New research underlines value of Suffolk Wildlife Trust's hedgehog study

A pioneering study into the health of hedgehog populations has underlined the importance of Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Ipswich Hedgehog Project.

The results of the first systematic survey of rural hedgehogs in England and Wales, led by Nottingham Trent University and the University of Reading (funded by the People's Trust for Endangered Species and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society) was published this week.

The project, 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 (sett density on native hedgehogs.

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 and gardens).

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.

Ben Williams, PhD student from the University of Reading, the primary author of this paper, said: "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.”

Hedgehog faring better in urban locations

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.

Ali North, Hedgehog Officer for Suffolk Wildlife Trust, who is leading the Trust’s project to make Ipswich the most hedgehog-friendly town in the UK said: “The new research by Nottingham Trent University and University of Reading emphasizes the value of the community work that Trusts have been doing in urban areas for hedgehogs. The absence of both badgers and hedgehogs in many areas emphasizes problems across the farmed landscape.

Badgers and hedgehogs are co-existing in sites too – the decline in hedgehog numbers is due to many threats, it’s a complex issue and we can’t just blame badgers. Where there are large fields with few hedgerows there’s nowhere to shelter, feed and nest and pesticides can reduce the numbers of invertebrates such as worms and beetles. Hedgehogs need varied habitats. With an improved network of robust hedgerows across our farmed landscape, smaller parcels of varied land-use, areas of scrub and grassy field margins we could bring about a recovery in hedgehog numbers in these areas.

Ali added: “New housing development can be an opportunity for improving the situation for hedgehogs if the right steps are taken. Good design of greenspace, connectivity of existing features like hedgerows, installing hedgehog-sized holes in fences and sympathetic green space management to ensure a varied landscape of long grass, bushes, wooded areas and wild patches is important.

“We need to make space for nature at the heart of our farming and planning systems, to have a linked landscape that brings wildlife and the benefits of a healthy natural world into every part of life. We need a Nature Recovery Network.”

Earlier research published by People’s Trust for Endangered Species and British Hedgehog Preservation Society shows that the decline is more severe in rural areas. While there is still a decline in urban areas this appears to be slowing, and this could be because of community action and the work of charities such as Wildlife Trusts who are taking steps to show people what to do.

Suffolk Wildlife Trust's project to make Ipswich the most hedgehog-friendly town in the UK is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.