If we love hedgehogs so much, why are we letting them vanish? Tom Holland

Photo: theguardian

 

The hedgehog holds a special place in the hearts of the British. In a 2012 poll, it was voted our favourite wild species. Few animals lend themselves more readily to anthropomorphism, and so it is hardly surprising that Mrs Tiggy-Winkles should long have been a staple of children’s stories.

Hedgehogs, however, do not merely pander to our sentimentality. Perhaps more than any other animal, they enable us to get up close to the wild. They can be met in suburbs, in gardens, in parks. There is no need to be a seasoned naturalist to glimpse them snuffling busily after beetles and worms. Hedgehogs live alongside us – but not as livestock, not as pets. They are our surest, our most familiar gateway to a fascination with the natural world.

Or at least they used to be. For a long time naturalists have known that hedgehog numbers in this country are suffering a precipitous rate of collapse. Since 2002 the total population is estimated to have fallen by 30%. The current rate of decline stands at 5% a year. Now a study has highlighted the full scale of the crisis. Entire swaths of the countryside have become hedgehog-free. Of 261 sites surveyed, traces of hedgehogs were found in a mere 20%. Shockingly, none was found in the south-west. An animal once ubiquitous in our fields and lanes is facing extinction.

Why should this matter to a country with so much else on its plate? There are good reasons why even people who never give hedgehogs a second thought should be concerned. Across the world, any number of species are facing extinction. Britain, a wealthy country with a population renowned for its love of nature, has long been at the vanguard of international efforts to conserve biodiversity. Our charities and our aid agencies are forever encouraging much poorer countries to weigh the needs of wildlife against those of their own people, and to develop ways in which humans and other species can coexist. Yet who are we to wag the finger if we cannot even ensure the survival of our own best-loved and most charismatic wild animal? The hypocrisy stinks.

A countryside that is unable to sustain hedgehogs is a countryside that is sick. It is no coincidence that the decline in their numbers should have begun in the 1950s, when hedgerows began to be grubbed up, fields soused in pesticides, and agriculture expanded on an industrial scale. Nor is it any coincidence that the rate of decline should have accelerated since the 1970s, as the road network was expanded, and the volume of traffic increased. Hedgehogs cannot survive without the large numbers of invertebrates that are sustained by a healthy countryside. Nor can their populations flourish if their habitats are sliced and diced by ever more gashes of tarmac. Stranded on what in effect are islands, surrounded by hungry and predatory badgers, and poisoned by insecticides, it is little wonder that hedgehogs face a struggle to survive.

England is a densely populated country. We all have a need to travel, we all have a need to eat. What we also have, though, is a responsibility to our wildlife. We cannot lecture people in much poorer countries on the need to conserve elephants if we cannot save our hedgehogs. No other animal is better qualified to serve us as a bellwether for the state of our countryside. A statutory obligation on the government to restore hedgehog populations would work to the good of large numbers of other species as well. There has never been a better time to push such an initiative. If Brexit promises one thing, it is the opportunity to rethink how agricultural subsidies are organised, and to recalibrate them so that they can foster a healthier, more wildlife-friendly countryside.

Michael Gove, an environment secretary who has already shown himself ready to think outside the box, is a lover of poetry. He will be familiar, then, with the threnody written by Philip Larkin to a hedgehog accidentally chewed up by his lawnmower. “We should be kind/ While there is still time.”

Tom Holland’s latest book is Athelstan: The Making of England

Source :

theguardian

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