Britain’s favourite species, voted for by the public in 2013 was the hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus). Hedgehogs, characterized by their covering of protective spines and short dark legs, are an unmistakable sight over much of Europe, colonizing even the largest cities, suburbs, gardens, woodlands and parks. They first evolved over 15 million years ago. These noisy foraging insectivores are predominantly nocturnal and hibernate in nests of dry grass and leaves. This article briefly discusses some of the most notable influences that the hedgehog has had in the UK. Our contributor Victoria Protheroe also had the good fortune to chat with CJ de Mooi one of the patrons of The British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS). In this conversation they explore some of the primary reasons for these lovable little creature’s long term decline, followed by further initiatives aimed at improving hedgehog numbers.
The literary character Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, who appeared in the children’s book ‘The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle’ by Beatrix Potter, had a large part to play in the shifting attitude towards hedgehogs in the early 20th Century. Prior to this, they were often seen as vermin and treated with disdain. The author and her much loved character were honoured by the Royal Mint in 2016 with Mrs Tiggy-Winkle appearing on a 50p coin.
The hedgehog has far reaching appeal in art, literature and folklore. Lewis Carroll also popularized hedgehogs in his 1865 novel ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ The red queen substituted hedgehogs for croquet balls.
This endearing painting of a hedgehog dates from the second half of the sixteenth century, when the detailed study and portrayal of flora and fauna came into focus more and more. – art work by Hans Hoffmann.
In terms of human iconography, notably within the military sector, at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, Robert the Bruce formed his men into a ‘hedgehog’ of spears.
There is even a formation in chess called a hedgehog, an impenetrable formation of pawns designed to prevent the ingression of the rival army (RSPB Spotlight, J. Lowen)
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer proposed a vision of what it means to be a hedgehog in the mid-19th Century. Describing human experience of love as a ‘hedgehog dilemma’: We have an overwhelming need to get as close as possible to the one we love – yet doing so spikes us with pain.
It is suggested in folklore that the hedgehog is immune to snake bites. Research shows that hedgehogs have a partial resistance to snake venom, however, a bite to the leg or facial area would still make a hedgehog extremely unwell or even kill it.
During medieval times it was believed that the hedgehog could carry fruit on its spines.
Hedgehogs in decline
Sadly, naturalists have known for some time that the hedgehog is in long term decline. The number of calls to the RSPCA concerning injured or trapped hedgehogs has fallen, RSPCA Cymru received 169 calls in July 2017 but this fell by almost a quarter to 128 in July 2019, bringing leading experts to fear for the population in Wales.
A patron of The British Hedgehog Preservation Society, CJ de Mooi, kindly explains more about their decline in this interview.
What is it about the hedgehog that drew you to them and to become a patron of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society?
“I’ve always liked hedgehogs (hasn’t everyone?) and even had a few fluffy toy ones when a young child. I’m friends with John Challis (Boyce from Only Fools and Horses) who was already a patron and as a fervent believer in animal welfare; I wanted to add my support. These creatures perform an invaluable service to humans even though we don’t realise it and yet they retain a place of enviable affection in our minds.”
Why are hedgehogs in decline in the UK?
“As with so many species, human encroachment on their habitats is causing devastation. We are unable to live in ecological harmony with our surroundings, as evidenced by the deliberate fires destroying the Amazon rainforest at the moment, and anything that is not human, and often the discrimination doesn’t stop there, biodiversity is being sacrificed for convenience or profit. Fences and boundaries are erected meaning hedgehogs are cut off from food supplies, breeding grounds or, even worse, their hoglets. Pollution eradicates their environments and we actively stop them finding new ones.”
How can the general public help?
“Two simple steps are essential. In hot weather, put out a shallow bowl of water in an accessible but safe place. Hedgehogs are remarkably industrious and energetic so will find it and get used to the spot if they know refreshment will be there. A great help is to cut a small hole in the base of a fence to provide access. If the hedgehogs can travel unimpeded to new feeding grounds, they will thrive. Most importantly, unless you see a hedgehog in distress, leave them alone. Most species survived very well before the advent of humans and would prefer to do so now. If you do have an injured or suffering hedgehog, call the BHPS or RSPCA who will offer advice and practical care. Humans can help when necessary but otherwise, just keep our distance. Nature and those creatures within it can be admired but don’t need our interference. That especially applies to our prickly pals!”
Although there has yet to be a full national census, indications show that UK hedgehog numbers have dropped by half since the year 2000, which coincides with lost hedgerows, intensification of agriculture, fragmentation of habitats in urban areas, a rise in predators and loss of invertebrates.
“Counting the nocturnal animals is difficult but the data that exists shows the hedgehogs are in long-term decline. There are perhaps just a million left, representing 97% fall from 30m estimated to have roamed in the 1950’s”. A glimmer of hope does exist, however, despite the large decline in rural and urban areas, as the decline in urban regions has at least levelled off.
Road deaths are also particularly concerning, an estimated 150,000 hedgehogs are thought to be killed on the roads each year. A new road sign featuring a hedgehog will be introduced to roads across the UK to warn drivers of the potential hazards caused to small animals. Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has called on local authorities and wildlife groups to identify the hotspots for wildlife accidents where the signs would be best located. It is hoped that the new sign will reverse the decline in wildlife numbers.
Over 47,000 people have signed up to the Hedgehog Street Campaign run by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and ourselves (BHPS), with the aim of making their gardens as hedgehog friendly as possible. In addition to the vital points raised here, it is also advisable to avoid the use of pesticides, provide nesting sites if possible, grow a variety of plants, ensure that ponds have a ramp incase a thirsty hedgehog topples in and to be aware of the dangers posed by bonfires. With bonfire night fast approaching, it is imperative for people to check thoroughly for sleeping hedgehogs before lighting! It is also vital that hedgehogs are NOT fed bread or milk. Putting out wet cat food and water is the best option.
With the UK leaving the European Union, ministers have indicated that a redesign of the subsidy system could see a change from certain payments for land intensively farmed to rewarding wildlife protection. A Defra spokesperson said: “Hedgehogs are one of the UK’s most treasured animals with an important role in our heritage and natural environment. We remain concerned about the decline in their population, and through our 25 Year Environment Plan we’ll be creating or restoring 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat to provide benefits for species such as hedgehogs.” Defra said funding through Countryside Stewardship was linking and extending vital habitats, with over 100,000 hectares of new priority habitat created since 2011.
Participation by the public in surveys run by the PTES and other organisations, adjustments to our own gardens for a more hog-friendly environment, high profile charity campaigns and support by its wonderful patrons will certainly aid in the conservation efforts for one of Britain’s most beloved species.
Country Living, New hedgehog road sign warns drivers to care for small animals, Lisa Walden, June 19, 2019
BBC News Wales, Drop in RSPCA hedgehog calls ‘evidence of decline’, 25th August, 2019
BBC News, Hedgehog numbers ‘down by half’ warn wildlife groups, Helen Briggs, 7th February, 2018
RSPB Spotlight Hedgehogs, J. Lowen, Bloomsbury Wildlife, London, 2018
RSPB Handbook of Garden Wildlife, P. Holden and G. Abbott, Bloomsbury, London, 2017
Wild Animals, Pocket Nature Wild Animals, Chris Gibbon, Penguin Random House, London, 2005
The Guardian, BTO Report on Hedgehogs 7th February, 2018,
BBC Wildlife Magazine, Feb 2019
BBC Wildlife Magazine, Spring 2019