Scotland’s Outer Hebridean islands have a problem. They are being overrun by hedgehogs. Mainland Britain has a different problem. Their hedgehog numbers are too low. What’s the solution to this prickly predicament?
A Little About The Hedgies
Hedgehogs are little spiny mammals that can sit in the palm of your hand. They are native to Europe, Asia, Africa, and New Zealand. Hedgies exist in the wild, but in recent years, have become a popular pet, as well. These little critters may look like tiny porcupines, but the two species are unrelated. Hedgies are members of the Ericaceae family. The much larger porcupines are rodents. Interestingly, they are immune to many types of venom. Hedgies are nocturnal, and they hibernate. They are also omnivores, and that’s where the problems begin.
Two Places, Two Different Problems
Hedgehogs eat a lot of different things, from insects to berries, to snails, snakes, frogs, and toads. One of their favorite snacks, however, is eggs — and sometimes chicks. And on the Scottish islands of Benbecula, North Uist, and South Uist, hungry hedgies have been decimating the populations of ground nesting wading birds, including dunlins, ringed plovers, redshanks, snipes, lapwings, and oystercatchers. Hedgehogs are not native to the islands. The first few were set loose in a garden in 1974 to control slugs and snails. But after that, the situation quickly spiraled out of control. The hedgehog’s main predator is the badger. And there are no badgers on the Outer Hebrides. No natural predators plus an abundant food source equals a huge overpopulation problem.
Mainland Britain has the opposite problem. Hedgehogs, which are native to Britain, have seen a sharp decline in numbers. Over the past 18 years, their numbers have dropped by half, in fact. And if you measure back to the 1950s, the hedgehog population has plummeted an astounding 97 percent!
There are several reasons for the decline. First, widespread use of insecticides has killed off a large portion of the hedgehog’s food source. Second, a lot of hedgehogs die from being hit by cars. And if that’s not enough, expanding agriculture has taken away a lot of hedgehog’s natural habitat. As a result, one of Britain’s favorite garden visitors is in danger of disappearing from the island altogether. Some conservationists even worry that hedgies may become extinct in mainland Britain by 2025.
And this means not just the disappearance of a cute, helpful, native critter. Hedgehogs are responsible for keeping slugs and other garden pests in check. And Britons love their gardens almost as much as they love hedgehogs.
A Hedgehog Airlift
In the mid-1990s, an organization called the Uist Wader Project formed to protect the ground-nesting birds from the hedgehogs. Their first solution was to cull the hedgies. This caused numerous problems. First, it was expensive. It took around $1,200 of taxpayer money to kill a single hedgehog. Second, the cull wasn’t very effective. Too many hedgehogs remained at large, still causing havoc among the ground nesting wading birds. Also, as you can imagine, hedgehog lovers in mainland Britain raised a huge outcry. Especially since their hedgehog population was going down.
A second organization formed, called the Uist Hedgehog Rescue. They proposed humanely trapping the hedgies and moving them from the islands, where no one wanted them, to the mainland, where people desperately wanted them. And the effort was successful. Over the course of the first three years, the Uist Hedgehog Rescue and the Scottish Natural Heritage organization relocated 700 hedgehogs to the mainland. The effort turned out to be both effective and feasible. And when authorities determined the transplanted hedgies weren’t importing diseases, they stopped the cull.
Experts estimate that some 4,000 additional hedgehogs still need to be trapped and relocated. And Scottish Natural Heritage is investigating continuing funding sources for the project. But so far so good for the wading birds, the hedgehogs, and the people who love both of them.
What About Pet Hedgehogs?
Couldn’t the rogue Hebridean hedgies be kept as pets?
Keeping hedgehogs as pets became popular starting in the 1980s. Unfortunately, this isn’t an option for the Hebridean hedgies. It’s illegal to keep common European hedgehogs as pets in the United Kingdom. Only African Pygmy Hedgehogs, born in captivity, are legal pets.
Pet hedgehogs are adorable, but they have some very specific needs. They need a varied diet, which includes a lot of insects. Also, they need a lot of exercise, or they easily become obese. They are also prickly, and some people have reported allergic reactions to being pricked. Also, hedgies tend to be grumpy. But a lot of people love their hedgies. If you’re interested in keeping hedgehogs, you can check out more information at Hedgehog Care.Org.
How You Can Help
International Animal Rescue is one of the organizations working to save the Hebridean hedgehogs. If you want to help their efforts, visit their website to learn more.