I don’t suspect it was a day that any of us anticipated. A day when two of our favourite species would be pitted against one another in battle. Now, I do not mean that we are all sitting around a boxing ring and watching these two punch it out, not literally at least. Metaphorically however, the punches are indeed flying. I suspect most of you can guess who I am talking about, and if not, let me enlighten you at once. May I introduce, the badger and the hedgehog.
A roll of the eyes and the question ‘what are we arguing about now?’ Well, recently it has been suggested that the already contested issue of badger culling actually benefits the struggling hedgehog population. Such a statement is controversial to say the least. But what are both sides of the argument and how valid are they?
The suggestion that badger culls benefit the hedgehog is based on recent studies, which claim that hedgehog numbers increase in areas where badgers are culled. And in some areas, hedgehog numbers have doubled. Badgers and hedgehogs are known to prey on the same food sources of macroinvertebrates, therefore, there must be a conflict, right? In addition, in the past 10 years, we have seen a decline of more than a third in hedgehogs, whilst in 25 years, badger colonies have doubled. It is also been stated that although previous research has shown some relationship between fewer badgers and more hedgehogs, recent studies have been the first to show a direct increase in numbers.
According to such statements, the case for Mr Badger does not look too promising. But, as we know, there are always two sides to every story.
The case defending badgers pulls no punches. It goes straight in for the kill, claiming that quotes from research stating that hedgehog declines are a direct result of badger numbers increasing, are just not true. Yes, it is admitted that badgers do and will eat hedgehogs, but this has been the way for hundreds of years, it is not some new information that we have just discovered. In fact, hedgehogs and badgers have a very ‘special’ relationship called an ‘asymmetric intraguild predatory relationship.’ Wait a minute whilst we wade through the scientific jargon, but all it means is that both hedgehogs and badgers compete for the same food sources. But, when food availability is low, this relationship can turn predatory, with badgers possibly preying on hedgehogs. Now, in some people’s eyes this may be enough to condemn our badgers. However, let’s not forget, this is not some new diet that badgers are currently trailling, it is the way it has always been between these species. Though, studies of badger faeces and stomachs indicate that hedgehogs actually make up a very small part of the badger diet.
So, we have been told that hedgehogs have decreased in numbers whilst badgers have increased. Therefore, badgers must be to blame! Well, not necessarily. We know that hedgehogs avoid those areas with high badger numbers, so the finding that areas with a lot of badgers have very few hedgehogs is hardly surprising. In addition, the research is not all it seems. Carefully examined, some of the research shows that areas where hedgehog declines are the most drastic are also areas where there are very few badgers.
So if badgers are not the problem, there must be other problems? Well yes and they have been recognised for a very long time now. Habitat fragmentation, habitat loss and reductions in food availability are all playing huge roles in the decline of the hedgehog. Intensive farming and pesticide use all decrease soil richness and productivity, consequently impacting the amount of macrofauna available. As we know, if food sources are low, badgers are the more likely to survive out of the two species. Conservationists argue that hedgehogs make up a very small amount of the badger diet and that intensive farming (which destroys ground macro fauna), pesticide use, fencing and roads are the biggest threats.
Drawing a line between two factors and assuming the relationship is a causal one, has the potential to be destructive and can be dismissive of other actual causal factors that need to be tackled. So, is the idea of culling badgers to protect hedgehogs based purely on scientific fact, or is it a little bit of propaganda? We are all aware of the controversy surrounding badgers and bovine tuberculosis; is the use of the hedgehogs’ plight just a convenient cover to boost support for badger culls?
Despite all of this, one thing, in my opinion, remains the same. If culls are going to take place, there should be a solid scientific basis behind them. Culls should not be undertaken lightly and should not be charged toward with little study of all the available evidence. After all, science is not there to be cherry picked. Evidence cannot be used to support an argument we choose, whilst contradictory evidence is casually ignored if it does not agree with a particular cause. Such actions have the potential to do more harm than good.
Considering our ecological track record concerning such things, you would think by now that we would be a little more cautious when considering the sanctioning of such acts.
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