The People's Friend
Prickly customers are all in a day’s work for Henry the hedgehog detection dog
Lorna Cowan is introduced to Henry, a conservation detection dog helping to protect the UK’S hedgehogs.
THE United Kingdom’s urban hedgehog population has declined by over a third since the year 2000. Changes in the way the countryside is managed have reduced food supplies for these spiny creatures. Clearing land for development threatens their vital habitat and closed-in gardens stop hedgehogs moving freely from one area to the next.
But help is at hand thanks to an innovative project supported by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS) and a clever springer spaniel called Henry.
A conservation detection dog, and part of a working group from Conservation K9 Consultancy, Henry has been trained to detect nesting hedgehogs so that they can be protected.
He works alongside project manager Lucy Bearman-brown, and with a sense of smell 100,000 times more sensitive than a human’s, Henry is sniffing his way to success.
“PTES, in partnership with BHPS, focus on hedgehogs as a key species in their conservation work,” Lucy explains.
“They hope to find solutions to problems associated with detecting hedgehogs, undertake reliable surveys and identify important habitat features for hedgehogs, as well as work out what is causing the population decline.”
Lucy, a senior lecturer in zoology at Hartpury University, Gloucestershire, proposed trialling a detection dog for finding hedgehogs after speaking to a student who was involved in bat conservation work with detection dogs.
“I was keen to work with a professional organisation as I thought that if we were successful, we could roll out the service for ecological consultants and land managers.”
Hedgehogs are particularly vulnerable when they are in their nests.
“They spend up to eighty-five per cent of their time in their nests,” Lucy continues.
“Over the summer months they move nests frequently, possibly even nightly, so it can be difficult to know where they are going to be.
“These summer nests can be fairly small structures – sometimes even just a small amount of grass pulled over the hedgehog, making them very difficult to spot.”
Winter nests can be much more complex, built to protect the hibernating hedgehog for weeks or months at a time.
“Hedgehogs can move nest during the hibernation period, which is usually from November to March in
the UK. They’ll move if their nest is disturbed, or if it is no longer serving its purpose.
“Sometimes water gets in, or it could just be to avoid a build-up of parasites.
“Both summer and winter nests can be in areas of long grass, vegetated areas such as bramble patches, compost heaps and under garden structures like sheds and decking.
“Henry is trained to search an area to find these nesting hedgehogs so that we can hopefully protect that patch of vegetation or, if not, we can move the hedgehog to safety.”
Henry and Lucy have been a team for nearly two years and are joined on searches by Louise Wilson, Henry’s handler and owner.
“Louise’s main focus is Henry, while I concentrate on the hedgehogs,” Lucy explains. “This way we can make sure the welfare of all animals involved is carefully managed.
“Henry’s handling and training is consistent, and I can collect the data we need from the hedgehogs without them spending time close to a dog.”
Henry can cover large areas, sometimes up to 12 hectares, in a fast, effective and non-invasive way.
“He loves his work and is so happy when he finds a hedgehog, even if it’s deep in nettles or brambles,” Louise adds.
“He has been specially trained not to touch or go too close to the hedgehog, but just to calmly indicate a hedgehog’s presence.
“Henry does this by sitting quietly near the hedgehog and ‘pointing’ with his nose.”
A rescued spaniel, Henry not only finds hedgehog nests during the day, but he’s also adept at finding active hedgehogs at night.
“He can search areas of land before, for example, they are developed to build new housing estates, or if areas of dense vegetation are being cleared.
“This can be invaluable in helping to save hedgehogs, as finding them in their nests is very difficult, as they are so well camouflaged.
“On top of all that, Henry is also helping with much-needed hedgehog research.”
Henry had five homes before arriving to live with Louise.
“He was still quite young at the time, so we reckon he’s about four or five years old now,” she says.
“Henry is the most amazing working dog I have come across in seventeen years.
“Conservation K9 Consultancy initially trialled three dogs on the hedgehog scent project to see who was best suited.
“One didn’t like the hedgehog odour, another dog didn’t want to get close, and then there was Henry.
“When he first encountered the hedgehog scent he sat down immediately and turned his back on the odour.
“I realised then that he wanted to find the scent, but he didn’t want to get too close to it. This is absolutely perfect.”
Louise explains that hedgehogs are smelly creatures, and while many dog owners think their pets can find them, there is a big difference between specialist detection dogs like Henry, trained to locate hedgehogs, and dogs that have a predatory interest in the hedgehog.
“Henry is trained specifically to indicate hidden and active hedgehogs in all environments without touching, scratching or biting them.”
She admits, though, that Henry was a very difficult, misunderstood and hyperactive dog.
“He wasn’t easy to be around at first, but he became this amazing dog while being trained for this project. Once we gave him a purpose and role, he excelled.
“I love the way we genuinely know how each other works when we are out searching.
“Henry may be pulling me all over the place, but through the lead I can feel his energy and focus.”
Louise also acknowledges the working relationship you can have with your dog is like no other.
“I cherish every moment I am out with Henry.” She smiles.
“His patience with me and his understanding to be calm around hedgehogs is just beautiful. He makes me so proud.” ■