The sight of dead hedgehogs used to be a regrettable feature of driving on rural roads in the early morning. The animals were often highlighted from a distance by foraging magpies and crows and were a common enough phenomenon that a road safety campaign for children was designed around a hedgehog family. But in recent years, the sighting of a dead hedgehog has become a more rare event .
According to a report, Living with Mammals, published last week by the PTES (People’s Trust for Endangered Species) the numbers of hedgehogs killed on our roads has been dropping since 2001 – and not because motorists are exercising more care when driving on rural roads. The reduction in the percentage of hedgehogs in overall road kill figures probably means that the hedgehog population is being affected by other factors too.
The State of Britain’s Hedgehogs ,published last year, drew together the findings of several surveys by PTES and others to build a picture of how hedgehog populations are changing. And this year’s report from the PTES, Living with Mammals, says nothing to allay concerns about a declining hedgehog population in the UK.
Hedgehogs like a number of other British mammals are having a tough time. In April last year, across the UK as a whole, 80 per cent more rain fell in April than the average for the month, and areas in eastern and southern England and Wales, and eastern Scotland, were flooded. Extraordinary weather events like this, as well as general trends in climate change are having a noticeable effect on animal populations. The use of insecticides and slug pellets in suburban gardens may have contributed to the fall in hedgehog numbers, according to Living with Mammals. The use of these substances means that there is less food available for hedgehogs and it is important that they feed well before winter in order to build up their body fat to enable them to hibernate through the cold winter period. Further, the ongoing use of once natural countryside for housing and other development, the tidiness of the urban garden, and the reduction in hedges across rural land may all be driving numbers down.
Those hedgehogs that do manage to survive in an increasingly difficult environment are still threatened when they are on or near roads. The hedgehog’s natural reaction to roll into a ball when threatened is no defence against an oncoming car and significant numbers are killed on the roads. Only rabbit road kill exceeds that of the hedgehog.
So what can drivers do, if anything?
It turns out that rural roads are not only a life threatening place to be for hedgehogs but they rank amongst our most dangerous roads for humans too. Government statistics show that in 2011 (latest figures) more than 50% of road deaths on British roads occurred on rural roads.
The Highway Code advises motorists to take extra care on country roads and reduce speed at approaches to bends, which can be sharper than they appear, and at junctions and turnings, which may be partially hidden; to be prepared for pedestrians, horse riders, cyclists, slow-moving farm vehicles or mud on the road surface and to make sure you can stop within the distance you can see to be clear. It also states that motorists should reduce speed where country roads enter villages.
It doesn’t specifically mention hedgehogs but perhaps it is time all road users thought more about the outcome of inappropriate speed in the countryside and the effect it can have on soft-bodied creatures.