The Gloucestershire expert (and a springer spaniel) at the forefront of hedgehog conservation
PUBLISHED: 10:44 03 September 2019 | UPDATED: 13:04 03 September 2019
Conservation K9 Consultancy
How Hartpury lecturer Lucy Bearman-Brown - and a springer spaniel called Henry - are at the forefront of hedgehog conservation
Of all the species of animal in Britain, there's no doubt that hedgehogs hold a special place in the nation's hearts.
If any proof were needed of the spiky little mammal's popularity, a poll by the Royal Society of Biology should be convincing enough.
Hedgehogs raced to first place with 35.9 per cent of the vote, more than double that of the Red Fox, sitting in second place.
But despite its popularity, hedgehog numbers in Britain remain on the decline - seeing a concerning 50 per cent drop in the past decade, in fact - due to factors such as loss of habitat, use of chemicals in gardens and on farmland, fragmentation of suitable habitat and death through accidents on roads and other human-related factors.
The good news is that hedgehogs, often regarded as the gardener's best friend because they consume pests such as beetles and slugs, have experts like Hartpury University's Lucy Bearman-Brown to champion their cause.
Barely a moment goes by when hedgehogs aren't occupying Lucy's mind, whether she's attending international research conferences or supporting undergraduates with research on Hartpury's beautiful 360-hectare campus.
"I've always been extremely passionate about wildlife," says Lucy, a Senior Lecturer in Animal Science. "It very much comes from my mum (Sue).
"As a child, I remember Mum volunteering at the toad crossing patrol near where we lived, when the toads were migrating.
"I'd run across the lane carrying toads in a plastic bucket to make sure they got across to the other side safely."
Whilst Lucy's love of British wildlife started young, hedgehogs didn't become a feature into much later.
"I'd actually never seen a hedgehog until about 10 years ago, and even that was by accident," she says.
"I was doing a bat survey in a park in Leeds as part of my Master's degree and we just happened to come across a hedgehog. We watched it for ages and they've been a big part of my life ever since."
In her latest research project at Hartpury, Lucy is helping to train a special 'detection dog' to sniff out hedgehogs so they can be moved out of harm's way in land development projects.
She has teamed up with the People's Trust for Endangered Species and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society to work with a springer spaniel called Henry, one of a group of conservation dogs from Conservation K9 Consultancy.
By training dogs like Henry, whose sense of smell is 100,000 times more sensitive than a human's, it's hoped nesting hedgehogs can be found and moved to safety before their habitat is cleared for development.
It's currently unknown how many hedgehogs could be killed during such practices, so this study would help provide greater insight into this, whilst also saving individuals.
As hedgehogs spend about 85% of their life in their nest in dense undergrowth and long grass, they are in danger whenever land is cleared or long grass is mown.
Working alongside Henry's trainer Louise Wilson, Lucy starts by finding hedgehogs herself, using the traditional method of spotlights, and attaches a small radio-tracking device to them.
Henry then searches the area, and Lucy can see how effective he is at finding the hedgehogs in a range of different habitats, during the day and night.
Lucy then searches the area again herself, this time using thermal cameras, to see if modern technology can help with detection rates in a range of different habitats.
Finding hedgehogs in woodland, for example, is really difficult as they are so well camouflaged, so embracing technology may help us understand how important different habitat types are to hedgehogs. By carrying out these surveys during summer months, when hedgehogs are active, and in winter, when they are hibernating, Lucy is able to test the methods to the extreme, showing just how much of a super-dog Henry is.
"Early results are really encouraging," says Lucy. "Henry's already been finding hedgehogs that I couldn't locate using traditional methods - he is incredible!
"He is particularly good at finding hedgehogs hiding in thick undergrowth, much to the bemusement of Louise as she follows behind on the end of Henry's lead."
Henry is trained to locate hedgehogs without stressing or hurting them. When he finds one he lets Louise know by quietly sitting nearby and looking at her.
He then gets his reward, a game of fetch with his ball, away from the hedgehog, to reinforce the behaviour of locating hedgehogs, and to keep the process engaging and positive.
"These early findings suggest we may soon have a new method that is more effective for finding hedgehogs at risk from land development, so we can move them out of harm's way," says Lucy.
"The plan is that once this concept is proven, more dogs can be trained to help find hidden hedgehogs.
"I'd like to thank the PTES and BHPS for funding the project, as well as Conservation K9 Consultancy and Louise for letting me work so closely with Henry."
Henry's handler Louise has already trained dogs for other wildlife conservation purposes.
Together they have tracked down bat carcasses at wind turbine sites, located elusive pine martins and sought out cheetah scat, so finding hedgehogs is a great addition to their skill set.
Lucy hopes that through the combined efforts of researchers, the public and organisations supporting the cause of hedgehogs, the decline in numbers can be halted.
"In urban environments it looks like there might be some degree of recovery in the population - it's not declining at the same rate that it was," she says.
"That's partly because of things that households are doing to help, such as leaving holes at the bottom of fences to allow hedgehogs to move from garden to garden, and leaving some areas of the garden a bit wild to provide food and materials for nesting.
"In contrast, the situation in rural environments is pretty dire when you have the cultivation of a single crop for as far as the eye can see with very little diversity, meaning it lacks the habitat and food on which many species of wildlife rely.
"The thing with hedgehogs is that because so many people are passionate about them, it should be an easy win for conservation.
"If we can win the hedgehog fight then it will have a positive impact on a lot of other species.
"It follows that if we make spaces in the garden for wildlife, or the landscape for hedgehogs to move through, other species can also use that space as well.
"Diet wise, if we're building up insect biodiversity that also benefits farmland birds, badgers and foxes, for instance.
"There is still a lot of work to do, clearly, but the really positive news is that there is a lot of momentum behind addressing the challenges of hedgehog decline and everyone can make a difference."
Hartpury is a specialist educational provider located in Gloucestershire with more than 3,600 college and university level students studying postgraduate and undergraduate degrees, A-levels and diplomas in the areas of sport, equine, animal, agriculture and veterinary nursing. For more information, visit hartpury.ac.uk.