Are badgers threatening hedgehog survival?

10 Sep|Hugh Warwick

Hugh Warwick

The truth, says hedgehog expert Hugh Warwick, is a little more complex than it first appears

Most of countryside now devoid of hedgehogs, study finds,” ran the Guardian headline last week in one of the more measured responses to new research revealing the difficulty facing the nation’s favourite animal.

The reporting of science is an interesting thing… how to get across ideas that require some nuance to interpret correctly to an audience that may not be very interested in subtlety of any sort at all?

Take two commonly expressed but diametrically opposed views on the morality of badgers:

  1. The four horsemen of the apocalypse had a pet badger.
  2. Badgers come only after Lady Di and Mother Theresa in the pantheon of all that is good.

But it is not, as it seems it should be, a black and white issue.

The badger/hedgehog discussion is one that runs and runs – as an ecologist who has spent more time than most people consider reasonable helping hedgehogs, I am very familiar with both sides of the story. And a paper published in Scientific Reports has kicked the whole thing off again.

This fascinating research (which I should also admit to helping manage as the British Hedgehog Preservation Society is one of the funders) showed how absent hedgehogs are from much of the rural landscape. We have known this through the “State of Britain’s Hedgehogs” reports we put out roughly every other year. The most recent report showed that while urban hedgehogs were down 30% since the turn of the century, rural hedgehogs were down by at least 50% – and in some areas were in “freefall”.

The Scientific Reports paper showed that one of the key factors affecting hedgehog decline in the rural landscape was badger presence. A density of setts above 5.21/km2 resulted in no hedgehogs. And in other areas, high badger numbers tended to push hedgehogs towards human habitation, in effect fragmenting the landscape.

This is also complicated by the fact that hedgehogs and badgers both compete for the same food – macro-invertebrates, such as worms.

While some of the newspapers did a pretty good job at unpicking the work, pointing out that while there was a clear link, there was also an absence of hedgehogs from nearly 50% of the areas surveyed without badgers. Something else is also at play. And this is where it gets political.

I was interviewed on BBC’s Countryfile recently and I reckon I got it about right – as I had rude commentary from both badger lovers and badger haters. It is disingenuous in the extreme to suggest badgers don’t eat hedgehogs and have no role in the population changes. Likewise, it is ecologically illiterate to argue for killing badgers in the name of hedgehog conservation.

Both species have coexisted over the millennia. We have changed the landscape within which they used to thrive to such an extent that the balance that once existed has been destroyed. We have done that, we have demanded (or at least been given) cheap food that has come at a terrible cost. The landscape has been stripped of its complexity. The diversity has been weeded out. Hedges gone, insects gone, people gone.

There is a need for understanding – for natural history and ecology to be recognised as cornerstones of a rounded education. And we need to find ways of working with those who manage the land to help create something truly “green and pleasant”.

To find out more about Hugh’s work, visit hughwarwick.com.