In the field of nature conservation with so many fascinating and exciting things out there it is easy to forget about the things that we perceive as common. I have heard this described as the generation window, for example, I spent my childhood never seeing water voles along rivers and canals and to me that was normal, however for the generations before me they were a common sight. This idea enforces the fact we must look back and learn from past generations to see our wildlife as it should be and not just as we see it, otherwise we could lose even our most common species.
Even in the two decades of my lifetime, one species I have noticed slipping slowly out of sight is the hedgehog. I have sharp memories of nights in the garden with my dad as a little girl, listening intently for the characteristic snuffles of a foraging hedgehog. There was such a high density in my village that you could easily trip over them on late night trips home from the pub. I remember how intrigued I was with this little brown mammal, only active at night covered in thin sharp spines.
Over time I realised in there were no more hedgehogs in my garden, there was no nest under my neighbours shed or grainy footage of the insectivores bumbling over the lawn on camera traps. The Wildlife Trust estimates that in the U.K. hedgehogs are declining by 5% every year, which could soon lead to extinction. I for one would not want future generations thinking this absence of hedgehogs is normal.
I now find myself a world away from my typical English garden with thick green laws, small fruit trees and obligatory bird feeder. Instead, I am stood on a dusty road, its 26oC even though I’m assured its winter. In one hand I have a large antenna and round my neck a small black box intermittently beep at me, alerting me that I am in the presence of a hedgehog. This is upgraded hedgehog hunting, far from the nighttime rummages in my garden. I am trying to explain to a Malawian guard that according to my Equipment there is a hedgehog on the property or ‘chisoni’ in the local language. With the use of this word he understands he replies “ahhh chisoni yes I can get for you, how many?” I then proceed to explain that I do not want him to bring me hedgehogs, and definitely not dead, I am trying to find them for a study. Although, I am not sure he completely understands me.
Eventually after a quick sweep of the garden, I locate him. These hedgehogs are very different from the ones I normally encounter. The four-toed pygmy hedgehog is smaller, blonder and from my experience, more aggressive than its European cousin. My aim here in Malawi is to investigate the urban ecology of this species, which is now a common household pet across the world. However, there is very little known about it in the wild. Furthermore, unlike its European cousin, the African hedgehog is common sight and benefiting from landscape urbanisation, even when all other wildlife has been decimated.
By investigating why the African hedgehog is doing so well from urbanisation we can apply the knowledge to our own species of hedgehog and prevent both the African and European hedgehog declining. This will become more prominent as we continue to fill our landscape with more houses, roads and industrial areas. If we work with the landscape we can provide a home for wildlife as well as our growing population, even simple steps such as small holes in boundary fences will allow hedgehogs to move freely, by caring for our gardens in a wildlife friendly way we can live alongside wildlife instead of destroying it. I hope that the next generation will not class hedgehogs as endangered species but instead the common garden mammal I grew up with.
Check out hedgehog street to see what you can do to help hedgehogs on your patch- https://www.hedgehogstreet.org/