Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: More badgers and fewer hedgehogs. Coincidence? I don't think so

A badger's powerful front claws can uncurl the hedghog's tight ball of spines

A A A

In the wild, animal numbers naturally fluctuate. The marsh fritillary butterfly, for example, can virtually vanish from some of its colonies in certain years, only to be present two or three years later in numbers that are overwhelming (this is caused by cycles of parasite infestation, and something similar happens with red grouse).

Generally, though, animal numbers have evolved to be in balance, both with their food supply and with other species. Predators cannot eat all the prey, as they themselves would die out. So when an event comes along which disturbs this balance, it's worth examining. One such is the steep decline of one of our best-loved mammals, the hedgehog.

In the past 20 years or so, hedgehogs have disappeared from much of Britain. This has not really registered yet in the public consciousness, but it is an astounding phenomenon. There were an estimated 30 million hedgehogs in Britain in the 1950s, but by the 1990s this was thought to be down to about 1.5 million, and recently the rate of decline has grown even steeper. Last year, the first authoritative report on the problem said that "at a conservative estimate a quarter of the [remaining] population has been lost in the last 10 years".

A number of reasons are put forward. One is intensive farming, with the loss of hedgerows and the increase in pesticides, depriving hedgehogs of their prey of slugs and insects. Another is increased vehicle numbers leading to increased roadkill, and a third is urban development, with tidier gardens and better fences meaning urban populations of hedgehogs cannot move about, become fragmented and die out.

But there is a fourth potential reason: badgers. Badgers are the hedgehog's only British predator – their powerful front claws can uncurl the hedgehog's tight defensive ball of spines – and in recent decades their numbers have increased enormously, almost certainly because of the warmer winters brought about by climate change. Badgers eat hedgehogs readily, and hedgehogs are terrified of them. Yet there seems to be considerable nervousness in some circles about making the link between the former increasing, and the latter disappearing. Indeed, it is actively played down.

You can understand why. The badger is under fierce assault from farmers as the carrier of the cattle TB virus, and the Government is contemplating large-scale culls. Anything that might contribute to the further demonisation of Mr Brock (as it were) will be stoutly resisted by the badger's friends, of whom there are many.

Yet my own impression – not worth a row of beans, scientifically, of course – is that the link is obvious and direct, and I take this from my experience of my local patch, as birders would say, which happens to be the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (I live around the corner). Kew used to have plenty of hedgehogs in its 300 acres, snuffling across its lawns; now it has none at all – none whatsoever – although it is an absolutely ideal hedgehog site. On the other hand, it has a thriving badger population, which arrived in the mid-1980s and now numbers between 50 and 75 animals.

The man who knows Kew's grounds better than anyone, Tony Kirkham, the Head of the Arboretum, remembers the first badgers about 1985-86; and he also remembers the last time he saw a hedgehog in Kew ("about 15 years ago, it would be").

Say what you like: one animal has come, the other has gone. I can't see a way round it. In terms of our startling hedgehog disappearance, badgers seems to be The Cause That Dare Not Speak Its Name. I think we should admit it, for then we can think hard about it and think about possible ways of mitigating the problem; and I also think it is better to look the truth in the face in dealing with Nature, as with everything else.

How to help our hedgehogs

If you want to help our troubled hedgehogs, you could take part in a new study to determine whether climate change is having an impact on when they emerge from hibernation, and how this might be affecting their survival.

The People's Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS) are appealing for volunteers to join in their hedgehog hibernation survey, looking at when the animals emerge from their long winter sleep under compost heaps or piles of leaves.

The point is, that this date may have shifted in recent decades, because of warmer winters brought about by climate change, and this may be potentially harmful – for example, if the animals are emerging earlier, but are then hit by sudden cold snaps.

The two charities are asking members of the public to record their sightings of hedgehogs as they start to emerge in spring. The survey starts on 1 February, running through till August, and can be completed online. If you're interested in taking part, sign up for the survey before 1 February at www.hedgehogstreet.org.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
The 67P/CG comet as seen from the Philae lander
scienceThe most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
film
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Koenig, creator of popular podcast Serial, which is to be broadcast by the BBC
tvReview: The secret to the programme's success is that it allows its audience to play detective
News
Ruby Wax has previously written about her mental health problems in her book Sane New World
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m