Hibernation is fast approaching for some, as Winter sets in. Small animals will be entering a dormant state and many humans will be looking forward to an extended period of remaining inactive or indoors. Not so for the conservation volunteers at Ashridge. This is a busy time of the year clearing up the debris on the Estate with the aid of the iconic bonfire. But beware there may be an endearing creature having already taking up residence under that log pile – hedgehogs are the British public’s favourite wild animal.
When did you last see a hedgehog at Ashridge, dead or alive?
Being mainly nocturnal you would not expect to see one during the day. You might come across a dead one stuck in a fence, or one flattened on a road. During the day they they curl up in a nest of leaves or dried grasses, so Autumn is a good time for them. They do not mix well with dogs, badgers, bonfires, plastic fencing, or road vehicles, all of which are present at Ashridge from time to time.
All is not well on Hedgehog Street. In the recent RSPB’s garden watch survey, hedgehogs were seen in fewer gardens for the third consecutive year. Nobody knows how many hedgehogs live in Britain, but the experts say the number has fallen by 30% to under a million in the last fifteen years – in the 1950’s the number was estimated at some thirty six million!
Hugh Warwick an ecologist and leading expert said the beloved creature was facing a crisis in both town and country. Populations of rural hedgehogs may have dropped by 75% since the turn of the Century. The loss of hedgerows – hedgehogs are edge-living creatures – has hit the hogs badly, and there is less food for them. The biomass of invertebrates in the fields which is a vital component of the hedgehog diet has fallen dramatically in the last twenty five years. The hedgehog has a “complicated” relationship with another mammal – the badger. Warmer winters and more maize crops means badgers are thriving which leads to greater competition for invertebrates – worms, slugs and snails. If the badgers cannot find enough invertebrates they look elsewhere – and hedgehogs become a protein-rich source of food for them. The recent culling of badgers in the West Country has resulted in an increase in hedgehog numbers in some areas.
Let us hope that our friendly foragers can see out the Winter and wildly reproduce next year.