Aug 15 2019

Hogging a Place in Our Hearts

Hedgehogs hold a special place in our hearts. In a recent survey, they were voted Britain’s favourite mammal, polling more than a third of the votes. But what we know about these prickly pals is a major concern. Studies show that their numbers are declining and have been for a long time. In urban areas their population can appear to be healthy as they live in close proximity to humans. We can see them regularly, particularly where there are good sources of food and connected habitats and gardens. The PTES Hedgehog Street project encourages people to become a Hedgehog Champion and protect those crucial gardens and parks in our towns and villages

Mike the camera-shy hedgehog [photo – Julia Mockett]

But what do we know about the wilder areas? Are there any hedgehogs in Fingle Woods for instance? If so, how do we find out? Being nocturnal and very secretive, hedgehogs can be very difficult to find and have, until recently, been difficult to monitor with any degree of accuracy. With all the electronic technology at our disposal, the latest development to survey a population of hedgehogs has gone right back to basics. It’s a ‘footprint tunnel’. A plastic tunnel placed on the ground where hedgehogs can leave their footprints behind. Simple but effective! The People’s Trust for Endangered Species say that, “The tracking tunnel methodology is currently the only statistically robust way of determining whether hedgehogs are present or absent in any given area”.

Two grid squares chosen for the first survey © Crown copyright [and database rights] 2019 OS 1000021607

One of the essential elements of a woodland restoration project such as Fingle Woods is to know what species are around, and how they are faring in these challenging times. As an indicator of a healthy ecosystem, the hedgehog is a good one to choose because they rely on an abundance of invertebrates which, in turn, rely on dead wood and leaf litter for their survival and, this year, for the first time, the Fingle Woods team has started a monitoring programme. With the help of the Friends of Fingle volunteers, footprint tunnels are being deployed throughout the woods at different times of year. The first monitoring period took place in June for a full week, following the tracking guidance explains that, “If ten baited tunnels are set in up to 1km square for 5 consecutive nights and NO hedgehog footprints are detected, the surveyor can be 95% sure hedgehog are ABSENT from the area. Positioning of the tunnels is critical, and they must be checked each day. The technique can not currently be used to estimate abundance.”

Initially, two kilometre grid squares were selected for this survey at Fingle Woods. They were chosen to cover a variety of habitats in both busy and quiet areas of the woods. This required a set of 20 tunnels to be deployed in some of the likely hedgehog hideouts, spaced out at a minimum of 100 metres apart.

Setting up the footprint tunnels on day one was quite time consuming. Each tracking plate was equipped with a bait pot, two ‘ink pads’ and A4 white paper sheets held in place with paper clips. At each location the tunnels were fixed to the ground with two tent pegs and a bungee cord. A small handful of ‘Spike’s Dinner’ was placed in each bait pot and the tunnels were left overnight.

  

Will, Gill and Jill – volunteers at work                                David setting up the tracking plate

Each day, with great anticipation, the volunteers followed the monitoring route round the woods, checking the paper for footprints, replacing it where necessary, replenishing the bait and refreshing the paint (a non-toxic mixture of charcoal powder and sunflower oil).
At the end of the week there had been a lot of small mammal activity as wood mice and bank voles had scampered into the tunnels, raided the bait and left numerous little footprints, along with a few droppings and drips of urine. Even a few grey squirrels made their presence known by dismantling a few of the footprint tunnels and being a general menace, but there was no hint of a hedgehog until …. the final day when one single set of hedgehog tracks was found.

              

Hedgehog footprint tunnel in a likely location      Mice and voles took the bait and licked the paint!                           And finally, hedgehog prints

So, the answer is yes. There are hedgehogs in Fingle Woods, but the initial survey appears to show their numbers are low. Local anecdotal evidence includes a few stories of hedgehogs making appearances in the gardens of nearby houses and farms so, the search continues. Further surveys will resume in August and October in other areas of the woods and, if you are keen to take part, please contact Eleanor Lewis by email eleanorlewis@woodlandtrust.org.uk

by Matt Parkins

For more information on Fingle please visit https://finglewoods.org.uk

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