If you strike lucky, you may spot signs of hedgehogs. However, you can help support a sustainable community of them by preparing the ground to attract what is one of our favourite mammals, discovers Greg Rhodes.
They are a national treasure; however, hedgehogs are in troubled times as numbers have declined alarmingly in recent decades.
The population in Britain is uncertain and estimates have varied dramatically over the years, but if indicators and markers of their presence and activity are any guide, hedgehogs remain increasingly thin on the ground.
I well recall walking out of a park early one evening after a tennis session and nearly tripping over one of the spiny creatures as it emerged from a hedgerow.
Picking it up with the help of my racquet, I popped it back inside the park. Probably on a journey back to base, it may have resented the intrusion, but the road alongside was wide and the thought of leaving it to brave a safe crossing was the less acceptable option to my mind.
That was nearly 40 years ago, and I haven't happened on another 'hog', or 'hedge' as some refer to them, in a public place since.
In the garden setting, a friend remembers sitting out in the evening, watching a hedgehog family grunting their way towards her, nudging her leg as a prompt for food. Again, probably a rarer experience today.
Hedgehogs have all too quickly slipped out of the public consciousness it seems, but the good news is that several charities and agencies across the country hold their best interests at heart - People's Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS), the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Wildlife Trust to name four.
Hedgehog Street is a UK-based conservation initiative set up by the PTES and BHPS charities and is extremely active in promoting and encouraging awareness of hedgehogs, their habitats and how best to redress the decline in their population.
In the 1950s, estimates placed Britain's hedgehog population at 36.5 million - "probably an overestimate", believes Hedgehog Street, an independent body that has amassed plenty of research and background data on the mammal.
In 1995, that number had plummeted to 1,550,000 (1,100,000 in England; 310,000 in Scotland and 140,000 in Wales) Hedgehog Street notes, adding that "the evidence suggests declining numbers since" while conceding that there's "still no reliable method of estimating numbers in any given area".
Telltale indicators can reveal hedgehog presence, however. The PTES surveys, Mammals on Roads and Living with Mammals, point to a "downward population".
"We appear to have lost over half of our hedgehogs from the countryside since the millennium alone," Hedgehog Street concludes, "and a third from towns and cities."
Damning figures for sure, though "the urban decline appears to be slowing" according to the 2018 State of Britain's Hedgehog report.
Despite that, the apparent speed of decline makes it vital we only consider fairly recent records when inspecting the distribution of hedgehogs, which is "still almost comprehensive across England", Hedgehog Street notes, adding that "this distribution masks the ongoing decline that our long-running mammal surveys are detecting".
Signs of life
As detecting hedgehog presence is difficult, seaching for footprints is one way forward. Front and back feet both have five toes although only four toes usually show up on tracks.
The front feet are wider and appear like little hands, while slimmer, longer back feet leave correspondingly narrower prints. The PTES has adopted footprint tunnels as one way to reveal hedgehog activity.
Droppings vary according to diet and are usually dark brown-grey or black, depending what was on the menu. Firm and typically packed with the exoskeletons of invertebrates such as beetles, they are cylindrical or tapered, appearing like a dark slug, 15 to 50mm long.
"There's still much we don't know about hedgehog habits and how they use the natural environment," states Hedgehog Street - one reason the PTES and BHPS are funding research that will help such bodies deliver better advice to landowners about managing land sympathetically for the mammal. Radio tracking is one item in the toolbox researchers will be relying on during their work in Yorkshire and Norfolk.
Other research, led by WildCRU, University of Oxford, is studying hedgerows and field margins to unearth more about how hogs rely on these resources.
"It's hard to discover whether hedgehogs are living on a site and to figure out how many of them are in a particular place," says Hedgehog Street, reiterating the familiar theme that these creatures are elusive.
Further research by the universities of Reading and Nottingham Trent may deliver further revelations about territory and communities. They have devised a standardised method of detecting hedgehogs using tracking tunnels baited with hotdogs, reportedly.
Britain's built realm presents almost insurmountable obstacles to hedgehog movements. Fragmentation by major roads is one issue, as are fences, walls and new developments - all break up the green spaces hedgehogs rely on, interfering, if not blocking, their passage from one to another.
The larger the green space, the more favourable the opportunities for hedgehogs to establish sustainable populations, at least in theory. Large parks, golf courses and sports estates that mix 'wild' areas with manicured pitches and specialised play could be a real blessing, if we lay the groundwork in a way to welcome them.
Leading the charge to transform the landscape of opportunity for hogs are Dr Chris Carbone, of the ZSL, leading authorities Dr Pat Morris and Dr Nigel Reeve, and environmental campaigner Hugh Warwick, who consults to the BHPS, among a host of other commitments.
He references Hedgehog Awareness Week, held in May, as a key action in helping consultants, landscape architects and developers on the need to take account of hedgehogs in their projects. As of this May, the BHPS and PTES are seeking to sign up volunteer 'Hedgehog Champions' to help further the cause.
The BHPS holds half-day presentations focusing on ecology and behaviour, population monitoring, threats and mitigations surrounding hedgehog livelihood, including no doubt an overriding factor in that equation. "Estates have to be porous," Hugh insists, to allow hedgehog movement, bearing in mind that they can travel far overnight, either in search of new territory, new homes or food.
He wants gardens and green space connected by "hedgehog highways" - "holes in fences and boundaries to allow them to travel to find food and nesting sites." A minimum 13 x 13cm suffices, while deterring cats and other larger animals and pets.
"A minimum hectarage is needed to support a viable population," Hugh says. "Thirty-two hedgehogs living in a 90-hectare area" is his estimation. We must "manage with nature in mind" and there is "a political win to be had" in doing so, he believes as "massive resentment exists about loss of green space to new homes".
Golf courses come in for a verbal hammering. They can be guilty of "a cult of tidiness, the most evil of cults", he says, adding that they must strike "a happy medium between the pristine and the rough". Allowing a "rich regime" of invertebrates and pollinators to thrive presents "a very straightforward win" for hedgehogs.
However, legislation may be the only solution in ensuring wildlife habitats prevail amid a balanced infrastructure, Hugh believes.
Although large green spaces would appear to offer the best opportunities for hedgehogs to live as sustainable communities, the theory seems not to apply in London.
The Regent's Park now ranks alone in supporting a hog population and even
that is estimated to be in single figures, surveys show. Night time vigils and research studies of the park's numbers by leading specialists such as Dr Nigel Reeve, whose work with the mammal trace back to the 1980s, and the Zoological Society of London, whose London Zoo base falls within the park perimeter, chart hedgehogs' shifting fortunes.
Camera traps are a cost-effective and key method of tracking hedgehog movement across the Zoo and the park - the ZSL uses 40 or 50 of them.
ZSL senior research fellow Chris Carbone heads up the Society's Hogwatch project and has conducted several golf club surveys of hedgehog population activity.
From his experience, he can offer key guidance on how to attract and sustain hedgehogs. "Having dense, low shrubs in some areas around the course is a must," he stresses.
Reducing or eliminating use of pesticides and catering for hedgehog prey species are other excellent recommendations, he adds.
Hedgehogs are the grounds professional's friend, as Chris confirms: "They feed on a wide range of invertebrates such as beetles, slugs, chafer grubs and worms, also feeding on frogs and toads, so limiting the application of treatments that reduce their abundance is critical."
ZSL head curator of plants, Sven Seiffert, who is also active in hedgehog studies, continues: "The Regent's Park study is the longest of its kind anywhere and involves two nights observation in May and September. Hedgehogs spend their days in nests constructed from leaves and other materials, while they hibernate in winter nests."
"They are often found in this type of dense low-growing vegetation, as well as ivy, brambles, leaf litter, log piles and other structures, and under sheds."
Leaving such rough areas for them to utilise will encourage a stable habitat for them, he adds.
"It's worth knowing that hedgehogs frequently change nest sites between days. We have found that they will also utilise nest boxes such as those sold by NHSB, although London Zoo uses bespoke longer-lasting nest boxes, made by HabiSabi.
"They also like night feeding for slugs on short grass and we've spotted them on the park's sports pitches." However, they don't dig, he says, so are not intrusive on close-mown playing surfaces as some wildlife is.
"Hedgehogs enjoy no special protection," Sven continues, "and they have similar diets to badgers. When food is short, they are competing for the same prey."
"Latest studies show The Regent's Park population to number just nine - five females, four males, with a litter of between one and four - compared with a high of 34. The situation is really worrying."
Connectivity is another important aspect to consider, Chris Carbone states, "as are hazards such as the risk of trapping in materials like netting or litter, steep-sided water bodies, bonfires or injuries caused by machinery."
Lack of connectivity may have been the cause of their disappearance from Hyde Park for example. "Hedgehogs have no way to travel into it," Sven says.
Is reintroduction a possible remedy?
"That's difficult, as habitat management has changed over the years and simply placing them in what could be an alien environment may prevent them gaining sustainability." As Sven states: "First of all, we need to know what's causing the decline."
Increasingly viewed by ecologists as wildlife oases, golf courses can have a major role in nurturing hedgehog populations, and they surely can co-exist in harmony with the sport.
On a wider front, the issue of declining numbers embraces small and large green space alike. A link between the two promises to be the Wildlife Trust, now working at local level through its engagement teams to woo a new target audience of homeowners to buy into the importance of making their gardens friendlier places for the likes of hedgehogs and other fauna.
"It's about bringing nature into more urban settings and trying to attract more people to engage with it," says Rachael Nellist of Cheshire Wildlife Trust, which is targeting Stockport, the recipient of £1bn regeneration funding, with a
Working closely with the local council and businesses from its base in Norris Park, CWT is already making headway in "making green spaces more friendly".
Within the Cheshire catchment lie many golf courses and sports sites that the Trust could approach with its message - one that directly impacts the hedgehog's plight. But, as Rachael notes: "We have many barriers to overcome and are tackling a complex topic that involves changes of behaviour and training. The Hedgehog Street toolkit for landowners and managers is valuable in creating the most favourable habitat to ensure the population recovers."
Ten tips to encourage hedgehogs in your neighbourhood
- Link green spaces and gardens with fence and wall holes
- Make any ponds safe for hedgehogs to climb out of
- Create wild corners, leaving growth uncut
- Use rigid structures rather than flexible netting, which can entangle hedgehogs
- Put out food and water to supplement their natural diet
- Check before undertaking strimming and other margin cutting
- Build bonfires on the day you burn them as hedgehogs favour piles of debris
- Make them a home - log piles, nestboxes or bespoke hedgehog houses are ideal
- Become a hedgehog champion and promote their cause
- Avoid chemicals such as pesticides where at all possible
Find out more
The PTES and BHPS run courses for the commercial sector, targeting those who directly or indirectly manage larger areas such as parks and other green spaces in towns and cities, also and providing free land management guides.
Those who might want to attend include groundskeepers, parks managers, contractors and consultants, developers and planners - certainly a broad cross-section of sectors impacting hedgehog habitats.