Growing up in Montreal and Ottawa, Michel Birkenwald had never heard of hedgehogs, and when he moved to London many years ago for work, he still didn’t know much about them. But a chance encounter in his backyard changed everything and he’s now become such a hedgehog champion his efforts to save the creatures have made him something of a cult hero in Britain.
Mr. Birkenwald’s affection for the small spikey animal began four years ago when his dog Louis cornered one in the backyard of the family’s home in Barnes, southwest London. The petrified hedgehog captivated the Canadian and he soon learned all he could about the animals and their uncertain future. “I read that they need tunneling through fences to get to food,” Mr. Birkenwald explained as he stood in his lush garden. “I went to see my next-door neighbour and I said, 'Let’s make a tunnel in the fence,' which we did.”
Soon Mr. Birkenwald, 62, was drilling holes in fences and walls throughout Barnes – more than 100 so far – giving local hedgehogs freedom to roam as much as possible and marking each hole with a small green sign denoting the “Hedgehog Highway.” He didn’t stop there. He also began handing out free hedgehog homes, making posters with tips on hedgehog care and even offering an ambulance service to take injured hedgehogs to a neighbourhood vet. He went online too, launching Barnes Hedgehogs with videos and commentary that has inspired people across the country to drill holes in their fences and generated interest from as far away as Canada and Japan.
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“I’m a bit of a fanatic,” he said, adding that he covers all the costs himself and arranges drilling times for neighbours with his buddy who has a giant power drill dubbed “the beast.” And while his day job involves working as a gemologist at Graff Diamonds, he’s known almost everywhere as “the hedgehog man.”
These are perilous times for hedgehogs, once a ubiquitous part of the British countryside and a fixture in almost every garden. The mole-like animals are one of Britain’s few native species and they’ve been part of the landscape for more than 9,000 years. They’re also deeply woven into British culture, made popular by Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and featured in a wide collection of fairy tales, legends, novels and even video games. Hedgehogs routinely top the list of Britain’s favourite animal and there has been more than one attempt to make them the country’s national emblem.
But their numbers are in steep decline, brought down by a rapid depletion of grasslands, intensified farming and an increasing number of badgers, one of the hedgehog’s main predators and a fierce competitor for food. Back in the 1950s and 60s, the hedgehog population stood at around 36 million, but that figure has sunk to 522,000 today. In the past 20 years, the number of hedgehogs has fallen by 66 per cent, according to a report released in June by the British Mammal Society. The countryside has become almost bereft of hedgehogs. A recent study by researchers at the University of Reading examined 261 rural areas and could only find hedgehogs in 55 sites. The combination of intensive agriculture and an increased badger population “may have provided a perfect storm for hedgehogs in rural Britain, leading to worryingly low levels of occupancy over large [areas],” the study said.
That’s grim news for people like Emily Wilson, who is spearheading a campaign called Hedgehog Street, which has worked with Mr. Birkenwald and is lining up “hedgehog champions” throughout the country to help protect the animals. “We’re quite concerned that it might not be long until we don’t see hedgehogs altogether,” she said.
The Hedgehog Street campaign was created by two charities: the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. Its goal is to encourage people to make their gardens and neighbourhoods more hedgehog-friendly. “It’s more about getting people to do what they can just in their own spaces,” Ms. Wilson said. The Mammal Society is also encouraging people to count the number of hedgehogs they see and record the total on a Mammal Mapper app.
One of the biggest problems for hedgehogs has been the loss of space to search for food, which consists largely of bugs and worms. Hedgehogs travel up to two kilometres each night, digging for insects and seeking shelter. That’s virtually impossible in most cities where yards and gardens are fenced in. Rural areas have also been cleared of forests and hedgerows, prime places for hedgehogs to seek refuge. The loss of green space has also put hedgehogs into increasing contact with badgers, which have fared better thanks to conservation regulations enacted decades ago. While both compete for bugs, badgers will also eat hedgehogs if food supplies run short.
There are some signs the public push is having an impact. Around 50,000 people have joined the Hedgehog Street campaign and Mr. Birkenwald has been in hot demand for his tips on how to drill holes and how to care for hedgehogs. He’s already seeing more of the animals in his neighbourhood and three come by his home almost every night (he’s even made a small ramp for them to make it down a set of stairs). Nearly everyone he approaches is eager to help and he can barely keep up with the requests for holes. “People get very passionate about hedgehogs,” he said. “The minute they have a hedgehog in their yard, they fall in love with it.”