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Hedgehogs in burial grounds

9th May 2019
Guest blog post by Hugh Warwick, Ecologist, Writer and Communications Officer for the British Hedgehog Preservation Society

The graveyard on North Ronaldsay is, like the island, fairly small. The drystone wall surrounds the upright head stones – giving some protection from the wind that is a very constant companion on this, the most northerly of the Orkneys. Just five names make up 90% of the graves, Tulloch, Swanney, Scott, Cutt and Thomson.

Photo credit: British Hedgehog Preservation Society

Hedgehogs love this patch of the island. While there is not a great deal of shelter, there is clearly food as the grass remains untreated by anything more damaging than an occasional mower.

The research I was doing was to look into whether the introduced hedgehogs were having an impact on the ground-nesting bird populations – the short answer to many hours of work is yes, at least a bit. But for now, it is the cemetery I want to concentrate on.

Hedgehogs are a generalist species – they do not need any special features, just the basics of food, water and shelter. The threats they face on North Ronaldsay are most likely to be an eviction should the ornithologists think it warranted – but for the rest of their range, the threats are severe. And it is to pockets of land that are managed with care and sensitivity that we look for the continued ability of the nation’s favourite animal to thrive.

Our hedgehogs are suffering a dramatic decline – along with most other wildlife. But it is particularly worrying that hedgehog numbers continue to fall – because they are robust, they can cope with many different conditions. The latest State of Britain’s Hedgehogs report from the Hedgehog Street campaign – a collaboration between the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species – shows that in urban areas there has been a decline of around 30% since the turn of the century, and in rural areas it is down 50%. These are dramatic and worrying figures, and we are working hard to try and address the problem.

The first strategy of Hedgehog Street was very domestic – it is hard for most people to influence how the agricultural landscape is managed and how our transport infrastructure is expanded – both of which have considerable impact on the ability to hedgehogs to survive. But we do have agency over our gardens, should we be lucky enough to have one.

So our campaign aimed at encouraging people to make their gardens hedgehog friendly. Easiest solution, do less gardening! A little bit of wild helps so much life. Log piles, compost heaps – and removing hazards, covering drains, making sure netting is not on the ground and there is a way out of ponds. Oh, and the most crucial bit – making sure the hedgehog can get into your garden. If there is no hole, then talk to your neighbours and make one! And get them to talk to their neighbours – and on – until you have a Hedgehog Street!

But still, there is much more land that could be made hedgehog friendly. That is where our HEMP project comes into play. Hedgehog Ecology and Management for Practitioners – these one-day courses, run by experts around the country, are a brilliant way of developing an understanding of the threats a hedgehog faces, in the context of their ecological needs – and working out ways of addressing the problems.

To accompany these, we have developed a detailed yet accessible leaflet on hedgehog ecology and land management (also available online – and it is our hope that the simple guidance will encourage land managers start to ‘think hedgehog.’

The landscape of suburbia is crucial to the survival of hedgehogs. Whether it is parks or gardens, schools or hospitals – where there is space that has to be managed, let it be managed with hedgehogs in mind. We all benefit from having some contact with nature, and there is no animal that allows us as close as our prickly friend.

While my son rehearsed The Call by Vaughan Williams before my mother’s funeral last summer, I could hear the noise of a mower outside and after the farewell I took a moment to look at the space that was being managed. Despite the sadness I could see a spark of hope in the green that was being trimmed. The Chester Crematorium is space-ship modern, but the grass still needs to be cut, and decisions have to be made about how to manage the trees, hedges and plots.

I believe that decisions can be both ‘pro-hedgehog’ and in keeping with the need to have a calm and tranquil setting for saying goodbye. In fact I am sure that most people would like to see life in these spaces – life that can come from sensitive care of the land. From the move towards pollinator planting to attract insects (who’s larvae become hedgehog food) to machine operators – of mowers and strimmers – required to check before they cut. Hedgehog hospitals are full of animals that have been mown down in their prime.

These spaces are vital because they help connect islands – islands of hedgehog habitats in suburbia are often fragmented into small enclaves by busy roads and vigorous fencing. But large spaces, managed well, can bridge the gap, and can make sure that the wilder borders harbour homes for hedgehogs.

Islands are a problem – there is no way off North Ronaldsay unless the hedgehogs are gifted a ride on boat or plane. And there is no way the pockets of hedgehog real estate can become connected without the larger land managers stepping in and bridging the gap. So please, consider booking in a HEMP training – or at least have a read of our leaflet. Hedgehogs snuffling around any landscape is enough to lift the saddest hearts – and even if we are not there at night to see them, knowing that they are being given the chance to flourish really helps.

You can find the Hedgehog Ecology and Land Management document here.
It is a joint initiative by The British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species