Hedgehogs now found in just one fifth of rural areas as numbers plummet, study reveals

‘Considering they are a generalist species we would expect to find them in more sites’

Harry Cockburn
Thursday 13 September 2018 11:24 BST
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Hedgehogs in rural areas face worsening conditions in summer and winter due to climate change
Hedgehogs in rural areas face worsening conditions in summer and winter due to climate change

Hedgehog numbers have plummeted across rural areas, and they face potentially “catastrophic” future conditions, a new study reveals.

Following estimates earlier this year that numbers had collapsed by as much as 97 per cent since the 1950s, the latest data indicates hedgehogs are suffering more in the countryside than in urban areas.

The research, led by a team at Reading University, and published in the journal Nature, reveals between 2014 and 2015 hedgehogs were only present at 55 of 261 sites across England and Wales.

The findings indicate much of the country may already be uninhabited by the animals.

Researchers said intensification in agriculture and a changing climate were likely to be key reasons for the trend which appears to be driving hedgehogs into towns and cities.

Nida Al-Fulaij of the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, which co-funded the research, told The Independent: “It was the first large-scale systematic survey of its kind across the countryside, and the worrying finding was that hedgehogs were only present at 21 per cent of the sites.

“Considering they are a generalist species and are pretty ubiquitous, we would expect to find them in more sites.”

Ben Williams, who led the research told The Independent: “I would have expected it to have been at least 60 per cent or higher.

“It’s not a good situation at all, and what’s alarming about that is that hedgehogs are insectivores and can adapt their diets to food availability. So if they’re declining then there’s a good probability lots of other species are declining which we can’t monitor quite so easily.”

Speaking about recent research indicating a major decline in flying insects measured in Europe, Ms Al-Fulaij said: “The implications could be catastrophic.”

The research also examined the impact increasing numbers of badgers in some areas had on hedgehog populations. Badgers do not usually prey on hedgehogs unless other sources of food become rare.

“Even if we eradicated badgers, as some people are saying could bolster the hedgehog population, then the occupancy of hedgehogs would only rise to about 31 per cent,” Mr Williams said. “So there’s clearly something else that’s going on in the wider habitat.”

Modern farming practices and an increasingly volatile climate have already been seen to have an impact on hedgehogs. Soils compacted over years due to heavy farming machinery change the environment for worms – an important food source for badgers – and during hot summers, when the earth is hard and dry, badgers struggle to access worms, instead preying on hedgehogs.

In conjunction with the large scale winter floods the UK has seen in recent years, the species faces difficulties in both summer and winter.

“Pastoral species which live on the ground and hibernate during winter often don’t wake up in time to escape these floods,” Mr Williams said. “So there can be massive impacts, potentially wiping out large areas of hedgehog populations. With low occupancy throughout the countryside they are not going to be able to repopulate the habitat once it becomes suitable again.”

He added: “Hedgehogs are certainly going to become a rarity more than a normal sighting. Particularly in the countryside.”

The research was funded by the People's Trust for Endangered Species and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.

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