What happened to our hedgehogs?

Autumn hedgehog by Tom Marshall

This year, hedgehogs were classed as ‘vulnerable to extinction’ in the UK after years of tragic declines in their numbers, but how did we get to this point? What exactly happened to our hedgehogs?

There are now less than a million wild hedgehogs left in the UK – a 50 per cent decline in the last two decades alone. Unfortunately there is no single answer to why hedgehogs are becoming endangered in the UK. A combination of pressures has gradually pushed them out of the landscape they once knew as home.

A disconnected landscape

Hedgehogs may have a reputation for being slow and shuffling, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Radio tracking studies have revealed that their home ranges vary between 10 – 20 hectares in size, with hogs roaming an average distance of two kilometres in a single night. In the breeding season, determined male hedgehogs cover up to three kilometres each night.

Herein lies the problem – you can’t feed and breed properly when your home shrinks year-on-year; reducing your food supply and restricting your gene pool. The less room hedgehogs have to roam, the harder it is for them to survive, and the modern world is dissecting our natural environment at a rate of knots.

An urban hedgehog walking down the perimeter of a red brick wall

Urban hedgehog by Tom Marshall

Urbanisation

We’re living in an increasingly urban world. A new road or development seems to be announced every day to ‘meet the demand’ for housing and infrastructure, but when these aren’t formed with wildlife in mind, they create impermeable barriers of traffic, walls, fences and over-tidy outdoor space.

In our 2019 hedgehog survey, where we asked people to log the last time they saw a hedgehog, the bulk of local sightings in Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside came from urban environments. This shows just how crucial these areas have become for hedgehogs and how important it is that they are developed sympathetically when development is necessary; forming part of a Nature Recovery Network that actively links up fragmented habitats rather than shattering them further. The fact that most of the hedgehogs recorded as ‘roadkill’ in our survey came from urban centres highlights that roads in particular are a major threat.

Hedgehog-unfriendly gardens

Gardens are crucial for hedgehogs, linking up fragmented habitats and feeding grounds with extra green space where they can safely hunt, hibernate and nest. However, the UK’s gardens are turning into poorer and poorer homes for wildlife. Walls, fences, paving, decking and the removal of grass, trees and plants mean hogs can no longer live their normal garden lifestyle. Thankfully, there are some really simple things you can do to make your garden more hedgehog-friendly:

  • Don’t be too tidy – leave a wild patch of your garden to grow long. Hedgehogs loved hiding in long grass, which also offers refuge for the invertebrates they eat.
  • Go chemical-free to increase the presence of natural hedgehog food in your garden. They love slugs and earthworms!
  • Grow native plants that moth and butterfly caterpillars feed on. Caterpillars are one of a hedgehogs favourite meals.
  • Offer supplementary food like meat-based dog or cat food, or specially-formulated hedgehog food like Spike’s Hedgehog Food. Don’t forget a saucer of water too!
  • Make a hedgehog hole in your fence so local hogs can travel between gardens on their nightly outings.
  • Create a log pile or add a hedgehog house. These both offer a safe place to raise a family and hibernate.

There are around 15 million gardens in the UK covering half a million hectares – that’s a lot of potential hoggy habitat.

Close-up of a hedgehog walking through short grass

Hedgehog by Vaughn Matthews

Intensive agriculture

It isn’t only the urban landscape that’s becoming ever more fragmented. Rural hedgehogs face their own threats, this time from intensive agriculture.

The intensification of agricultural practices has, over the years, drastically changed the hedgehog’s countryside habitat. Traditional hay meadows have all but disappeared and the larger, more exposed fields created by modern farming leave hedgehogs vulnerable to predators, as they no longer have ample cover when travelling through the landscape.

This is compounded by the widespread use of pesticides and herbicides which kill the invertebrates that hedgehogs depend on for food, as well as hedge flailing, which leaves behind gappy bases that aren’t suitable for nesting.

The threat of climate change

Our poor hedgehogs are facing a battle on all fronts. As well as having to navigate an increasingly disconnected landscape they are feeling the effects of climate change.

Though hedgehogs hibernate, they do sometimes wake up during warmer winter periods to top up their energy reserves with a bite to eat. However, climate change is making our winters generally warmer and wetter, causing hedgehogs to wake up more often during a season where food is at its lowest. Without enough sustenance to replace the energy they use trying to forage during winter, hedgehogs may starve.

The increasing number of devastating winter floods also have tragic consequences for hibernating hedgehogs – if they’re sleeping, they can’t escape.

What needs to be done to help hedgehogs in the UK?

While we all as individuals can have a positive impact on hedgehog numbers by making our homes and gardens more hedgehog-friendly, we also need the government to affect real change at a legislative level. Farmers need to be rewarded for wildlife-friendly farming practices and be given access to support to help them transition away from intensive farming. The planning system needs reforming to ensure that nature is factored into all future planning decisions, and promises to tackle climate change need turning into action. Only then will there be a Wilder Future for all wildlife.

How you can help hedgehogs