Hugh Warwick is an ecologist and writer who is also an expert on, and lover of, hedgehogs. He has been studying the animals for over 30 years and has written numerous articles and books about the animals. He does regular talks and events throughout the UK about ecology and conservation. And hedgehogs.
Nobody in their right mind could have anything negative to say about hedgehogs.
On getting interested in hedgehogs
Hedgehogs are the most important creature on the planet, I think that’s really quite well established by now. I’ve been studying them for almost 30 years. I think what happens, most ecologists, they start…they leave college, they go and start studying something and they move onto something else and then they move onto something else and they move on to something else. I kind of just found hedgehogs and stuck with them.
And that’s partly because there is a bit of niche there, there’s a research niche. Lots of people have been studying the hormonal fluctuations of hibernating hedgehogs, very little time is spent looking at what hedgehogs actually do. They’ve been largely ignored. They’re not a pest species. They’re not particularly exciting or demanding in any particular way, they were just ignored. And, um, so I was up in Scotland, up in the Orkneys, up to the Hebrides, and had been radio tracking hedgehogs around the place, and just become more and more fond of them. But over time it’s become a case of realising they’re the perfect vehicle to talk about wildlife, to talk about our relationship with nature, so whilst I do have a very, very passionate love of hedgehogs, I use them as a tool to get people to be able to think about things perhaps that they wouldn’t normally.
On using hedgehogs as a teaching tool
A hedgehog has a very specific set of requirements, as do all species, and it’s because people have a fondness for the hedgehog, they’ve been brought up with stories of, you know, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle stories, they’ve been brought up playing Sonic the Hedgehog, they’ve been brought up with all sorts of images of hedgehogs. I mean, it’s very difficult to find a household object which hasn’t been turned into a hedgehog. I’ve got a hedgehog cheese grater and plates and cups and tea towels and all these sorts of things. So they are iconic. In fact, the BBC Wildlife Magazine just ran a poll of which are the most iconic species. The hedgehog won. So people therefore immediately get an idea about them, they’re attracted to the hedgehog, and therefore I can start to use the hedgehog to talk about the fragmentation of the natural world.
Now this is something which affects all species, this affects absolutely everything, but hedgehogs are particularly affected because, I mean, most people measuring the biodiversity value of an area, they look at things that fly, they look at the birds, bats and the insects, in particular moths and butterflies because they’re quite easy to monitor. Hedgehogs are difficult to monitor and they are very, very heavily affected by the chopping up of the landscape.
So, you can chop up the landscape by building HS2 through the countryside. That will split, you know, a whole chunk of the country. There’ll be hedgehogs on one side. Hedgehogs on the other side. We are now learning that possibly there are genetic differences that will form quite quickly. But most importantly, we’ve been learning that hedgehogs have got a very…they need a large area to thrive. The minimum viable population for hedgehogs is around 32, absolute minimum. And, um, they need 90 hectares in which to keep their population ticking over. That’s 90 hectares of contiguous land. So, you build your HS2 through the place, you’re chopping places in half, you then, you get people building housing estates and they put fences in people’s gardens, chop the place up again, you’re chopping them up into smaller and smaller pockets. So what I’m trying to do is to get people excited about the idea of opening up their gardens, opening up everything. Take it wider. Look at the way we manage our parks and see if people can start to open these up as well so that hedgehogs have got an opportunity to have the 90 hectares they need to survive.
On objections to hedgehogs
Nobody in their right mind could have anything negative to say about hedgehogs. Even the ornithologists up in the Uist who originally set out trying to kill hedgehogs have now recognised that possibly they were a little bit hasty taking the Daily Mail attitude towards wildlife management…isn’t always the best one. You know, just because they’re the newcomer, the incomer, they look at bit different, doesn’t mean they’re the cause of all society’s ills. So, ah, I mean, no, hedgehogs are the ultimate of benign creatures. I mean, the very worst thing that will ever happen to you with a hedgehog is if you tend to walk down your garden at night barefoot and you accidentally kick one. That’s probably the very worst thing that can happen. Otherwise they are the ultimate and good animal.
On the importance of hedgehogs
Hedgehogs are part of our ecosystem and our ecosystem is, um…imagine a lovely old cashmere jumper. I got some from my dad when he died, fantastic things. And, ah, I noticed…I noticed a couple of moth holes in my jumper and I’d been freezing them like you’re supposed to in the summer and pulling them out and still they’d got in there. And my jumper can cope with a number of moth holes, but eventually either you’re going to have too many moth holes or you’re going to have one moth hole in the wrong place and everything will start to unravel. And our ecosystem is like that jumper. It can tolerate a number of different species going, it can rejuvenate, it can keep going, but suddenly the wrong species will go and it will have catastrophic consequences, or just too many have gone. But that’s actually a minor point. The real reason to feel attracted and warm and generous towards the hedgehog is because they are a gatekeeper species. They allow us a way into connecting with nature. They give us an opportunity of actually finding a species which we can get close to, we can get nose to nose with, we can look into their beady little eyes. You know, you go to the park and you throw bread at the ducks, I mean that’s not much of an interaction, but you meet a hedgehog you can get close to it. It has no flight response. When it gets scared it just stays there, it’ll roll up into a ball, it’ll unroll eventually if you’re quiet and you can get to have a look at it. It means we have this gatekeeper into a wider and broader and deeper and more powerful relationship with nature.
If we had no hedgehogs any more I’d be out of a job, I suppose, I’d be writing fiction now, I suppose, as opposed to writing fact-based stuff. And our gardens would have a few more garden pests. The main thing is we would’ve lost one of the great ambassadors for the wider network of nature by losing our very best gatekeeper.
On the dangers facing hedgehogs
I mean, the introduction of lions to the Peak District was probably an accident for the hedgehogs, um, but the only natural predator that the hedgehog faces is the badger and I wrote in my book of the horrifying scene of watching my ‘little Willy’ being eaten by a badger. This was a lesson in particular about not naming your hedgehogs silly and cute and whimsical names, and there is a relationship now…if you plot the density of badgers in the UK and the density of hedgehogs, you’ll find where you’ve got more badgers you’ve got fewer hedgehogs. However, it is a very big mistake to think that badgers are the cause of the decline in hedgehogs. We’ve got a 37% decline in the number of hedgehogs in the last ten years alone, that’s absolutely rigorous, scientific data on that one. Yes, there is a correlation between presence of badgers and absence of hedgehogs but the declines in hedgehog numbers are happening fastest where there aren’t badgers and you have pockets of the country where badgers and hedgehogs are living really quite well, so the relationship is complicated. I could go on at length about the asymmetric inter guild predatory relationship if you wanted, but suffice to say it’s a complex relationship, it’s not simply a causal relationship.
The biggest problem the hedgehogs face is the loss of habitat, loss of food and the fragmentation of the remaining habitat. Those are the three key things. And you could probably say that about every single animal in the country, but I will stick with my hedgehogs and, um, you lose food when you intensify agriculture, so rural hedgehogs have a pretty tough time. You lose habitat when you develop and you fragment the landscape that’s remaining by the development and also by the intensifying of agriculture. Hedgehogs aren’t called that on a whim, they hog the hedges of things. You know, if you don’t have margins to fields they’re going to find a big field as much an obstacle as the HS2 is going to be to them. So, yeah, they need to be able to go around the edges of things. So those are the key issues that hedgehogs face and we can begin to address those.
There’s a project which I’m working on called Hedgehog Street, please use any reliable search engine [or just follow the link here] for Hedgehog Street and you will find on there all sorts of top tips on how you can best improve your own locality for hedgehogs and also ways that you can begin to communicate with your neighbourhood and take it wider.