I have avoided Sonic the Hedgehog for as long as possible – mainly because I have never played the game and have absolutely no idea what the excitement is all about. That is probably more of an indictment of my age rather than the game – though I would still love someone to explain the draw.

But now I am forced to write about Sonic and the Sega empire that spawned him (is Sonic male?) because they have managed to get a splash in the Daily Mail today. Which I only know thanks to the wonders of Google alerts.

The story?

“Dramatic decline of one of the nation’s favourite creatures: 300,000 fewer hedgehogs in Britain than a decade ago”

And it goes on to say some very important things about the decline in hedgehog numbers, how the data is gathered – through the rather unpalatable mechanism of counting road kill – and brings in ideas of intensive farming being one of the key problems for rural hedgehogs. All good stuff.

So why am I grumpy?

Well that is the story really. It is a story of how the PR industry ‘use and abuse’ on behalf of their clients. It is a story riddled with self-indulgent moaning about the hard lot of a freelance writer who keeps getting drawn into doing the work for people who are being paid each and every month – even when they make such absurd mistakes as has been done in this instance. But mostly it is a story that asks the big question … what numpty put those hedgehogs in the picture?

Back in September I got a message from Sega’s PR company, Mischief PR. They wanted help in the run up to the launch of their new game and they wrote to all sorts of hedgehog related groups around the country. A few were passed on to me – and more than once, promises were made, e.g. “We would make a donation to the UIST Hedgehog Rescue for your involvement and would also be mentioning the charity in our press materials, so aiming to raise awareness of the work you guys do! It is designed to be a fun event, but also ones that highlights the serious nature of your charity.”

There were looking for the most dangerous road crossing in the UK for hedgehogs, they wanted quotes on the numbers of hedgehogs killed on the roads and they wanted a supply of hedgehogs to pose for a photo-shoot.

Given that this was done with the promise of publicity and money for the BHPS – of whom I am a trustee – I decided to invest quite some time and managed to find them a suitable place, some hedgehogs and plenty of facts about the state of hedgehogs.

I asked if I could come to the photo shoot – as by now they were hoping to do some sort of Abbey Road mock up … and I though it would be quite fun to see, and also be something I could use in my talks. I find the whole iconography of the hedgehog fascinating. I even had a positive response from Radio 4’s Saving Species programme who were interested in using this to spark a discussion on the true impact of roads on wildlife. This is important because dead hedgehogs, and dead anything else for that matter, is far from the full story. Roads, especially busy roads, act as real, physical barriers to many species. They have a far greater impact on the environment than simply dead beasts.

They agreed and said they would let me know when it was all happening … and I decided, having dealt with PR companies before, not to hold my breath. And a good job too! As the event all took place with not one jot of communication with me, despite promises to the contrary. Even my phone calls were ignored.

And if they had invited me along? Well, then they would not have made the mistake, which has made them look utterly ridiculous. Somehow they have ended up with an African Pygmy Hedgehog in the shot. Have a look at the picture, the hedgehog on the left looks a little different – smaller, whiter spines. That is not a native hedgehog. If Sega want to go helping Atelerix frontalis and Ateleric albiventris, I would suggest they start investing in conservation projects in Africa, not encourage people to take them in as pets.

I have written quite a bit about these before now. These are pet hedgehogs. The craze for keeping them as pets was big and brief in the USA – as is always the case with fad pets. And there are people who would like to see the same thing happen here. Now I have spent plenty of time with these pet hedgehogs and can see why some people, especially those unable to do much in the way of moving themselves, might find them agreeable. They are cute and they can be tamed into cuddliness.

BUT – we have our own wild hedgehogs here, and if the craze does kick off, it is inevitable that unscrupulous dealers will start trying to palm off our wild hedgehogs as pets, and when boredom sets in, as it will do, and people want to get rid of their pets, they will either just release them into the wild – where they will die – or hand them on to a hedgehog rescue centre, that will be poorly equipped to deal with – and unable to re-release the animal.

So, Sega, and your PR machine, it is time to correct the picture and to pay up – there are a number of hedgehog carers who have spent considerable amounts of time and energy, only to feel ignored, and there groups like the BHPS as well – who would all benefit from a fraction of your great wealth. More importantly, there are thousands of hedgehogs out there who would benefit from some scrapings from the Sonic table – oh, and don’t forget the unpaid writers!

Lets see Sega make good on its promises, or lets start a call to boycott Sonic.

And just as a final note – who thought that sticking boots, ‘Sonic’ boots, onto a young hedgehog was going to make it happy? Poor thing looks utterly miserable.

The massive difference in people’s attitudes to wildlife is starkly revealed today. On the one had the Scotsman has reported on the costs of the hedgehog-eradication programme in the Uists – so far £1.2 million has been spent, and they are planning on spending a further £1 million. This is all with the aim of improving the breeding success of ground-nesting birds – a few hedgehogs were introduced in 1974 to control slugs and snails in a garden, but have since been enjoying the freedom of the islands (freedom from badgers and heavy traffic) – unfortunately they have also been enjoying the freedom of the massive egg-breakfast laid for them by the internationally important populations of wading birds, like dunlin and ringed plover.

When the eradication started, in 2003, there was a furore as Scottish Natural Heritage were killing the hedgehogs, and many of us ended up helping to rescue them. Eventually we managed to persuade them that killing was unnecessary (for a more detailed analysis – here is a paper that summarises the research I did) and since 2006 SNH have been handing the animals over to the one-time rescuers to relocate on the mainland.

And how much is that per hedgehog? Over £800 to remove each and every hedgehog. And that is not the half of it – up until this year, the work has, in effect, been subsidised by animal welfare charities - who have used their voluntary labour to re-home the animals after their deportation from the Outer Hebrides. All of the hedgehogs come to the indescribably wonderful Hessilhead Wildlife Rescue hospital.

The other measure of our attitudes to hedgehogs and wildlife in general is a story that features another wildlife rescue hospital.  The Guardian is running a piece today, including video, from Vale Wildlife Rescue in Gloucestershire, which is making the rather important point that hungry wildlife needs to be fed and the food costs money. It is not just Vale – and I am sure they would be the first to make this clear – but wildlife rescue centres all over the country and feeling the pinch and need a little help. Not just money – find out what they actually need – is it old newspapers, tins of dog food – and see what you can do. If only all the wildlife rescuers got £800 for each hedgehog!!

And back up in the Uists, has all this money been well spent? Well, when the British Trust for Ornithology did a survey, to investigate the impact the removal of hedgehogs was having on the breeding success of ground nesting birds, they uncovered something rather startling: in some areas where hedgehogs had been removed, the birds were doing LESS well than where the hedgehogs were left alone and declines in dunlin were happening at the same rate in areas with hedgehogs and on islands without.

SNH have now acknowledge this and said that there is no “statistically robust evidence” that all their work “has as yet resulted in a positive response in wader populations”. They continue to suggest that there may be “other variables” having an impact on the bird populations … well, I hate to say ‘I told you so’ … but ‘I TOLD YOU SO’ … I did a study into a very similar story, up on North Ronaldsay, the most northerly of the Orkney archipelago, way back in 1986, and found that while hedgehogs did take some eggs, they were not the main cause of the problem. All too often, wildlife managers leap to a ‘Daily Mail-esque’ conclusion – blame it on the illegal immigrant and get rid of them by what ever means necessary. Well, sometimes it is not the different-looking newcomer who is at fault … so rather than spending another million pounds shifting hedgehogs, perhaps now is time to look at the problem afresh.

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