You may have heard of Comic Con but have you ever heard of Hog Con? It’s an event happening in Telford today dedicated not to the celebration of everyone’s favourite superheroes and comic book characters, but to Great Britain’s one and only spiny mammal. The People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS) have teamed up to create “The Day of the Hedgehog”, bringing a whole host of talks to the public about this endearing mammal, with the aim of highlighting some of the issues that they are facing and gaining support in protecting the species.
Back in July 2013, BBC Wildlife magazine held a reader poll to discover the UK’s most favoured national species and, to very few surprised gasps I’m sure, the winner was revealed: the hedgehog! But what is it about this particular animal that we find so appealing? Well, from the perspective of a gardener, the fact that a hedgehog will eat around 70g of inverterbates in a night, including those notorious, plant-munching slugs, earns them the number 1 spot instantly. In actual fact, although they have a reputation for eating lots of slugs, their diets consist mainly of caterpillars, earthworms and beetles, with slugs and snails making up a much smaller percentage. A hedgehog has an extremely keen sense of smell and, being nocturnal, they will spend an entire night pushing their nose through piles of dirt and leaves, sniffing out tasty morsels from sometimes as deep as 3 inches in the ground. This snuffling behaviour is what earned them the name ‘hedgehog’ since hedgerows are one of their most favoured habitats for foraging and they are often heard letting out grunting noises very much like a pig.
Of course, we’re all familiar with the spiky appearance of a hedgehog too. Their coats consist of up to 6,000 hollow, flexible spines that are kept upright by muscles at the base. This is a fantastic form of defense and allows the hog to roll tightly up into a ball at any sign of danger, instantly protecting its soft underparts from injury. Due to this highly effective defense mechanism, there are very few animals that actually predate hedgehogs. Foxes might occasionally manage to fight past the spines but the most frequent and successful predators are badgers, which can skillfully unroll a hog from its defensive ball. According to PTES, badger populations have increased by 85% since the 1980s and this is considered to be one of the factors that has contributed to the serious decline in hedgehog numbers.
The past 20 years have not been kind to our native hogs. There are an estimated 1.1 million hedgehogs across the UK today but two decades ago we had nearly 29 million more than this. Apart from the correlating increase in badgers, there are several other issues that have had a huge impact on hog populations in recent years, one of those being the changes in farming practises. Many farms have been using certain chemicals that have eradicated much of the prey that hedgehogs would feed on, something that has even more of an effect during autumn when they must build up their fat reserves for hibernation during the cold months. On top of this, the majority of hedges have been ravaged in favour of more open land for growing crops, thereby leaving the hogs with little or no habitat to search for food in. Naturally, a huge increase in traffic has also added to the problem with vehicle collisions being one of the most common causes of hedgehog deaths.
At this time of year, as the temperatures are starting to drop, hedgehogs will be curling themselves up tightly inside their nests, known as hibernaculums, insulated by a thick layer of leaves and settling in for four months of inactivity. Although they are unlikely to be predated during this time, they are at risk of being flooded from their nests, should we have a season of heavy rain that leads to localised flooding, something that has become more frequent as a result of climate change. The milder winters we have been experiencing prove to be another problem for the hogs as higher-than-average temperatures encourage them to come out of hibernation too early, when food is much too scarce for their survival. These mammals are certainly facing a great number of obstacles, but with dedication and perserverance, organisations such as the PTES are working to understand more about these obstacles and take action to improve the rates of hedgehog survival.
These mammals, like many species that have suffered huge setbacks in the UK, are fascinating. They are unique in appearance and therefore one of the most memorable animals you are likely to see in your back garden, if you’re fortunate enough to be visited by one. They can travel as much as 2km in a single night on the hunt for invertebrates which is no mean feat for an animal that relies primarily on its hearing and smell to find food. It’s important that we fight to protect this species especially as our modern-day practises have had the most impact on hedgehog populations.
You can keep up to date with the event news using the Twitter hash tag #HogCon15 and visit www.ptes.org for more information about their work with hedgehogs.
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