A hedgehog stands on leaves and moss in a forest

Hedgehogs in eastern England have seen the greatest decline in the past two decades. Image © Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock

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Britain's rural hedgehogs see dramatic population decline

Up to three quarters of all of Britain's rural hedgehogs have been lost in the past 20 years.

While rural hedgehogs have experienced a sharp decline, their urban counterparts appear to have a stable population, and may potentially be growing in number.  

The image of hedgehogs in Britain's fields is becoming a thing of the past.

Analysis from The State of Britain's Hedgehogs 2022, an annual report released by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the People's Trust for Endangered Species, suggests that countryside populations of the small mammal have declined by an average of 8.3% a year for the past two decades. 

The report is another blow to the species, which was classed as Vulnerable to extinction in the British Red List for Mammals.

The authors of the report say, 'The continuing loss of a generalist species such as hedgehogs, like that of farmland songbirds, is the 'canary in the coal mine'. To stop it, we need to recognise the essential value of biodiversity and our dependence on the tapestry of natural habitats and species. 

'That tapestry is becoming threadbare. Even if you care little about hedgehogs, we should all care about the nature that supports them and us.' 

A hedgehog in front of the curb of a road

Thousands of hedgehogs are killed on roads in Britain each year. Image © Dariusz Banaszuk/Shutterstock

What is happening to British hedgehogs?

Found across much of Europe, from Russia in the northeast to Portugal in the southwest, the Western European hedgehog is a mostly nocturnal animal, emerging at night to feed on a wide range of foods, especially invertebrates. 

Their characteristic spines develop under the skin before birth, and emerge shortly afterwards as a defence against predators.

Across their range, hedgehogs are generally very common, and are classified as Least Concern on the International Red List of Threatened Species. However, the situation is not the same in Britain. Though they remain widely distributed across the country, hedgehogs have been in decline for some time.

The reasons for this are unclear. Roads are likely to play a significant role, with a 2016 study suggesting that over 167,000 hedgehogs are killed each year by vehicles. With a population estimated at around 1.5 million in the 1990s, this could represent a significant threat to the survival of the species in Britain. 

However, other factors are also thought to be at work. Hedgehogs show a reluctance to cross roads when it can be avoided, which isolates their populations. Over time, these smaller groups are more vulnerable to disease, inbreeding and other effects which impact them.

More widely, a lack of connectivity in the rural environment, exacerbated by the loss of hedgerows and changes in farming practices, is likely to have intensified these issues. Badgers may also play a role in competing for the same food as hedgehogs.

A hedgehog walks along a tarmac path in a town

Urban hedgehogs are bucking the trend of their rural relatives, and may be increasing in number. Image © Christine Bird/Shutterstock

What did The State of British Hedgehogs 2022 report find?

Looking at the results of community science surveys including The Breeding Bird Survey and the Big Garden Birdwatch, as well as more specialist research, the authors of the report found that hedgehogs were on the decline in rural England. 

They estimated that in the past two decades, hedgehog populations had fallen by anywhere between 33-77%. 

Counterintuitively, this correlates with the falling number of hedgehogs killed on the roads over that period, even though road usage has been increasing significantly. The data suggests that the reason for the decline is not that roads are becoming safer but that the number of hedgehogs is falling.

The impact on their populations also varies regionally. Based on data from the National Gamebag Census, England has seen hedgehog numbers dwindle by around 30%, while the East Midlands specifically has recorded a fall of up to 74%. However, this may be affected by changes in gamekeepers' practices which limit the number of hedgehogs caught.

The rural declines may also represent a switch in the areas that the animals live. Recent studies suggest that hedgehogs are increasingly moving into semi-rural and urban areas such as towns and villages. This may relate to their diet, with worms preferring grass gardens and parks to intensively managed fields, or to shelter from the environment and predators.

Overall, this could be responsible for the stabilisation of populations in urban areas, which some of the surveys suggest could even be on the rise.

What can I do to protect hedgehogs?

If hedgehogs are already present in your area, you can leave out tinned dog or cat food, as well as crushed pet biscuits, for them to eat. Water is the only liquid that should be left out for them to drink, as milk can make them seriously ill.

Fences, which block the routes of hedgehogs and isolate them, can be modified to include holes at ground level that allow them through, while blocking larger animals. Ready-made panels can be bought, while step-by-step instructions can be found online to make them yourself.

You can also leave areas of grass in your garden to grow longer, as well as limiting the use of pesticides and strimming which can harm hedgehogs. Hedgehog houses, which provide shelter for the mammals during hibernation, can also be built.

The organisation Hedgehog Street has more tips on their website, which can be found here.