The phenomenon of wild creatures moving from the countryside into towns and cities appears to be a relatively recent one. There did not seem to be any urban foxes when I was a boy—although that’s a long time ago now—or urban grey squirrels, but sometime around the 1970s both animals seem to have discovered that parks and gardens were just as exploitable a habitat as woods and fields; and they were eventually followed (to some extent) by badgers. Something similar took place with the magpie, which moved into the suburbs about the same time as the foxes and the squirrels, and then in the 1990s there was an even more interesting and glamorous suburban arrival from the bird world—the sparrowhawk.
If we ask why this happened, I think the answer is probably, population pressure. All the creatures named above are flourishing, and growing numbers in the countryside have very likely pushed them to the edge of conurbations, and then inside, as they found that they could survive there perfectly well. But there is one animal making the urban transition which is not flourishing at all, and that is the hedgehog.
This much-loved living pincushion, this worm-munching, slug-crunching, winter-hibernating solitary night-wanderer, in Britain is now officially classified as vulnerable to extinction. In the 1950s we may have had 30 million of them; the current population is almost certainly below a million and may even be only half that. The arrival of intensive farming, with the wiping out of much of its invertebrate prey through industrial-scale pesticide use, seems to have been the principal cause of the hedgehog’s remarkable decline, like the decline of so much of our wildlife, although the increasing numbers of its only predator, the badger, have very likely also played a part. (According to the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s the British population of badgers went up by an astounding 77 per cent). But whatever the reason, the hedgehog is in serious trouble, and it is increasingly leaving the countryside and taking refuge in small towns and country villages. It is urban hedgehogs whose populations seem to be stabilising, while numbers in the open countryside continue to shrink.
Yet urban areas present a whole new raft of dangers and unaccustomed problems for our only spiny mammal, from car-flattenings and poisonous slug pellets to tightly-fenced gardens making night-time food-foraging expeditions an impossibility. So in this context I am surprised and impressed by the progress already made in recognising and dealing with the hedgehog’s urban transition, here in Dorset. Eight years ago Susy Varndell of the Dorset Mammal Group established a project to set up hedgehog-friendly towns and villages; and now there are 30 of these, across the county (although there is room for many more.)
The essence of being hedgehog-friendly is to have a town or village coordinator who can act as a focal point for concerns, raise public awareness of dangers to hedgehogs and try to spot them as they arise. Linda Poulsen is the hedgehog coordinator for Dorchester (and there’s a character Thomas Hardy never dreamed of, as in, ‘my father was a hedgehog coordinator before me, and his father before him.’) Linda gives a long list of hazards the spiny ones face in urban gardens, from bonfires and grass strimmers (which can take off a hedgehog’s long nose) to attacks by dogs, as well as the ‘heartbreaking’ numbers killed on the roads. But most ordinary people, she says, are happy to do something about it once the situation is pointed out to them.
If your town or village is not yet hedgehog-friendly you can start the process by getting in touch with Susy Varndell (firstname.lastname@example.org) and she will help you organise an initial public meeting to see if there is enough interest. If there is, her husband, the well-known wildlife photographer Colin Varndell, will come and give you an hour-long illustrated talk on The Hedgehog Predicament (I’ve seen it and it’s a gripping account of hedgehog life—don’t miss the bit about ‘self-anointing.’)
I think that in a small way, this is a genuine historical moment in British wildlife—the transition of the hedgehog from being a rural animal to an urban, or at least a semi-urban one. But unlike the arrival of foxes and squirrels in our gardens fifty years ago, this move is being prompted by distress. And anything we can do to relieve the distress, seems to me very much worthwhile.
Recently relocated to Dorset, Michael McCarthy is the former Environment Editor of The Independent. His books include Say Goodbye To The Cuckoo and The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy