Britain's badgers, already faced with the prospect of extermination across vast swaths of the country for allegedly spreading tuberculosis among cattle, are now being linked to a decline in another species, hedgehogs.
Hedgehog populations are in free fall across much of Britain, plummeting by as much as 50 per cent in East Anglia and 20 per cent across the country as a whole. While Old Brock and Mrs Tiggywinkle have co-existed in reality as well as rural legend for thousands of years, sharing a common diet of earthworms and slugs, badgers are known to prey on hedgehogs.
Research carried out by Government scientists and flagged up by farmers pressing for the badger cull found a direct link between areas where large numbers of badgers were spotted and those where few hedgehogs were seen foraging in the open.
The implication, according to the National Farmers' Union (NFU), was that soaring badger populations might be responsible for the hedgehogs' decline. The suggestion prompted an angry response from wildlife groups who claim that badgers are being unfairly blamed yet again for the ills of the countryside and the consequences of intensive farming techniques.
The controversy surrounds a study by the Central Science Laboratory which sought to establish wild mammal population densities on farms and semi-rural areas in Cornwall, Devon, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire - places worst affected by bovine TB. It shed what it claimed was unexpected light on the relationship between the two animals.
The study found that hedgehogs were overwhelmingly more likely to be observed on grassland close to towns and villages rather than on pasture where badgers were now as common as foxes. It concluded: "Relatively high densities of hedgehogs occurred almost exclusively in areas with relatively low badger encounter rates."
The results were seized on by the NFU which is seeking to persuade the Department of Food Environment and Rural Affairs to order a cull. The NFU blames badgers for the devastating epidemic of TB among dairy herds in the South-west. More than 30,000 cattle suspected of having contracted the disease have been slaughtered in the past 12 months .
Meurig Raymond, deputy president of the NFU, said: "The badger is clearly thriving across large parts of the west of the country. A targeted cull aimed at diseased social groups would make very little difference to numbers overall, and surely it would be in the interests of badgers to have a healthy badger population along with avoiding the spread of bovine TB from badgers to cattle and other wildlife."
But despite a consultation process that ended more than a year ago, Defra has yet to decide whether to yield to pressure and order a cull. One of the reasons is a £34m culling trial which found that far from reducing the overall incidence of TB in cattle, killing badgers actually led to a rise in the disease on the edge of the culled areas.
It also faces opposition from the RSPCA, the Badger Trust, the Mammal Society, the National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts and the Woodland Trust.
Trevor Lawson, of the Badger Trust, said attempts to blame badgers smacked of desperation. "The NFU is clutching at straws." Hugh Warwick of the Hedgehog Preservation Society said habitat loss and intensive farming was far more likely to be the reason for the fall in hedgehog numbers. "Badgers and hedgehogs have lived together quite happily for a very long time," he said. "Intensive farming tries to simplify these things and ecology isn't simple."Reuse content