first response within 24 hours – from a young lad looking to supplement his pocket money. He handed in a hedgehog found in his garden. By last Friday, just four others had been picked up by the rescuers: one was found injured after getting tangled in a fence, and three others were grabbed as they waited to cross the road.

The St Tiggywinkles equivalent of a M*A*S*H (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit consists of a tired-looking caravan and a mobile clinic, plonked down in the middle of wind-battered Benbecula. The caravan is the operational nerve-centre of UHR, continuously staffed, in a fug of cigarette smoke, by four volunteers with eyes and ears trained on the telephone. They're waiting to hear from locals, ready to swing into action if anyone spots a hedgehog. "We're hoping that local people will know exactly where to look and will be able to help us to find and collect as many hedgehogs as possible before SNH can get a chance to kill them," said Ross Minet of Advocates for Animals. "In a civilised society, killing these animals is totally unacceptable when we can easily remove them from the islands and relocate them elsewhere. It was humans who disrupted the ecological balance of the Uists in the first place, and it is up to humans to find an effective and non-lethal solution to the present situation. Between us we have a wealth of expertise available in saving hedgehogs and releasing them into suitable habitats all over Britain. Claims by SNH that more than 40 per cent of rescued hedgehogs will die from starvation are wrong."

The clinic next door is equipped with operating table, surgical instruments, anaesthetic gases and beds for up to 100 hedgehogs, while 500 tins of dog food lie waiting for the expected flood of arrivals. Here is everything that the two trained veterinary nurses could possibly need – except electricity or lights. When I visited the rescue operation, they were still awaiting connection to the national grid.

"Once we have about 14 hedgehogs, we'll be able to get them flown off the island to a holding centre near Glasgow, from where they will be sent to a number of smaller animal shelters around the country and released into suitable areas," said Lisa Frost, one of the veterinary nurses, as she surveyed the rows of empty beds and a pile of unopened cardboard Port-A-Pet boxes. "We've had a lot of calls from people wanting to help and promising to keep a look-out for us. It shouldn't take long before word gets around that we've started collecting, and we will get more animals brought into us," she said, with some hope. However, not all the islanders are as helpful as the rescuers would like. Last week a public meeting was held on the islands to inform residents of the rescuers' operational plans. Only seven people showed up.

"The locals here have far more things to do than go hunting for hedgehogs," said one resident, who was clear that he had no intention of letting anybody go traipsing over his land. "The birds are far more important to the islands. They bring in tourists. And tourists spend money."

But that may all be about to change. The plight of the Uist hedgehogs has given the islands the kind of publicity that money can't buy. The New York Times has sent a reporter to cover the story, The New Zealand Herald has carried news of the rescue attempt, and television crews from around the world have been filming the islands and their unwanted animals. And another team of rescuers has now appeared on the scene. Sue Rothwell and her husband Tim Green, who have lived on the island for 11 years, used to run the Uist Animal Centre, home to Britain's biggest colony of captive Scottish wild cats. It's now been renamed Hebridean Hedgehog Rescue and will soon be home to Hebridean Hedgehog Safaris, offering tourists the chance to see the animals up close and personal.

Rothwell and her partner have so far rescued about 40 hedgehogs and claim to have sent the animals to secret locations in Strathclyde, Cumbria and Yorkshire. They also say that negotiations are under way to send a prickle (which is apparently the collective noun for hedgehogs) to Notting Hill in London.

"When this started, the animal-welfare groups were full of promises about how they would help us to set up a proper, lasting refuge for the islands," said Rothwell. "But in truth, I don't think this campaign has been as successful in raising money for them as they hoped. They finally fell out with us after we refused to let them use our place to put up any animal-rights activists who wanted to help in the rescue. We live on a hunting and fishing estate. We're country people who keep wild animals in what they might consider cages. We couldn't take the risk."

For its part, Uist Hedgehog Rescue insists that the reason it changed its plans to house volunteers at Rothwell's centre was because it discovered pictures of terriers with killed rabbits and foxes on a website operated by Rothwell (who is also a director and registrar of the Plummer Terrier Club of Great Britain). The feud reached new heights when UHR, eager to launch its rescue mission in a flurry of publicity, attempted to borrow one of Rothwell's hedgehogs for photographs. Rothwell refused to oblige. "If they want to rescue hedgehogs they can do it on their own," she said. "And they're not going to find it as easy as they think. I've been here a long time and people have been bringing me animals for years. Setting up a telephone in a caravan and offering locals a fiver isn't going to make a lot of difference."

Undeterred, the UHR rescuers were planning to step up their mission last night, when the hunters of the SNH began lamping the fields for hedgehogs. "We can spot where they are a mile off, and we plan to follow them," said one activist. "We're not allowed to use lights because you need a special licence to hunt at night, but there's nothing to stop us trying to grab the animals they pick up in the beams of their torches."

This tactic has not escaped the officials at SNH, who, concerned for the safety of their staff, had warned police about these plans and were prepared for battle. So, for the next few weeks at least, these night-time fields will play host to a scene straight out of a European fairy tale – a line of stabbing torchlights in the dark, treeless, malt-coloured Scottish landscape, a platoon of humans with cardboard boxes and sneaky dog-food bait trying to spot fleeing hedgehogs, and a second platoon of frozen guerrillas trying equally hard to seize the animals and bear them away in triumph.

Mrs Tiggy-Winkle would surely wipe her granny-spectacles in astonishment.

Uist Hedgehog Rescue: 0771 340 3099

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