Badger complex

Rob Yorke argues that a complex countryside results in undulating wildlife interactions.

 

 
16th December 2015
Photo credit: iStock

Hugh Warwick is right to say that badgers are not solely responsible for the decline in hedgehogs but he cannot turn a blind eye to predation interactions that are skewed by changing habitats within countryside and urban areas.

It is an unrealistic utopia to think that we can guide our conservation practices by just scientific evidence. The truth is that we have little natural science detailed data on much of our wildlife (a mere 5% of species at the last State of Nature report in 2013). In any case, who has the appetite to fund research on the interaction of two iconic species - especially when the results might help neither single species conservation organisations ‘promote conservation messages based on sound science’ without the risk of upsetting their membership.

There is no doubt that farming practices, in becoming more efficient since the 1950s through to their zenith in the 1980s, have had a huge impact on habitat. Industrial agriculture (any farming, large conventional landowner or small organic smallholder, is a primary industry providing us with food) has created an environment in which some wildlife finds well nigh impossible to thrive.

We can’t face up to the fact that we are an intrinsic part of this dynamic unbalanced environment, so, like the curate’s egg, we fetishise it in parts. We select sole reasons for declines in wildlife. Some point fingers at birds of prey as the main culprit for declining farmland birds; some prefer to blame pesticides as the sole agent for decreases in bees. The same applies to badgers and hedgehogs. Intra–guild predation, as Warwick mentions, becomes more common as badgers and hedgehogs bump into each other more often with a negative outcome for the latter. The result of ill-thought out first generation agricultural intensification has resulted in some areas of farmland becoming ‘landscapes of fear’ for many species as they avoid open habitats that provide predators with the upper hand.

Hedgehogs have retreated to the edges of urban areas where badgers are less common – though this may not be favourable habitat in the long term. Those that feed medium sized omnivores into ‘habitat-devoid’ gardens are doing no favours to mesopredators; for as HedgehogStreet sagely notes, ‘hedgehogs have been shown to actively avoid areas where badgers are present’.

If The Times created an unnecessary distraction by conflating helping hedgehogs with the badger bTB debate (albeit hedgehogs did increase when badgers were removed in the research paper as ‘mustelid omnivores may act to constrain a smaller mesopredator’), then Warwick is guilty of unrealistically aspiring to recreate an environment reminiscent of 10000 years ago by removing human influence over large landscape areas within our hungry crowded isle.

Yes, we can help both species live side by side by creating more habitat  - patchwork hedge networks within large arable areas - but this is an expensive long term objective. In the interim, as we saw on Springwatch in 2014, we note that badgers are generalist or opportunist feeders that will munch down an avocet chick as readily as a fat earthworm.

Conservation decisions are not just based on natural science. Hedgehogs were translocated from the Hebrides, little owls removed from Skokholm, black rats exterminated from Skiants – all of these decisions a complex mix of local knowledge, social and natural science, politics and human interests. Of course badgers are not the sole cause of hedgehog decline, but until we do provide more habitat (though we cannot treat this in isolation without considering the impact on the production of affordable food), licensing the targeted control of a species of no conservation concern should remain on the cards.

Rob Yorke is a rural commentator at www.robyorke.co.uk

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