Conservation bodies have their heads in the sand over the ‘devastating effects’ of badgers on halved hedgehog numbers, according to the Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW).
Frustration built within the union after The State of British Hedgehogs 2018 report, published yesterday (February 7), said hedgehog numbers in rural areas had halved since the beginning of the century due to intensive farming systems.
Hedgehog officer for public action campaign Hedgehog Street Emily Wilson said: “The intensification of agriculture through the loss of hedgerows and permanent grasslands, increased field sizes, and the use of pesticides which reduce the amount of prey available, are all associated with the plunge in numbers of hedgehogs in rural areas.”
FUW slammed the report for ‘doing conservation a great disservice by scapegoating farmers’ and placing ‘the lion’s share of the blame on intensive farming’.
It said Dr Pat Morris, hedgehog expert and author of The New Hedgehog book who is cited as the instigator of the first survey of hedgehogs based on animals killed on roads, made no mention of his concerns ‘regarding high badger numbers having such a devastating impact on hedgehogs’ in the report.
He wrote in his 2006 book: “The implications [of high badger population densities] for hedgehog survival are serious…ignoring the issue or pretending that badgers exist only by harmless drinking of rainwater does not help at all.”
FUW president Glyn Roberts said: “This issue is dismissed and swept under the carpet, despite overwhelming scientific evidence of the impact of badger predation, while farmers are effectively singled out as being to blame.
“Of course there are areas where intensive farming has had a detrimental impact on hedgehog numbers, but it is simply wrong to paint the whole of the UK as being like that – the fall in hedgehog numbers has in fact coincided with farmers planting more hedges.”
The British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS) and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) report said it was planning to engage with the farming community to ‘stem the alarming decline of our country hedgehogs’.
But Mr Roberts said a 2014 peer reviewed study of hedgehog numbers in ten 100km2 areas where badgers were culled in England, found counts of hedgehogs more than doubled over a five-year period from the start of badger culling, ‘whereas hedgehog counts did not change’ when there was no badger culling.
He added: “By sweeping under the carpet the unpalatable truth that badgers eat hedgehogs, and that the doubling in badger numbers has had a catastrophic impact on hedgehog numbers, conservation bodies are doing a huge disservice to hedgehogs and conservation.
“In fact, they are doing exactly what Dr Pat Morris warned of in his Hedgehog Book - burying their heads in the sand by pretending increased badger numbers are not a major threat to hedgehog survival.”
Fay Vass, BHPS chief executive and Jill Nelson, PTES chief executive said they wanted to reassure the farming community there were not blaming them for the decline in hedgehog numbers ‘by ignoring the relationship between badgers and hedgehogs in rural areas’.
They said the issue of badger predation is raised on page 03 of their report.
“However,” Ms Vass and Ms Nelson said. “The two species coexisted in Britain for several thousand years and, whilst it is likely that where badger numbers are high the number of hedgehogs will be low, to identify badgers as the single most important cause affecting hedgehogs today is a mistake when there are more pressing issues like habitat loss.
“Also, hedgehogs are declining severely even in parts of the country with low badger densities, for example East Anglia. It is clear that several interacting pressures are at work.”
“What we do know is that when the habitat is rich with nesting and feeding sites, the species are able to coexist. Bolstering hedgehog populations would be better achieved by increasing and improving habitat that supports both species.
“This is where we hope to work closely with the farming community, for example by providing simple solutions for farmland management that would help the species, such as advice on restoring hedgerows to improve shelter and nesting opportunities; and how to manage field margins and grasslands in ways that encourage abundance and diversity of invertebrates.”