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.