Campaign wins reprieve for Uist hedgehogs

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The Independent Online

A five-year battle between conservationists and animal welfare campaigners over the fate of hedgehogs in the Western Isles of Scotland is expected to come to an end today.

Hundreds of thousands of pounds have been spent on culling the animals, which have devastated the populations of ground-nesting birds in the islands by eating their eggs.

However, just weeks before a fresh round of culls was due to begin in the spring, evidence has emerged that transporting the animals to the mainland rather than killing them may not be as harmful as first feared.

Hedgehogs are not native to the islands. They were introduced in the 1970s by a gardener who wanted to control slugs but, without any natural predators, the population exploded to more than 5,000 as the hedgehogs spread throughout South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist unchecked.

Feasting on the eggs of rare wading birds and other ground-nesting species that use the Western Isles as a breeding ground, the hedgehogs thrived, prompting Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to order a cull.

It was feared that relocating the animals to the mainland would be so stressful for them that they would die, so experts decided on a humane cull to solve the problem. The Uist Wader project was launched in 2002.

However, their decision upset animal welfare campaigners. A coalition of campaigners, Uist Hedgehog Rescue (UHR), was set up to snatch the hedgehogs from under the noses of exterminators and transport them to the mainland.

Now it appears a truce is about to be reached after new research by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society has found that the island hedgehogs will survive if relocated.

The study, which was undertaken by ecologist Hugh Warwick and published last month in the scientific journal Lutra, showed that 80 per cent of animals relocated to the mainland survived when deaths unrelated to relocation were discounted.

Another study published last year, conducted by Professor Stephen Harris from Bristol University, also said hedgehogs could be relocated successfully.

As a result the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has withdrawn its support for the culling of hedgehogs in the Uists, prompting the other organisations behind the project, SNH, RSPB Scotland and the Scottish Executive, to consider a complete halt when the SNH board meets today in Inverness.

"We welcome the Scottish SPCA's change of policy," Ross Minett, the director of Advocates for Animals and a leading voice in UHR, said. "We are hopeful that SNH's board will ... agree to end the cull in favour of translocation.

"We believe that scientific research and decades of practical experience have shown that translocation is the humane and ethical solution to this problem. We have already relocated hundreds of hedgehogs from the islands to the mainland."

Susan Davies, the SNH director of strategy and operations north, said yesterday: "We thank the Scottish SPCA for advising us of their change in view on the animal welfare implications of the translocation of hedgehogs. We would like to discuss this further with them. We will be taking a paper to our board for a decision on how we go forward with the Uist Wader project."