The plight of urban hedgehogs – an emblem of Thatcher’s Britain

Under threat: the much loved hedgehog. Photo credit: Creative Commons

The West European hedgehog, while not threatened globally, is among Britain’s fastest declining mammals. There’s a consensus around a decline of over 40 per cent nationally over the last ten years. Although urban populations are just beginning to stabilise, conservation efforts still face limitations in public engagement and efficacy. A large part of the blame for this, I contend, can be attributed to Margaret Thatcher. 

A central takeaway from the State of Britain’s Hedgehogs 2022 report is that the decline is more pronounced in the rural landscape than in urban areas, owing mostly to rural habitat loss associated with agricultural intensification since the 1940s. This involved ploughing up wildflower meadows, ripping out hedgerows to create vast crop monocultures and packing most of the remaining countryside with sheep and cattle, with similar results for biodiversity. Increases in pesticide use have also been detrimental both directly to hedgehogs and indirectly via their invertebrate prey.

By contrast, urban declines have been less severe, partly because these areas provided stable habitats in green belt, parks and residential gardens containing semi-natural vegetation, sheltered from climatic extremes and usually having lower densities of badgers (a major competitor and predator of hedgehogs). Gardens are particularly valuable for hedgehogs, collectively dominating the urban environment by area and often providing anthropogenic food. Their ownership is also distributed relatively equally compared to British land in general.

‘Biggest road building since the Romans’

Therefore, conservation NGOs encourage households to utilise their gardens to help hedgehogs. The result of all these factors is a stabilising urban population compared to continuing declines in rural areas. 

Apropos urban hedgehogs (the destruction of the rural environment also continued under Thatcher, but predated her) there are several ways in which Maggie’s legacy obstructs their conservation, which highlight the importance of acknowledging environmentalism as inherently political and inseparably intertwined with social issues.

First and foremost is the proliferation of roads and and cars. In 1989 the government published a white paper outlining ‘the biggest road-building programme since the Romans’ as part of the effort to make Britain a ‘great car economy’. Although much of this programme was later abandoned following massive public opposition, to the extent that it succeeded, the new roads fragmented the landscape and induced more traffic. This road building fixation continues today.

Major challenges for urban hedgehogs

More successful than Thatcher’s road building was her privatisation of public transport. This has brought higher fares, poorer quality, uncoordinated services, and profiteering for private operators while losses are covered by taxpayers. Privatisation has had such harmful social impacts that in the case of bus services it is considered by a former United Nations Special Rapporteur to violate human rights.

In conjunction, the cost of driving private cars has decreased substantially in real terms. Aside from a litany of health- and climate-related damage, the resulting proliferation of cars over public transport presents major challenges for urban hedgehogs.

Roads are significant barriers to hedgehog movement which, as one would expect, are more effective the busier the road, due to mortalities and noise disturbance. They restrict foraging, prevent dispersal, and reduce gene flow.

Then, as more households own more cars, what were once front gardens are paved into personal car parks. This removes significant chunks of urban habitat for hedgehogs and other wildlife.

Not just services were privatised

Alongside the car economy, urban hedgehog conservation is impeded by a less tangible but more pervasive consequence of Thatcherism: the disintegration of social relations. Thatcher certainly did say that “there’s no such thing as society”, and the neoliberal ideology that she instigated promoted rugged individualism in every aspect.

One consequence: Britain is now the loneliness capital of Europe.  Thatcherism privatised not just its services and infrastructure, but also its people. It turns out that an ideology built on self-interest and ruthless competition isn’t, as George Monbiot argues, conducive to social cohesion.

By the same author

Tendency for taller, thicker panel fencing

How does this impact hedgehogs? Well, as noted above, a key resource for urban hedgehogs is residential gardens. These gardens have in recent decades become enclosed by ever more robust borders, which further inhibit hedgehog movement through their habitat.

There’s no need to turn your garden into a medieval fortification. Yet, driven partly by the individualism of Thatcherite ideology, there’s a tendency towards taller, thicker panel fencing reinforced by concrete posts, gravel boards, brick walls, everything short of guard towers, as part of a trend towards more defensive property ownership. Being quite antisocial myself, I see the appeal of border walls between me and the neighbours to avoid awkward small talk and prying eyes. That doesn’t make it a reasonable idea.

Many housing estates are designed in blocks with gardens backing onto each other. Why should these contain grids of internal fencing which barely leave room for children to break into a run, or indeed, for hedgehogs to forage.

Where hedgehogs rarely roam: a typical English housing estate. Photo eredit: photoeverywhere

Creating highways for hedgehogs

Short of removing internal garden fences, which may not always be desirable (for example in households with dogs), the Hedgehog Street campaign encourages people to make small holes at the base of their fences just large enough for hedgehogs to pass through, as part of a network of ‘Hedgehog Highways’. This leaves aside a range of intermediate options, such as replacing panel fencing with more permeable wire, trellis, or hedges (themselves valuable wildlife habitat).   

But even here uptake is limited, partly due to concerns over cooperating or communicating with neighbours to do so, or reluctance to damage or alter the property, the latter particularly relevant to private tenants – victims of a housing market mostly created by… you’ve guessed it.

To a large extent, we still live in Thatcher’s Britain: the issues mentioned here, among a host of others, all maintained by successive governments of both main parties. 

This influence extends beyond our own species, urban hedgehogs being one example, the victims of higher vehicular traffic on ever more roads. The loss of social cohesion encourages households to fortify gardens and be less inclined to communicate with one another; societal wounds afflicting both the hedgehogs and the people of Britain’s towns and cities.  Showing some solidarity with our prickly comrades when they need it more than ever could be one small step towards overcoming this legacy and becoming a greener, fairer, better connected society.

Other ways to help our prickly friends

Positive steps are being taken, including in Sussex, where both universities partake in the Hedgehog Friendly Campus Award scheme, and with Brighton & Hove City Council ending its use of chemical pesticides in public spaces as of this year. But there’s much more to be done.

Alongside urgent efforts to rewild our countryside we must also improve the resources of urban environments – stop using chemical pesticides in gardens and allow them to become wilder. Encourage local authorities to do the same in parks. Bring public transport back into public ownership and provide citywide cycle networks, and reduce car use as much as possible in the meantime. Above all, tear down that garden wall.

This article is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Sussex Bylines or the wider Bylines network.

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