Perhaps the biggest hedgehog story for some time, and I am in the thick of it. Today, 1st June, we are launching ‘Hedgehog Street‘. And, as Melvyn Bragg is so keen on saying as he befuddles audiences on In Our Time (one of my favourite radio programmes), now I ought to ‘unpack’ that a little.

The British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species have been working together for many years, but this is our biggest effort yet. In the past we have developed projects such as HogWatch and we also support the rather unfortunate Mammals on Roads surveys (unfortunate because it relies on the murderous rampage of the motor car to help us monitor fluctuations in the hedgehog population).

What these projects have revealed is alarming. But we wanted to check that the serious decline in hedgehog numbers was ‘real’ and not just a quirk of the way the data were collected. So we employed some of the best ecological statisticians at the British Trust for Ornithology (I know, they do birds, but they also do numbers REALLY well) and they used our figures along with data they had collected. From this we can unequivocally state that in the last ten years, the hedgehog population of Britain has declined by around 25%.

This is alarming. The hedgehog is an excellent indicator of the state of our environment, it is also a wonderfully robust creature that has managed to fit brilliantly into our world. So what has changed? And what can we do about it?

The answer is something I have been banging on about for years. Habitat fragmentation.

At its most obvious, this would be a busy road being built through an area of hedgehog habitat. Hedgehogs would then be unable to get from one side to the other. But fragmentation is far more insidious. It happens in the rural landscape because fields get bigger and hedges remain unmanaged. It is exacerbated by the increase in badgers, the presence of which prevents hedgehogs moving along the remaining hedgerows. And it happens in the last refuge of the hedgehog, suburbia.

In A Prickly Affair, I wrote about the suburban doughnut … the circle of rich hedgehog territory that surrounds the desert its heart. But this doughnut of interconnected gardens is also being fragmented. Obviously, busier roads make a hedgehog’s life harder. But so does infill development, so does the destruction of wildlife friendly gardens with extensions, decking, patios and car-ports. And so do fences with concrete footings. You might have the very best hedgehog friendly garden in the city – and I have had this question asked of me many times – but no hedgehogs. Well, if they cannot get into your garden, they will not appear.

And this is where Hedgehog Street comes in. This innovative project has been set up to help us all recreate a mosaic of interconnected habitats in suburbia. There is an information pack with all the details, the website also has top tips, but what it comes down to is the simple fact that if we open out our gardens to hedgehogs by allowing them to move between them, we massively increase their chances of survival.

The figures are amazing, there are around 433,000 hectares of garden and if we could get just 0.1% of them involved, that would create a hedgehog refuge larger than Sherwood Forest!

So log on to Hedgehog Street, get your pack and get active – and don’t forget to share the fun, post your stories on the forum, get local media interest (this will be on SpringWatch soon) and get out there with a saw and a sledgehammer!

So there is plenty we can do, but there is one fact that this analysis of historic data has thrown up that shook me to my core. The population estimate for hedgehogs in Britain in 1950 was around 30 million. In 1995 it was about 1.5 million. Now, probably nearer one million. That is less than 5% of the 1950 figure. That means we have lost over 95% of our hedgehogs in just 60 years. Please re-read that sentence. It is possible that the original figure is an over-estimate. But, say, it is double what was really out there, that would still mean we have a 90% population decline on our hands.

This leads me to something else that has been bothering me for sometime. It is the idea of ‘shifting baselines’. We are worried about the substantial decline we are aware of – and there is no denying how serious it is – but this is a quite small decline compared to what we have already lost. Shifting baselines kick in when we make assessments about the state of populations based on the knowledge that we personally have. So my idea of a healthy population of hedgehogs will be heavily influenced by my early memories of abundance. That memory acts as a baseline from which I now look in distress at the current population level. But the situation is far worse than that as my baseline is drawn from an already devastated population. And this is true for everything. There is simply far less wildlife out there than there was. And the reason is because we have killed it or we have destroyed the habitat necessary for it to flourish.

This is something to feel sadness and anger about, but it is vital we do not let that beat us into submission. I know many people think my passion for hedgehogs a little eccentric, but the truth is, it is a passion for all wildlife, and the message the hedgehog tells us now is one we must heed. Remember – we might have already lost 95% of the country’s hedgehogs. Grieve, then act; give the hedgehogs a treat.

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.

I have just met a team straight out of the Crime Scenes Investigator series that is begging to be made – CSI Hedgehog.

How did that hedgehog die?

For most of us, the only sight we get of a dead hedgehog is flat on the road. The staple of many jokes …

Why did the hedgehog cross the road? To see its flat mate.

Why did the hedgehog cross the road? To show he had guts.

Why did the hedgehog cross the road, jump up and down in a muddy puddle and return to the same side? Because it was a dirty double crossing hedgehog.

Already we have been learning so much thanks to these sacrifices to our need for speed – it is one of the most reliable techniques for assessing presence and absence of hedgehogs in an area. And when repeated, year after year, as it is with the Mammals on Roads project run by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, it can give us an idea of how populations of hedgehogs are fluctuating. It does not tell us how many there are, but it does tell us if they are increasing or decreasing, as there has yet to be any evidence of hedgehogs learning to avoid cars.

But now there is another way in which unfortunate corpses can assist our understanding of the wonderful world of the hedgehog.

The team of Crime Scenes Investigators will be on hand to undertake meticulous studies of the insides of hedgehogs that have been found dead in people’s gardens. These animals will be a ‘silent witness’ to the environment in which they lived. The experts, Katie Conville, Becki Lawson along with team leader Andrew Cunningham, from the Zoological Society of London, will try and work out not just what killed the animal, but also what sub-lethal effects were at play.

Parasitology, virology and bacteriology will all help to uncover the infectious diseases that have left the hedgehogs ill at ease. And they will also, when there is evidence to warrant, investigate what manmade chemicals might be lurking, undermining the health of our slug-munching friends.

This is not just about the fate of individual hedgehogs – there is also the potential to uncover what has been causing the decline in hedgehog numbers around the UK. This sort of work has already uncovered the cause of the mass mortality of greenfinches, as well as uncover the truth behind frog deaths and cetacean strandings.

But, as ever, there is an issue of money – so if anyone is reading this and feels particularly flush, drop a line to the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (or remember them in your will) – and maybe we can have our very own CSI hedgehog!!