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Hedgehog Conservation

Volume 602: debated on Tuesday 10 November 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Kris Hopkins.)

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me an Adjournment debate on hedgehog habitats and the need to protect the species. Before I go any further, I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I still retain an interest in a small public relations company that gives advice to developers, although I am not sure they will want to talk to me after this. I thank the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, and especially Henry Johnson, who has spoken to me about the importance of hedgehog conservation.

An article in The Guardian in July 2013 pointed out that hedgehogs are prickly in character, have a voracious appetite and a passion for gardens, and have a noisy sex life. I leave it to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to decide which of those traits I share. In a BBC wildlife poll, hedgehogs were chosen as the best natural emblem for the British nation, beating the charismatic badger and the sturdy oak. The victory for the ultimate underdog came about with 42% and more than 9,000 votes cast for the hedgehog. I know what it is like to be an underdog, because that is how I felt in the run-up to the last general election, when I placed a bet on myself with Paddy Power at 4:1 against.

In short, the British people have taken hedgehogs to their hearts. Even though we are a nation of animal lovers and have played a key role in the emergence of the modern conservation movement in the western world, Britain does not have a designated national species, unlike many other countries, including Russia, Australia and South Africa. That is why I am calling on my hon. Friend the Minister to hold a national campaign to identify which animal should be our designated national species. Needless to say, I will be launching a petition after this debate to name the hedgehog as our designated national species.

I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman set the scene for us, but there are more than 100 priority species across the UK, many of which reside within my constituency. Does he agree we need a strategy for all those species, including the hedgehog?

Yes, I am happy to agree, but I am talking about, and campaigning for, the hedgehog.

Perhaps the BBC might like to run a competition similar to one to find the greatest Briton, with a series of people arguing the case for their preferred animal over a series of weeks. I would be willing to do the job on behalf of the hedgehog.

I am told that in the western isles, there are no hedgehogs at all.

My relationship with the hedgehog goes back to my own childhood in suburban Woking, when I was read by my actress mother Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle”—hon. Members will not be surprised to learn that this is not the only Mrs T who has been important in my life. I was therefore deeply shocked to discover that in the last 10 years, hedgehog numbers have declined by about one third nationally. According to the House of Commons Library, the principal reason for this prickly animal’s decline is the loss of habitats. Likely factors in the hedgehog’s demise are the loss of permanent grasslands, larger field sizes, the use of pesticides and herbicides and a reduction in hedgerow quality. I understand that badgers are a natural predator of hedgehogs and that consequently they avoid sites where badgers are present.

Does my hon. Friend recognise the importance of using our gardens as a vital habitat for hedgehogs? I recently built a hedgehog house in my garden. Sadly, as yet I have no residents in it, but I hope it will encourage diversity and a growth in hedgehog numbers in South Staffordshire.

I will be making a similar point in a moment.

Hedgehogs seem to thrive in urban and suburban areas, but the move to tidy, sterile gardens—I am sure the garden of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) is not sterile—has also contributed to their demise. However, these suburban habitats are broken up by fences and roads, pushing hedgehogs into unsuitably small areas.

Another fascinating fact about hedgehogs, which my hon. Friend might be aware of, is that they run up to 1.2 km a night, but they have to find a mate. Thinking about wildlife gardening, I wonder if he might make a hole in his garden fence so that the hedgehogs can run through to find a mate? This is essential.

My hon. Friend has been reading my speech or has had prior notice of it.

Hedgehogs need to move a surprising distance to search for food, mates and nesting sites, so we need to make it easier for them to move between gardens, perhaps by making holes in fences. During a visit to Plymouth’s hedgehog rehabilitation and care centre this autumn, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), I learned that the way to tackle this problem is to stop habitat loss. I was also rather surprised to learn that we should not leave milk and bread out for hedgehogs. Additionally, slug pellets are a great danger that can be fatally harmful to them.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that the advent of specific hedgehog conservation areas, such as the one in Elmdon in my Solihull constituency, can play a major part in arresting the alarming decline in the numbers of the great British hedgehog?

I am delighted to hear about the area in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and I think it important to continue with the theme of ensuring how we can look after the hedgehog.

I was also told that elastic bands, which postmen discard when delivering letters, are also detrimental to hedgehog survivals. There is no robust evidence on this point, but it is one of many concerns that have been raised with me about the pitfalls that hedgehogs must dodge.

Not only do we need hedgehog-friendly gardens, but I also want my hon. Friends and the Government to give local authorities advice on ensuring that hedgehogs do not get caught up in bonfires. Last week, we celebrated bonfire night and I raised my concerns about hedgehogs making nests in the bonfires before they were set alight. One of my hon. Friends suggested that this might be a Catholic plot to ensure that attention was taken away from Guy Fawkes—but I rather dismissed that.

Although it is not thought that badgers are the principal culprit in the demise of hedgehogs, they cannot be totally blame free. In a major DEFRA study, which assessed the ecological consequences of badger removal during the randomised badger culling trial lasting from 1998 to 2006, it was found that removing badgers from a habitat had a number of consequences for other species. The report said that hedgehogs rarely encountered badgers in rural sites, but were found relatively frequently in amenity areas.

Population density increased by over 100% over the course of the randomised badger culling trial in amenity sites in proactive cull areas, while declining slightly in no-cull control sites. No similar increases were detected in rural sites. The report also found that there is strong evidence that badger predation restricts hedgehog populations and that amenity areas in villages act as a spatial refuge for hedgehogs.

In 2011, a further report on the state of British hedgehogs concluded that, while badgers are a natural predator of hedgehogs, where there are good foraging opportunities for worms and beetles, badgers and hedgehogs can coexist. However, when there is no safe refuge, and badgers and hedgehogs compete for these scarce resources, hedgehogs may be in serious trouble.

A more recent study in 2014 found that in areas of preferred habitat, counts did not change where there was no badger culling. An analysis of the original badger culling experiments, published in April 2014, shows that while at some sites hedgehog numbers did increase, following a reduction in the number of badgers, it was thought that some of the sample sizes might have been too small.

I must point out that there have been widespread calls for more research into the effects of the badger, and I welcome this. As I explained earlier, badgers are not the sole cause of the decline in the hedgehog population, but I believe that there is a real danger that if more research is not put into the badger cull, hedgehog numbers will continue to decline. I hope that the Minister will take note of that.

There is a pressing need to support hedgehogs in urban areas. It is very important to focus on the barriers created by walls and impermeable garden fences and the consequent fragmentation of the hedgehog population. The House may like to know that I am pressing my fellow neighbours at the Royal Naval hospital in Plymouth to ensure that we can create a hedgehog-friendly community and increase the number of hedgehogs in this part of my inner-city constituency.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I am just reading on the British Hedgehog Preservation Society site that Saturday 21 November is hedgehog day, so I wish to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on one of the timeliest debates on this issue.

Everybody else seems to have had notice of my speech before I ended up making it.

The progressive loss of suitable feeding areas through intensive gardening or inappropriate management of amenity grasslands are also major issues about which we can take action. When new garden fences are installed there are “hedgehog-friendly” options, such as a small hole so that hedgehogs do not become trapped in gardens, and I urge people to consider those in future. More than 36,500 hedgehog champions are campaigning to create hedgehog-friendly neighbourhoods. I have now volunteered to be one, and I am the 150th hedgehog champion from Plymouth to sign up to this excellent scheme.

I am sure, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you will want to know what you can do. Like me, you can sign up to be a hedgehog champion on the “Hedgehog Street”' website, where you can report sightings of hedgehogs on the “big hedgehog map”. Although it is not a scientific survey, it is an excellent way in which to engage the public, and I challenge as many right hon. and hon. Members as possible to sign up to the cause.

I am delighted to report that Saturday 21 November is the day of the hedgehog, and that hundreds of people are expected to descend on the International Centre, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan). I myself will be attempting to set up an all-party parliamentary group for hedgehogs, so that we can advance the cause of those prickly characters. If any Members are interested, I should be delighted if they contacted me on On the same day, the next report reviewing the four main surveys covering hedgehogs in rural and urban areas will be released. It must be remembered that hedgehog numbers are a good indicator of the state of the natural environment, which is why these creatures are so important to the United Kingdom’s ecology.

I think that there is more to be done, and I have therefore suggested to the Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), that it should hold an inquiry into how we can save hedgehogs.

I hope that I have set out the case for hedgehogs clearly, Madam Deputy Speaker, and that you too will become a hedgehog supporter. Now is the time to increase the public’s awareness of the plight of these plucky characters. I trust that the aforementioned Mrs T would be delighted that someone is taking up this important cause.

In every happy home is a hedgehog, as the Pashtuns would say. I urge my hon. Friend to encourage our Pashtun community in this country to follow that example.

I am very grateful for that Pushtun intervention, but my hon. Friend refers, of course, to the Asian variety of the hedgehog rather than the western hedgehog, which is the subject of our discussion today.

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

I am extremely pleased to have the opportunity to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile). I believe that this is the first time that Parliament has discussed hedgehogs since 1566, when the subject was famously raised in relation to the attribution of a bounty of tuppence for the collection of the hedgehog throughout the United Kingdom.

The hedgehog has undergone an extraordinary evolution. The year 1566 seems very recent, but the hedgehog was around before then. It was around before this Parliament. The hedgehog, and its ancestor, narrowly missed being crushed under the foot of Tyrannosaurus rex. The hedgehog was around long before the human species: it existed 56 million years ago. It tells us a great deal about British civilisation that my hon. Friend has raised the subject, because the hedgehog is a magical creature. It is a creature that appears on cylinder seals in Sumeria, bent backwards on the prows of Egyptian ships. The hedgehog has of course a famous medicinal quality taken by the Romany people for baldness and it represents a symbol of the resurrection found throughout Christian Europe.

This strange animal was known, of course, in Scotland, Wales and Ireland originally in Gaelic as that demonic creature, that horrid creature, and is the hedgehog celebrated by Shakespeare:

“Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen…

Come not near our faerie queen”,

and famously of course in “Richard III” there is that great moment when Gloucester is referred to as a hedgehog. It tells us something about Britain today; it represents a strange decline in British civilisation from a notion of this magical, mystical, terrifying creature to where it is today, and I refer of course to my own constituent, the famous cleanliness representative of Penrith and The Border, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle.

I want to be serious for a moment. The hedgehog is of course an important environmental indicator, with its habitat, its ability to occupy 30 hectares of land, and its particular relationship to the hibernaculum, by which I mean the hedgehog’s ability, almost uniquely among animals in the United Kingdom, to go into a state of genuine hibernation. Its heartbeat goes from 240 a minute to only two a minute for six months a year. It has a particular diet—a focus on grubs and beetles. The street hedgehog initiative, which my hon. Friend has brought forward, reminds us that, by cutting holes in the bottom of our hedges, we can create again an opportunity for hedgehogs to move.

The hedgehog provides a bigger lesson for us in our environment—first, a lesson in scientific humility. The hedgehog has of course been studied for over 2,000 years. The first scientific reference to the hedgehog is in Aristotle; he is picked up again by Isidore of Seville in the 8th century and again by Buffon in the 18th century, and these are reminders of the ways in which we get hedgehogs wrong. Aristotle points out that the hedgehog carries apples on his spine into his nest. Isidore of Seville argues that the hedgehog travels with grapes embedded on his spine. Buffon believes these things might have been food for the winter, but as we know today the hedgehog, hibernating as he does, is not a creature that needs to take food into his nest for the winter.

Again, our belief in Britain that the five teeth of the hedgehog represent the reaction of the sinful man to God—the five excuses that the sinful man makes to God—is subverted by our understanding that the hedgehog does not have five teeth. Finally, the legislation introduced in this House, to my great despair, in 1566 which led to the bounty of a tuppence on a hedgehog was based on a misunderstanding: the idea that the hedgehog fed on the teats of a recumbent cow in order to feed itself on milk. This led to the death of between of half a million and 2 million hedgehogs between 1566 and 1800, a subject John Clare takes forward in a poem of 1805 and which led my own Department, the Ministry of Agriculture, in 1908 to issue a formal notice to farmers encouraging them not to believe that hedgehogs take milk from the teats of a recumbent cow, because of course the hedgehog’s mouth is too small to be able to perform this function.

But before we mock our ancestors, we must understand this is a lesson for us. The scientific mistakes we made in the past about the hedgehog are mistakes that we, too, may be mocked for in the future. We barely understand this extraordinary creature. We barely understand for example its habit of self-anointing; we will see a hedgehog produce an enormous amount of saliva and throw it over its back. We do not understand why it does that. We do not really understand its habit of aestivation, which is to say the hedgehog which my hon. Friend referred to—the Pushto version of the hedgehog—hibernates in the summer as well as the winter. We do not understand that concept of aestivation.

For those of us interested in environmental management, the hedgehog also represents the important subject of conflict in habitats. The habitat that suits the hedgehog is liminal land: it is edge land, hedgerows and dry land. The hedgehog is not an animal that flourishes in many of our nature reserves. It does not do well in peatland or in dense, heavy native woodland. The things that prey on the hedgehog are sometimes things that we treasure. My hon. Friend mentioned badgers.

Does the Minister agree that the successful survival of our hedgehog population is a direct reflection of how healthy and sustainable our environment is? It is important that we should look after the environment, because the knock-on effect of that will be that our hedgehog population will be looked after.

That is an important point. The hedgehog is a generalist species, and traditionally we have not paid much attention to such species. We have been very good at focusing on specialist species, such as the redshank, which requires a particular kind of wet habitat. The hedgehog is a more challenging species for us to take on board.

As I was saying, the hedgehog is a good indicator for hedgerow habitat, although it is not much use for peatland or wetland. The hedgehog raises some important environmental questions. One is the question of conflict with the badger. Another is the question of the hedgehog in the western isles, which relates to the issue of the hedgehog’s potential predation on the eggs of the Arctic tern.

On the point about the hedgehog in the western isles, we have established that hedgehogs are a devolved matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) is not in the Chamber at the moment. Scottish Natural Heritage is doing careful work to humanely remove hedgehogs from the Hebrides, and it would be interesting to hear how the UK Government intend to support that work.

This is an important reminder that things that matter enormously to our civilisation, our society and our hearts—such as the hedgehog—have to be in the right place. In New Zealand, hedgehogs are considered an extremely dangerous invasive species that has to be removed for the same reasons that people in Scotland are having to think about controlling them there. It does not matter whether we are talking about badgers, hedgehogs or Arctic terns—it is a question of what place they should occupy.

Finally—and, I think, more positively—what the hedgehog really represents for us is an incredible symbol of citizen science. The energy that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport has brought to the debate is a great example of British, or perhaps English, eccentricity, and it is on the basis of English eccentricity that our habitat has been preserved. Gilbert White, the great 18th century naturalist, was himself an immense eccentric. It has been preserved thanks to eccentrics such as my hon. Friend and, perhaps most famously of all, Hugh Warwick, the great inspiration behind the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. He has written no fewer than three books on the hedgehog, and he talks very movingly about staring into the eyes of a hedgehog and getting a sense of its wildness from its gaze. These enthusiasts connect the public to nature, sustain our 25-year environment programme and contribute enormously to our scientific understanding of these animals. This is true in relation to bees, to beavers and in particular to Hugh Warwick’s work on hedgehogs. I am also pleased that the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) mentioned national hedgehog day in an earlier intervention.

Ultimately, we need to understand that the hedgehog is a very prickly issue. The reason for that is that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport has raised the question of adopting the hedgehog as our national symbol. Some hon. Members will remember that the hedgehog was used by Saatchi & Saatchi in an advertising campaign for the Conservative party in 1992 general election. We should therefore pay tribute to the hedgehog’s direct contribution to our election victory in that year. But I would like to challenge my hon. Friend’s assertion that the hedgehog should become our national symbol. I ask you, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I ask those on both sides of this House, because this question concerns not only one party, but all of us: do we want to have as our national symbol an animal which when confronted with danger rolls over into a little ball and puts its spikes up? Do we want to have as our national symbol an animal that sleeps for six months of the year? Or would we rather return to the animal that is already our national symbol? I refer, of course, to the lion, which is majestic, courageous and proud.

If I may finish with a little testimony to my hon. Friend and to those innocent creatures which are hedgehogs, perhaps I can reach back to them not as a symbol for our nation but as a symbol of innocence to Thomas Hardy. He says:

“When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,

One may say, ‘He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,

But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.’

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,

Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,

Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,

‘He was one who had an eye for such mysteries’?

I paused because I wanted to encourage some more positive noises for the Minister, who has just made one of the best speeches I have ever heard in this House.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.