Stripes v Spikes?

Today’s post concerns the interesting nuggets of thought to chew on that was raised by Micheal McCarthy in his most recent edition of ‘Nature Studies’ in the Independent, entitled ‘More badgers and fewer hedgehogs. Coincidence? I don’t think so’.  Before I go on, I’d just like to mention that Nature Studies is one of the best natural history columns out there, not surprising considering that McCarthy is a fantastic environmental journalist; I’ve only just started reading his book Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo, and already I would heartily recommend it to others just from the first chapters.

And like all good journalists, a topic that needs a longer than average musing should be brought up from time to time. In this case, it’s the suggestion that perhaps increasing badger populations across the UK are partly to blame for the hedgehog’s worryingly dramatic decline over the last 30 or so years. It could potentially be in the Chris ‘I’d happily eat the last panda’ Packham spectrum of controversies, and as McCarthy points out, with the first cull trials imminent (something I heartily disagree with based on the scientific evidence, but that’s another story) our monochrome mustelid friends don’t really need anymore cause for concern on their reputation.

But I can see some of his points. Consider the fact that because hedgehogs have had such an evolutionary Godsend with their spines, the need for long and powerful legs to dash away from predators at the speed of light down a hole has become totally pointless. The whole point of nature is to save as much energy as you can if you want to live, so what better way than to literally curl up into a ball? Trouble is, Mr Badger has incredibly strong front claws for excavating setts on a Babylonian scale, which are also very handy at literally tearing the spines off a meal that won’t even waste your energy in running away. This creates sitting ducks out of hedgehogs, and the balance usually maintained by prey numbers being higher than their predators can easily collapse if escape from the brocks is made virtually impossible. It’s a rule that’s actually been taught to me for several years now; wherever you find hedgehogs, don’t expect to find badgers in the same area and vice versa.

I only heard about the hedgehog’s decline a couple of years ago, and it is quite simply terrifying. 30 million to about 1.5m in the last 40 years! This is an animal that’s been a traditional sight tottering about the bottom of the garden, emerging from the bottom of sheds in swathes of gardens across the country in Spring to scuffle it’s way into gardener’s good books as a slug control agent, and children’s story books too, leading our minds towards the wonders of nature from an early age. But it’s already joining other mammals like Scottish Wildcats and Red Squirrels into the danger zone when it comes to survival. So should we focus our attentions at controlling badgers before it gets too late? Nope. That should be out of the picture.

It’s probably why it never occurred to me till Nature Studies, because unless it’s absolutely essential (such as the need to cull red deer in Scotland from an absence of predators), we should always try to put rights to the numerous bad decisions we have made to the survival of other species’ before finding scapegoats within their own ecosystem. Sure, there may be some correlation to population sizes of badgers and hedgehogs depending on where they’re found, but without proper scientific research to prove the implications of this the threats to hedgehogs McCarthy acknowledges in his article, such as habitat fragmentation and hibernation disturbance from climate change, should be priority, and are most likely an outweighing factor. Badgers obviously have as much right to belong in their environment as hedgehogs, so ultimately choosing which species lives or dies stems from favoritism, something that just doesn’t work in the grand scheme of nature conservation. There is a journalist who I shall not name who goes on about how raptors are the main cause of songbird decline, conveniently choosing not to admit the severe depletion of suitable farmland habitat as the real ‘grim reaper’ in order to cover, what seems, to be his own personal ideals of what ‘pretty’ animals should be allowed to live.

So what to say in conclusion, if you’ve managed to survive my twist-and-turning ramblings? Well, there might be a reason why it seems you get more hedgehogs in gardens in woodland, a potential explanation you can guess from the focus of this post. So for now we should be ensuring our gardens, that great network of nature reserves across the whole country, strive to deliver. Just keeping a hole in the bottom of the fence so they can move about their territories without needing to tackle roads, or signing up to a campaign like PTES’ Hedgehog Street could be a little drop in the ocean of getting them back on the step of once again becoming a familiar sight in the UK for generations to come.

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