Suburban Britain roused in defence of 5,000 hedgehogs

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The Independent Online

On the face of it the problem seemed simple – a land without hedgehogs for hedgehogs without a land. And this week the lawn mower-wielding classes have been up in arms in support of the cause.

On the face of it the problem seemed simple – a land without hedgehogs for hedgehogs without a land. And this week the lawn mower-wielding classes have been up in arms in support of the cause.

The target of their ire has been three windswept islands in the Outer Hebrides where the lives of 5,000 hedgehogs are on the line for eating the eggs of important sea birds.

Conscious that the much loved mammals are the perfect environmentally sound response to the slug epidemic south of the border, middle England quickly mobilised.

Questions were asked in the House of Lords, newspapers and radio stations flooded with calls and animal charities harangued to offer suburbanites the chance to own a hedgehog.

In the face of such opposition, it didn't take long for Scottish Natural Heritage to stay the order of execution facing the prickly inhabitants of North and South Uist and Benbecula. Yesterday animal welfare groups and animal rescue activists began forming plans for a rescue operation.

SNH, which is legally obliged to protect the birds, maintains that the dunlin, lapwing, redshank and snipe populations can only be saved from hedgehogs – whose numbers have soared since they were introduced to the Western Isles in 1974 – by the cull.

The British Hedgehog Conservation Society, the world famous St Tiggywinkles animal rescue centre, and more than 100 other animal welfare groups have gone into battle against SNH.

"Hedgehogs are popular, lovable animals," said Jan Edwards, co-founder of the National Animal Sanctuary Alliance. "Many people have already offered to go up there, take them off the island and look after them in their gardens at home. While it is clear that these animals do not belong there and should never have been introduced to the islands in the first place, they should at least be given a chance."

In an important breakthrough, SNH announced yesterday that it was issuing an invitation to the conservation and welfare groups to discuss alternatives. "There are a number of legal, logistical and animal welfare problems which need to be resolved before any attempt can be made to move the animals to the mainland, if that is what is decided," said SNH spokesman Callum McFarlane. "It is highly unlikely that the consultation period will be less than about 18 months."

Although aware that their outcry may have won the battle, several mainland animal welfare groups are forging ahead with plans to make sure they win the war.

"We have an army of volunteers willing to travel to the islands to pick up the animals and transport them back to the mainland," Les Stocker of St Tiggywinkles said.

"There is no way we will allow the hedgehogs to be culled. We have the expertise in dealing with projects like this as we are regularly involved in wildlife clean-up operations.

"Hedgehogs are probably one of the easiest species to relocate and when the time comes we are prepared to relocate many of them to the south of England where the climate and habitat are ideal."

There have already been calls in the House of Lords for the hedgehogs to be transported to the south of England as a pest control method against snails and slugs.

On Uist, the island's Animal Visitors' Centre is in talks with St Tiggywinkles to use their facilities as a "distribution centre". "We could probably house all 5,000 if they could catch them all," the owner, Susan Rothwell, said. "We have got the capabilities and the facilities."

Next week, an official from St Tiggywinkles will travel to Uist to inspect the premises as part of a plan that could see the hedgehogs rounded up and held at the centre until a mass air or sea evacuation can be arranged.