Hedgehog numbers are declining - but it's humans, rather than badgers, that are to blame. Photo: © Hugh Warwick.
Should we cull our badgers to save our hedgehogs?
24th April 2014
New scientific research shows that culling badgers can increase local hedgehog numbers. As UK hedgehog populations continue to decline, Hugh Warwick asks - are badgers to blame? Or does the real problem lie elsewhere?
Does this study strengthen the case for the badger cull? The only way to think that is - deliberately or otherwise - to misinterpret ecological science.
In an article titled 'Hedgehogs thrive after badger culls' The Times has today highlighted a paper just published in the journal Plos One which reveals, for the first time, that removing badgers from an area can cause an apparent increase in the number of hedgehogs.
"The number of badger colonies has doubled in the past 25 years while the hedgehog population has fallen by more than a third in the past decade", the newspaper reports - as if the national hedgehog decline directly follows from the badgers' increase.
So what's the truth? Should we really be culling badgers to save our hedgehogs? Well, the simple answer is ... it's complicated - but no, we should not.
We know that badgers eat hedgehogs - I have found some of my radiotracked hedgehogs consumed. And we know that where you have more badgers, you tend to have fewer hedgehogs. So why hasn't the hedgehog-loving community been supporting the badger cull?
Well, it is not for want of effort on the part of those in favour of a badger cull. But I'm certainly not convinced that there is much of an ecological argument in favour of killing badgers - whether it is to reduce bovine TB, or save hedgehogs.
Setting the story straight
So when The Times argues today that, "The results could help to strengthen the case for culling badgers, whish is based on evidence, disputed by some scientists, that it helps to protect cattle from tuberculosis", I feel that it is important to set the story straight.
First, "disputed by some scientists" is a bit misleading as those scientists include the absolute experts in the field of mammal research. The Government position is based on dodgy politics - not science.
But the main point: does this study strengthen the case for the badger cull? The only way to think that is - deliberately or otherwise - to misinterpret ecological science.
Hedgehogs and badgers are in what is known as an 'asymmetric intraguild predatory relationship.' They compete for the same food resources (as is explained in the paper in Plos One).
But when the environment is altered so that there is less food available for both species - they mainly eat macro-invertebrates - the relationship shifts to being predatory. And as much as I am sure many would love to see a herd of hungry hedgehogs chasing a badger down a hedgerow, it is not that way around.
What has changed? Intensive agriculture
Hedgehogs and badgers have shared the same space for thousands of years, so what has changed? The most likely explanation is that there is less food available for both species in the soil.
Intensification of agriculture leads to reduced macro-invertebrate fauna. Even if a field of grass looks luxuriant, it might be nothing less of a monoculture than a field of oilseed rape.
Badgers have another advantage - they are being fed by the very community that wants to see them exterminated. Increased production of maize is supplementing the diet of badgers while impoverishing soil fauna, and disadvantaging hedgehogs all the more.
Hedgehogs have declined by 37% in the last ten years. Are badgers to blame for the catastrophic decline in hedgehog numbers? It is important to consider that the areas where the decline is most rapid have few or no badgers.
So that would suggest other factors at play - and they are well recognised: habitat fragmentation, habitat loss and reduction of food. But badgers are a part of the picture, and it would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise.
The real problem is not badgers, but humans
To 'blame' badgers is simply wrongheaded. We have created an environment that is currently favouring badgers. And it is all too easy to slip into the foolish belief that we must deal with the badgers rather than the system.
The system reaches all the way to the supermarkets, where the new ecological low-point has to be the '4 pints for £1' campaign. Milk this cheap does not give it the value it deserves. It does not pay farmers enough to step back a little and work the land and cattle more gently.
Badgers are being culled because milk is too cheap, but thriving because they are being fed maize. Hedgehogs are suffering because pressures to maximise returns are so great that every last bit of life must be squeezed from the soil.
Hedgehogs and badgers are two of the most iconic species of the Britain. They are loved by millions - though I should point out that the hedgehog is loved by more!
And as we are about to enter Hedgehog Awareness Week, I think it is important that we look at their relationship, recognise its complexity and resist the cheap, and ecologically illiterate, shot of seeking to blame badgers.
Hugh Warwick is an author and ecologist. His latest book, Hedgehog, came out last week.
More information about Hugh's work is at www.urchin.info.
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