New research throws light on factors associated with the decline of Britain’s hedgehogs

Results from the first systematic survey of rural hedgehog populations in England and Wales using footprint tracking tunnels has been published in Scientific Reports.

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Hedgehogs were only present at 21% of all the sites surveyed

The research, titled ‘Reduced occupancy of hedgehogs in rural England and Wales: the influence of habitat and an asymmetric intra-guild predator’,investigates the effects of the availability of key habitat types and badger (Meles meles) sett density on native hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus). The results show that while badger sett density is negatively correlated with hedgehog presence, there was evidence of both species co-existing and hedgehogs being positively associated with built habitat (e.g. houses). More worryingly, both hedgehogs and badger setts were not recorded at many of the sites surveyed, suggesting there is a much wider land management issue in our countryside affecting both species.

The research, led by Nottingham Trent University and the University of Reading, and funded by the People's Trust for Endangered Species and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, surveyed 261 rural sites covering all habitat types (7 land classes from arable farmland to upland sites) across England and Wales between 2014 and 2015 (18 sites in Wales, 243 in England) using footprint tracking tunnels. Many sites were surveyed by volunteers.

Ben Williams, PhD student from the University of Reading, the primary author of this paper, explains: "We found that although hedgehogs were generally widely distributed across England and Wales, they were actually found at a worryingly low number (21%) of sites. We also found that hedgehogs were absent from 71% of sites that did not have badger setts either, indicating that both hedgehogs and badgers may be absent from large portions of rural England and Wales."

“We found hedgehogs at 55 sites. We also found that badger setts were present at 49% of these sites, demonstrating that badgers and hedgehogs can, and do, coexist, as was the case historically for thousands of years prior to the recent decline in hedgehog numbers. However, perhaps more importantly our results indicate that a large proportion of rural England and Wales is potentially unsuitable for both hedgehogs and badgers to live in. Given the similarity in diets of the two species, one explanation for this could be the reduced availability of macro-invertebrate prey (such as earthworms) which both species need to feed on to survive. This could be as a result of agricultural intensification and climate change.”

While the results don’t dispute that high numbers of badgers in some places do have a negative impact on the presence of hedgehogs, crucially, neither hedgehogs nor badger setts were present at 70 sites (27%), meaning that at over a quarter of the study sites the landscape was apparently unsuitable for either species. This would imply a wider landscape management issue affecting both species, rather than a single factor being the cause of the well-documented hedgehog decline.

Nida Al-Fulaij, Grants Manager at PTES expands: “Badgers are what’s known as ‘intra-guild predators’, meaning they predate hedgehogs but also compete with them for food resources. This naturally makes their relationship complex, which we already knew, but until now we didn’t realise the extent to which changes in the landscape were affecting both species”.

Ben further elaborates: “The results also indicate that hedgehogs may be using areas of human habitation as a sort of “refuge habitat”. This was evident across all scales (from small villages to cities), becoming more pronounced with greater urbanisation. Residential gardens potentially offer a number of advantages for hedgehogs and enable them to escape some of the problems associated with the rural landscape. Therefore, houses, villages and towns bordering more rural landscapes are important areas for hedgehogs and may become increasingly so if we continue to see the rate of declines we are currently witnessing in rural Britain.”

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    On publication, you can read the paper in full here: http://nature.com/articles/doi:10.1038/10.1038/s41598-018-30130-4

    About Hedgehogs

    • In response to these findings, PTES is now funding a new PhD study based at Nottingham Trent University. This research will aim to determine what habitat features enable these two species to co-exist in rural areas in order to advise landowners and farmers how to best manage their land to support both species.
    • This research was conducted by Nottingham Trent University and the University of Reading, in collaboration with People’s Trust for Endangered Species and the Animal and Plant Health Agency.
    • BHPS and PTES have produced (July 2018) a Farmers Advice Booklet, offering advice to farmers and other land managers on how they can help hedgehogs and other wildlife.  To get a free copy email: hedgehog@ptes.org. Alternatively, you can download a PDF online at: www.hedgehogstreet.org/farmersadvice.
    • The State of Britain’s Hedgehogs 2018, published in February 2018, is the only comprehensive review of the status of Britain’s hedgehogs. This report revealed that hedgehogs in rural areas are in severe decline, with their numbers plummeting by half since the millennium. The report showed a more positive outlook for hedgehogs in our towns and cities: although the species has declined by a third in urban areas since 2000, the rate of decline is slowing. Hedgehogs are not disappearing from urban green spaces as rapidly as they were fifteen years ago and might even be returning. Where they are found, numbers too, appear to be growing in some places.
    • In 2015, PTES and BHPS launched a 10-year species conservation strategy at the first UK summit on hedgehogs in a decade.
    • A range of academic research projects, funded by PTES and BHPS, also aim to further scientific understanding about the causes for the decline in hedgehog numbers and most importantly what can be done to reverse this threat to this iconic species.
    • The reasons for the decline in UK hedgehog numbers are complex but are thought to be associated with the loss of hedgerows and permanent grasslands; the intensification of agriculture and larger field sizes; and the use of pesticides which reduce the amount of prey available.  Urban and suburban areas are becoming increasingly important for hedgehogs, but the move towards tidy, sterile gardens isolated from one another by impermeable boundaries has also contributed to their demise.
    • The hedgehog was voted as Britain’s National Species in a 2013 BBC Wildlife poll and Britain’s Favourite Mammal in the 2016 Royal Society of Biology poll.

    About Hedgehog Street

    • Wildlife charities BHPS and PTES launched Hedgehog Street in June 2011 to encourage hedgehog conservation action at a local community or neighbourhood level.  Over 50,000 volunteer "Hedgehog Champions" up and down the country have registered to help to date and the campaign is ongoing, but we still need your help to make a difference.
    • The two charities produced a Farmers Advice Booklet in July 2018, offering advice to farmers and other land managers on how they can help hedgehogs and other wildlife. To get a free copy email: hedgehog@ptes.org or download a PDF from: www.hedgehogstreet.org/farmersadvice
    • The charities’ Hedgehog Street gardenwon Gold at the 2014 RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show and People’s Choice Award in the summer garden category.
    • Hedgehog Street is working with The Rt Hon Chris Grayling, MP for Epsom & Ewell and Secretary of State of Transport who is the Species Champion for the UK’s native hedgehog.
    • Visit www.hedgehogstreet.org for more information.

    About BHPS

    • BHPS is a UK charity founded in 1982 dedicated to helping & protecting hedgehogs native to the UK.  They run a helpline offering advice on caring for & encouraging hedgehogs in the wild and in gardens. They aim to educate the public on how best to help hedgehogs and fund research into the behavioural habits of hedgehogs to ascertain the best methods of assisting their survival.
    • Visit www.britishhedgehogs.org.uk for more information, or follow BHPS on Facebook (www.facebook.com/hedgehogsociety) or Twitter (@hedgehogsociety)

    About PTES

    • PTES, a UK conservation charity created in 1977, is ensuring a future for endangered species throughout the world. We protect some of our most threatened wildlife species and habitats, and provide practical conservation support through research, grant-aid, educational programmes, wildlife surveys, publications and public events.
    • Our current priority species and habitats include hazel dormice, hedgehogs, water voles, noble chafers, stag beetles, traditional orchards, native woodlands, wood pasture and parkland and hedgerows.
    • PTES has Species Champions for two of its priority species: The Rt Hon Chris Grayling, MP for Epsom & Ewell and Secretary of State of Transport for the UK’s native hedgehog, and The Rt Hon Hilary Benn, MP for Leeds Central and Chair of the Brexit Select Committee for the UK’s native water vole.
    • If you want to support PTES’ ongoing conservation work, you can donate £3 by texting ‘PTES18 £3’ to 70070.
    • Visit www.ptes.org and follow PTES on Facebook (www.facebook.com/ptes), Twitter (@PTES) and Instagram (ptes_org)

    About the University of Reading

    • The University of Reading’s School of Biological Sciences covers research ranging from biomedical discovery to wildlife conservation. It’s high-impact research is of relevance to current global challenges faced by society and the planet as a whole.
    • The University’s green campus has 130 hectares of woodland, meadows and a lake, as well as farmland, an on-site molecular analysis facility, a herbarium and museum of zoology. This and the addition of a new state-of-the-art £60 million Health and Life Sciences Building, scheduled for completion in 2020, make it an outstanding place to encounter and study biodiversity.

    About Nottingham Trent University

    • Nottingham Trent University was named University of the Year 2017 at the Times Higher Education Awards and Modern University of the Year in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2018. The award recognises NTU for its strong student satisfaction, quality of teaching, overall student experience and engagement with employers.
    • NTU has been awarded the highest, gold, rating in the Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework for its outstanding teaching and learning and is home to world-class research, winning The Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 2015 - the highest national honour for a UK university. It recognised the University’s pioneering projects to improve weapons and explosives detection in luggage, enable safer production of powdered infant formula and combat food fraud.

New research throws light on factors associated with the decline of Britain’s hedgehogs

Published on 5 September 2018
  • Subject area: Animal, equine and wildlife
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences

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