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Hedgehogs, gardens and general conservation in the urban environment

By JW Dowey - 13 Aug 2013 7:44:0 GMT
Hedgehogs, gardens and general conservation in the urban environment

With little forest cover, or hedges, the garden is the place to be, it seems for hedgehogs, or rather a sequence of connected gardens with ample food, cover and hibernation sites; Hedgehog image Credit:Shutterstock

Known throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, the unique hedgehog group of species are so admired, they have become a pest. In places such as the Hebrides or New Zealand, people have assumed they would not upset the local food web. The species are little known, rather like their relative, the moonrat, Echinosorex gymnura, which is an amazing discovery when we see it as an unusual pet or zoo exhibit. From the long-eared to the white-fronted, these species should all be kept in the wild, knowing how useful they can be within even the simple garden ecosystem.

The Erinaceus europaeus of the UK and NW Europe is in trouble in heavily urbanised environments such as most of the English countryside. Road kill and badger predation can sometimes cause an extreme population collapse, it seems. We really need to study more on how our insects and their predators can be better-conserved, in order to maintain populations higher up the food chain. While populations in Africa and Eastern Europe/Asia see to have developed niches that have yet to be affected, the standard hedgehog seems unable to cope with the replacement of its grassy meadows with fenced-off gardens. It's possible the Romanian hedgehog or a similar species might have strategies that help it to survive, just as the non-curling hedgehog was once thought to escape traffic. The deviation on the tiny island of Alderney is a white-spined variety (not albino, apparently), who take up a thousand of the island population, according to some reports. Scientifically, this is a superb example of the island founder-effect on the genetics of a species.

The solution to the hedgehog conservation dilemma could be connected to those people who have adopted one as a true pet, those who look after them when they are injured, and those who encourage them to breed in the safety of a garden shelter, or even a "hedgehog house." The British population (or at least 42% of respondents) have just voted their favourite wild species not as the regal lion or the much-loved badger, not the fabulous eagle species or the much-conserved butterflies, but the unassuming hedgehog. So in one country at least, there does seem to be the will to conserve. Just how cute is the hedgehog though? Holding it is almost impossible because of the long prickles, feeding has to be done carefully because of its lactose intolerance and it rarely survives long enough to return to a garden over a long period of years.

Overall, the species elsewhere could be expected in the future to have similar traffic and urbanisation problems as the European. In America, the pygmy hedgehog, Atelerix albiventris, is a pampered pet, as there have been no native species at all since the Eocene! The ultimate solution in Europe would be reserves where the creature would have few badgers, no roads at all and plentiful natural European hedges or grassland to which it could adapt.

If that is impossible, the conservationist's standard response to every such situation is to keep open gaps that function as safe passageways for movement. European gardens have become too secure for the smaller animal who cannot penetrate if there is no hole or no open gate. Beware rodents, but let's face it, they are very successful at managing our sewers and water infrastructure already.

If they are allowed easy access to a garden, I doubt if it will be a life-changing experience for them. But it will be for the solitary hedgehog, who needs to snuffle around and find others of the same species, to breed. Good luck to them but many factors seem to be reducing their populations in crowded countries over the past few decades.