The Parable of the Hedgehog
How can anyone not love a hedgehog?
They're not just eccentrically endearing but, for many of us of a certain age, they conjure up memories of times past as much as symbolise what has happened since.
Growing up in the south London suburbs in the 60s and 70s I remember hedgehogs as being pretty unremarkable. For our children they're quite the opposite. In the 20 odd years we've been living in our rural idyll in Somerset I've seen two live hogs.
Hedgehog numbers have collapsed of the last 50 years. How badly, and why? Despite this loveable and charismatic animal having so many fans, we don't really know.
Google "hedgehog numbers in the UK" and you'll see what I mean. Possibly we had over 30 million in the fifties, but that looks like a massive overestimate. Probably. We had more like 1.5 million by the mid 90s. Maybe. If you read the recently produced State Of British Hedgehogs 2022 report you'll realise how tentative these estimates are.
There are grounds for cautious optimism in this report (hurrah!), but it's not just the overall numbers of hogs which are tricky to pin down. Arguments rage about why they have declined, and continue to be so depressed in, typically, rural areas like ours. Is it pesticides? Changes in land management? Degraded/fragmented habitats? More roads? Badgers?
It's very telling that we know so little about the overall trend in hedgehog numbers, let alone what's driving it. This is a charismatic animal with lots of pulling power. Everyone loves a hedgehog. You would think they would be well researched, certainly compared to anything with more than four legs, but we still know the square root of not very much about something as basic as its approximate populations.
Like less charismatic native species (i.e. almost any other animal with the exception of the dormice), the reasons for the decline in hedgehog numbers are "complex", which is the second lesson of this tale. I've learnt that "complex" in this context means "there's nothing obvious", which means it's difficult to recommend the best strategy for species recovery.
There's no single smoking gun.
There never is.