One of Britain's most charming mammals is under threat, but although the well-funded animal and environmental charities are doing little or nothing, there are some people who have dedicated their lives to saving the hedgehog.
One such charity is Hedgehog Bottom, although it is a charity in name only because while the RSPCA has a multimillion pound budget and pays its chief executive over £100,000 a year, Hedgehog Bottom is run on a shoestring, and is if not quite a one woman band, then dependent on the remarkable Gil Lucraft. Here is some video of her from last year.
Hedgehogs were back in the news recently when the indefatigable Ann Widdicombe MP waded in on their behalf. Here is Gil's view.
AB: There have been reports recently that hedgehogs are facing extinction, or may do in the near future. Do you think things are that bad, and what would you like to see done? Ann Widdicombe has suggested legislation. A national park for hedgehogs?
GL: If the current losses continue as they are now then there is a very real chance hedgehogs will become, if not extinct, then restricted to wildlife parks and zoos. A national park simply will not work. Hedgehogs travel great distances, are not pack animals and don't like to live together. It would have to be a massive park to avoid the chance of inbreeding, something we are seeing in some of the wild populations now.
Anne Widdecombe's proposed legislation would cover cruelty to hedgehogs and it needs to happen. There are far too many people who believe the old 'flea ridden' rubbish and will do anything they can to get rid of them. We are constantly getting calls asking us to go and remove hedgehogs from gardens as they "have given my daughter fleas" are "disgusting things and I don't want my kids anywhere near them" or "are upsetting my dog".
There are also still reports of the traveller communities catching and killing hogs in fair numbers to eat.
[Disgusting though that may sound, it should come as no surprise to anyone in view of the way these so-called travellers treat human beings].
AB: Awhile ago there was actually a cull of hedgehogs on Uist, which sounds ludicrous. If they were a threat to birds, couldn't they have been relocated?
GL: The cull was ill-advised and based on incorrect information. Once the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, Hessilhead etc got involved, the cull was stopped and hedgehogs are now caught and relocated to the mainland with no problems to date. As far as I'm aware this has made no difference to the numbers of birds on the island but you can probably get more up to date information from Uist Hedgehog Rescue.
AB: How and why did you choose the name Hedgehog Bottom?
GL: Ahhh, well I wanted a name that wasn't associated with a place. Two reasons. Firstly, something like West Berkshire Hedgehog Rescue would have trodden on the toes of any other rescues in the area that had been running for some time and second, if we ever needed to relocate the name would be meaningless. We live in a river valley, Vale is already taken, Valley would cause confusion with a local veterinary group. I also wanted something people would remember, if it was funny it would stick, so we live in a valley, at the bottom, and the part of a hedgehog you see most often as they run away is their bottom. Hedgehog Bottom made sense, it makes people laugh and they look twice when they see something in print. Children think it's a bit rude and therefore great.
AB: Whose idea was it, who founded it, and how long have you been going?
GL: My idea, I set it up and we've been running officially for 5 years, unofficially 7 years.
AB: Many charities are big business; the chief executive of the RSPCA is on a 6 figure salary. You have so little income that you don't even register with the Charity Commission.
GL: Correct, and I have to admit it does rankle with most small rescues when they see the huge sums of money sloshing around in the accounts of people like the RSPCA, Cat's Protection, etc. whilst we are hand to mouth trying to make ends meet. Every penny we get goes on the animals, there are no salaries, company cars and pensions. Overspends come out of our own pockets or more likely, our own credit cards. I often wonder how much of the national debt is down to wildlife rescues.
Until very recently, small charities were completely on their own, you had to have an annual income of £10,000 before you could register as a charity, and companies wouldn't donate unless you were registered. Gift Aid was restricted to the registered charities as well so as long as you had plenty of money coming in, you could get more money. A couple of years ago things changed a little, you can now register with an income of £5000 which helps a bit, but for those under that level there is the opportunity to apply to HMRC for Charity for Tax status, and this allows Gift Aid and other perks associated with full charitable status.
AB: Do you find it a struggle, and could you perhaps use more funding? (Dumb question).
GL: Ahh, the old Catch 22. We could always use more funding. I worked out that it actually cost over £10,000 last year, luckily not in cash, we got a lot of donations of food and sundries which carried us through. The problem is if we fundraise, more people know about us and more hogs arrive, so we need to fundraise and round and round we go. We are now at the stage where we need to expand to larger premises or risk turning animals away, not something we want to do but there is a limit as to how many we can provide proper care for where we are now. Expansion takes big money, especially in the area we operate, I worked out we need around £500,000.
One in 10 finders tend to give a donation and this seems to be standard for most rescues. People think we get money from the Government or RSPCA. We are also assumed to be an arm of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and that they pay our bills. I've had several people tell me they sent donations to them to help pay for the hogs we took in.
Our biggest costs are food and veterinary bills, those run into hundreds of pounds a year especially when animals need operations. Although many large companies will give grants they are usually for specific projects and not running costs.
AB: How many hedgehogs do you deal with a year?
GL: An ever moving target. In 2010 we took in 236 and released 93%, overwintering 86. 2011 we took in over 300 and released 92% overwintering 120. In the first half of 2012 we've had over 100 and this is supposed to be our quiet period, the numbers escalate from the end of August through to December.
AB: You appear to have quite a network. How does this operate?
GL: When I first started there were very few people I could talk to or get help and advice from. Vets tend, for the most part, to be clueless about wildlife, they do little or no training on them. I linked up with Derek Knight in Essex via his hedgehog forum and about 15 of us regulars bashed our heads on the keyboard trying to work out why we were losing so many autumn juveniles.
Once I decided to become legit due to numbers coming in I set up a website and created a Facebook page. Facebook was a revelation, there were dozens of other rescuers on there, all in their own little bubble doing their own thing. I came across a couple of the large wildlife rescues and started to talk to them and whilst some are very secretive about their methods, a few are more than happy to give advice based on their experience. Most notable is Vale Wildife Hospital. Their vet Tim spends a lot of time doing research on treatments and is happy to pass that on. We now have a large group of people who share ideas and experiences and many of us use the medications and worming regimes published by Vale. Our success rate has shot up.
In addition to this we have started to get people who are interested in working with hedgehogs but not completely taken over by them as we are. This has given us the opportunity to set up collection and drop-off points all over the area where we know the animal will receive correct initial treatment rather than being stuck in a cardboard box full of damp leaves for hours while it slowly dies.
I'm now getting calls for advice from people all over Europe and have recently dealt with a lady who rescued a youngster in New Zealand. Hedgehog Bottom International Rescue R Us! or maybe that should be Thunderhogs are go!
AB: What can ordinary people do to help save the hedgehog?
Sign up to Hedgehog Street, the initiative set up by the BHPS and People's Trust for Endangered Species. The pack gives plenty of advice on feeding, dangers and providing corridors for them.
Our website gives lots of information with problems and solutions. If people have questions then Hedgehog Street usually has a few people on-line who can step in with useful advice.
AB: Is this only for country dwellers or can suburb or even city dwellers help; there aren't many hedgehogs in the city, surely?
GL: Large cities are unlikely to have viable populations due to restricted movement, not, as often thought, busy roads but garden fencing and walls which prevent the animals from moving around and spreading the gene pool. Inbreeding quickly reduces numbers and they die out. Hedgehogs are missing from large swathes of the countryside due to habitat destruction, town dwellers are more likely to see them these days. Wherever they are they need help in the form of food, water and somewhere safe to sleep. They need protection from strimmers, mowers, poisons, pesticides, ornamental ponds, netting, uncovered trenches and drains, litter - the list goes on and on - and they need space to move around.
Feeding a baby hedgehog.
AB: Anything else you'd like to add?
GL: We need to stop people from giving inappropriate care, food and treatments, so the big message is: don't give milk, hedgehogs aren't flea ridden, and please talk to a rescue for advice AFTER you have secured the hog so it can't crawl off to die and BEFORE you do anything else.
Please consider giving your donations to your local small rescues rather than the huge nationals, and don't believe everything you read on the web, much of it is out of date now and we have best practice to refer to so talk to us, we don't often bite.
Hedgehogs feeding at Gil Lucraft's Hedgehog Bottom.
This one is more hog than hedge.
Hedgehog Bottom on the road.
Even hedgehogs have to visit the dentist!
Of course hedgehogs can read!
The amazing Gil Lucraft with TV presenter Maggie Philbin.