Western Daily Press (Saturday)
It could well be too little too late for hedgehogs
Defra has set out plans for halting the decline of some of Britain’s most cherished wildlife species by the end of the decade. Ian Liddell-Grainger, MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset, is sceptical, he tells Defra Secretary George Eustice
DEAR George, Thank you for sending over the briefing about hedgehogs. I am particularly encouraged to learn that Defra is now slightly alarmed by the findings of the Red List for British Mammals which has classified hedgehogs as ‘vulnerable’.
I am even more heartened to read that action is now to be taken in an attempt to reverse population declines among the species.
But I have a couple of points that I feel I must raise with you. Firstly, why it has taken quite so long for the Mammal Society to declare this perilous state of affairs – and for Defra to be consequently goaded into conceding that something must be done about it?
Because anyone who lives in the countryside will have noticed a catastrophic collapse in hedgehog numbers at least over the last two decades, if not for longer.
They have not been visiting rural gardens in the numbers they once did. Those sad little flattened piles of spikes one used to see everywhere on the roads are less evident. That is not necessarily good news in the sense that there are fewer hedgehogs being killed, rather bad news in the sense that there are fewer hedgehogs to be run over, because scientists will tell you that, paradoxically, roadkill numbers themselves are a guide to population sizes.
What also concerns me is your department’s blithe statement that “the main threat to hedgehogs is habitat loss as a result of agricultural intensification, and deteriorating habitat quality”.
I trust this assertion has been made on the basis of widespread, lengthy, and diligent research, otherwise it bears all the hallmarks of another cheap swipe at the farming community upon whose heads, it sometimes seems to me, blame is automatically heaped when any unfavourable set of rural circumstances are being discussed.
Let me just point out, George, that farmers have had no option but to intensify because, even with generous EU support, traditional lowintensity farming has become economically all but impossible given the historically low returns farmers are deriving from the food market. Furthermore that the finger of blame for this situation points directly at the supermarkets, who in prosecuting their endless price wars have depressed producer prices to a disastrous extent. Of course, this is not what you want to hear because no minister wishes to be reminded of the rather embarrassing fact that (a) we have surrendered control of food policy to the retailers and (b) that this suits the Treasury quite well because what people don’t need to spend on food – which attracts no VAT – they are free to spend on goods and services that do.
And finally, I see no mention anywhere of badgers. The badgers, specifically, which feed mercilessly on hedgehogs. Does it not tell us something that the very decades which have witnessed disastrous falls in hedgehog populations have seen badger numbers moving in exactly inverse proportion?
No old wives’ tale, either: there is a growing body of evidence of hedgehog numbers rapidly recovering in areas where badgers have been culled; of Mrs Tiggywinkle’s descendants being observed in numbers not seen since the ’60s and ’70s; and reappearing in rural gardens to general delight. Merely circumstantial evidence, perhaps, but an overwhelming body of it.
In which case, George, for all the fine talk in the Defra paper of creating an “historic legally binding target for species abundance by 2030” and “aiming to halt the decline of nature” all the efforts thus devoted to bringing back the hedgehog could well turn out to be an enormous waste of taxpayers’ money if – for want of culling – badgers are allowed to overrun us again.