80% of the UK countryside is uninhabited by hedgehogs

The decline of the hedgehog: 80% of the UK countryside is uninhabited by the woodland creatures

The decline of the hedgehog: 80% of the UK countryside is now uninhabited by the beloved woodland creatures who now prefer city life, scientists find

  • Hedgehogs are increasingly moving to urban areas, which act as refuges
  • Regular destruction of habitat with machinery is wiping out their food sources
  • Pesticides have also reduced the number of worms, beetles, and slugs
  • Scientists found hedgehogs inhabited just 21 per cent of 261 rural sites surveyed

The humble hedgehog has disappeared from almost 80 per cent of the British countryside, according to new research.

The prickly mammal is increasingly moving to urban areas, which act as refuges for the small woodland creatures, scientists say.

Regular destruction of habitat with heavy machinery – as well as the use of pesticides in intensive farming – is destroying the worms, beetles, slugs, caterpillars, earwigs and millipedes hedgehogs feed on.

In the first study of its kind, scientists found hedgehogs inhabited just 21 per cent of 261 rural sites surveyed across England and Wales.

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The humble hedgehog has disappeared from almost 80 per cent of the British countryside, according to new research

WHY ARE HEDGEHOGS DISAPPEARING FROM THE COUNTRYSIDE?

The humble hedgehog has disappeared from almost 80 per cent of the British countryside, according to new research.

The prickly mammal is increasingly moving to urban areas which now act as refuges for them, scientists say.

Regular destruction of habitat with heavy machinery – as well as the use of pesticides in intensive farming – is wiping out the worms, beetles, slugs, caterpillars, earwigs and millipedes it feeds on.

The study, published in Scientific Reports, also showed hedgehogs were best off in areas with housing as human habitation is believed to be acting as their ‘refuge’ habitat.

Residential gardens potentially offer a number of advantages for hedgehogs and enable them to escape some of the problems associated with the rural landscape. 

It is also believed intensive land management has reduced suitable habitat sites.

Scientists from the University of Reading used ‘footprint tracking tunnels’ to show the nocturnal animals are more thinly spread across the UK than first thought.

They were present in just 55 of the 261 rural sites surveyed for the study – indicating ‘much of the countryside may be uninhabited by the animals’, said the researchers.

Study author Ben Williams, a PhD student at the University of Reading, explained: ‘Although hedgehogs were generally widely distributed, they were actually found at a worryingly low number of sites.’

According to the latest findings, there were also fewer hedgehogs present where scientists found evidence of badgers – their main predator.

However, both badger setts and hedgehogs were absent at more than a quarter of all sites.

This suggests a wider landscape issue affecting both species, scientists say.

Mr Williams said: ‘We also found hedgehogs were absent from 71 per cent of sites that did not have badger setts either, indicating both hedgehogs and badgers may be absent from large portions of rural England and Wales.

‘We found hedgehogs at 55 sites. We also found badger setts were present at 49 per cent of these sites, demonstrating badgers and hedgehogs can, and do, coexist, as was the case historically for thousands of years prior to the recent decline in hedgehog numbers.’


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Mr Williams believes the research indicates a large proportion of rural England and Wales is now unsuitable for both hedgehogs and badgers.

‘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,’ he said.

‘This could be as a result of agricultural intensification and climate change.’

Regular destruction of habitat with heavy machinery – as well as the use of pesticides in intensive farming – is wiping out the worms, beetles, slugs, caterpillars, earwigs and millipedes it feeds on

Hedgehogs are well researched in urban areas, however, little is known about their numbers in rural landscapes.

Previous studies are either too small to represent larger areas or too spread out to identify underlying biological or man-made influences, researchers say.

In order to determine the scale of the problem nationwide, experts and volunteers set up tunnels baited with food in rural sites across England and Wales.

In order to get to the food, hedgehogs had to walk over small ink pads, causing them to leave their prints on paper.

The analysis, which was funded by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS), is the most comprehensive to date.

The study, published in Scientific Reports, also showed hedgehogs were best off in areas with housing as human habitation is believed to be acting as their ‘refuge’ habitat. 

‘This was evident across all scales, from small villages to cities, becoming more pronounced with greater urbanisation,’ said Mr Williams.

In the first study of its kind, scientists found hedgehogs inhabited just 21 per cent of 261 rural sites surveyed across England and Wales

‘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.’ 

It is believed intensive land management has reduced prey and suitable habitat sites.

PTES grants manager Nida Al-Fulaij said: ‘Badgers are what is 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.’ 

The study can be used as a baseline for future monitoring of hedgehog numbers, said the researchers.

Earlier this year, a report by PTES and BHPS suggested there are only a million hedgehogs left in the UK – compared to the 30 million that roamed in the 1950s. 

The hedgehog was named Britain’s best loved mammal in a recent Royal Society of Biology poll of 5,000 members of the public. 

It gained 36 per cent of the votes, more than twice as many as the red fox which came second with 15 percent. 

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