Why a Harrys Law would be bad for hedgehogs


hedgehog (credit: Daniel Wehner)

The Wildlife Aid Foundation has launched a campaign today for hedgehog specific legislation to try and prevent the continued loss of this popular garden mammal. The trouble is a ‘Harry’s Law’ would not work and could even detract from the major threats to the species.

Ann Widecombe, former MP, launched the campaign to introduce a Hedgehog Protection Act that will set this species apart from 1,000 of other species in the UK – and a lot of them are far more endangered than the hedgehog.

The Wildlife Aid Foundation (WAF) wants the new act to make it illegal for the ‘…wilful killing of hedgehogs’ and will also introduce a mandatory code of practice to help conserve the species.

Wildlife Aid Foundation’s founder and director Simon Cowell said a protection law and mandatory code of practice would force government agencies including Network Rail and the Highways Agency to treat the hedgehog’s plight as critical.

And it would prompt trade and consumer bodies to take notice and issue advice to their members on how to help the hedgehog.

The problem is that there is no need for this law – the hedgehog has full protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act so any wilful killing would be illegal anyway and open to prosecution. The hedgehog is already a priority conservation species in the UK and so is receiving a lot of research and conservation activity to try and halt the decline.

The biggest problem is that by singling out the hedgehog and concentrating resources on forcing big business, government departments and other big organisations to do more we miss out on the real problems that hedgehogs face. Forcing Network Rail to follow mandatory guidelines will not protect habitat or enrich habitat for the hedgehog – Network Rail do a lot to conserve wildlife that use the rail system as green corridors – what it does do though is give us someone else to blame and to give us – the general public – a reason not to act ourselves.

The reality is that the biggest threat to hedgehogs toady is the way we garden – and that’s if we are forrtunate enough to have a garden. We no longer have the compost heap or log piles that provide a home to the hedgehog and just as importantly a home to the species that hedgehogs live on. Garden are so small now that few have sheds anymore and those that do tend to be professionally fitted onto concrete bases offering no opportunity for hedgehogs to find shelter and make a nest.

Long gone are the days when gardens had hedges and gaps in fences that hedgehogs could squeeze through to extend their hunting grounds or meet up with other hedgehogs for mating. Today’s gardens are locked up tight, clean and almost hygienic, offering no real chance for hedgehogs to find a home, breed and expand.

At the launch of the initiative Ms Widecombe said that previous initiatives have failed because they put the onus on individuals to do more such as make their gardens more wildlife friendly. This is though is the best tactic we have at the moment, though we do still need to change laws and regulations to help encourage hedgehogs and the rest of our urban and garden wildlife. Singling out a single species for extra protecction – no matter how well loved – will not tackle the core issues.

If there’s one set of laws and regulations that is damaging our urban wildlife and that is the planning laws and housing regulations. The intensive housing strategy that we have followed for the last 20 years, and are still following, will do as much damage to our urban wildlife as intensive agriculture has done to our farmland and rural wildlife. The biggest threat to hedgehogs and urban wildlife is the planning regulation PPG3. If the WAF really wanted to offer sanctuary to our hedgehogs and other urban wildlife they would be campaigning to end PPG3 rather than detracting attention away from the real cause of hedgehog threats.

PPG3 is the planning guidance that discourages building on the open countryside, encourages re-use of land and of greatest concern for our urban wildlife forces ever increasing densities of housing on the land. If Labour had won the last general election then John Prescott had plans to greatly increase housing building densities from 9.3 home per acre to over 12 homes per acre. As the House Builder Federation said at the time of the announcement, ‘Those aspiring to a family home with a garden and garage are most affected. PPG3 is cutting back on space and it could spell the death of the garden.

Britain now builds the smallest homes in Europe and the difference can be stark. The average new build home in Britain is almost half the size of new builds in Denmark. New build homes in the Netherlands are over 50% larger than in the UK. Over the last 80 years homes in Britain have shrunk on average by 40% and it’s not just the inside rooms that have shrunk – gardens have taken a much bigger loss than our indoor living space.

The more traditional large family garden is now only found in the most expensive new builds. For the majority of new homes it’s patio sized gardens or none at all. The family garden with its biodiversity and range of habitats are being replaced by areas of communal lawns that are cropped regularly and offer little in way of habitat or food when compared to a traditional garden.

This falling size of gardens was highlighted in a Horticultural Trade Association survey in 2006 that found that the proportion of homes in the UK with a terrace or patio sized garden stood at 23% up from 13% on the earlier survey in 2002.

We are seeing a substantial lose of habitat in our urban and suburban areas because of our failed planning and housing policies. While we continue to force more and more houses into smaller and smaller areas it’s not just the families who will suffer it’s our wildlife. We are now only just seeing the impacts of our intensive housing policies in much the same way it took many years for us to fully understand the impact of intensive farming on rural wildlife.

When intensive farming took hold many of our rural species were able to retreat to our gardens and adapt to new habitat. As our gardens grow smaller and fewer in number there will be no-where for the wildlife to find sanctuary in.

We have much better understanding now of the way wildlife survives and moves around than we did 60 or 70 years ago when many of our planning policies were put in place. It’s time to review those laws and to put in place protection that is based on a sites biodiversity value and not on its location. It’s time to break our towns and cities free from being constrained by sterile greenbelt fields and move that protection to more valuable land whether it’s in the countryside or within the urban environment.

We need to stop building ever smaller houses with gardens barely big enough for a pot plant and chair and start to build the houses that offer homes for people and wildlife. We’ve spent over 20 years building the over-crowded health hazard slums of the future – and we’ll see the true social impact of that in the coming decade – it’s time to stop it.

Hedgehogs will appreciate the ending of PPG3 far more than they will appreciate being given extra legal protection that will do nothing to protect their habitats.

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One Comment

  1. Actually, PPG3 has already gone, together with nationally set brownfield development targets, courtesy of the NPPF which gives local councils the power to decide on their own targets. However, I cannot see the end of PPG3 having any positive impact for hedgehogs, though, especially as the general encouragement of ‘sustainable growth’, whether on open countryside or small pockets of green space or on brownfield sites, will inevitably mean further depletion of wildlife habitats and the disappearance of essential wildlife corridors and safe havens.
    Regarding the Wildlife & Countryside Act it did indeed provide some protections for hedgehogs but of limited value and all that Ann Widdecombe and the Wildlife Aid Foundation are doing is saying that we need stronger statutory protection, perhaps in the form of a new law or an amendment to an existing piece of legislation, but either way it should be explicitly for hedgehogs and not simply lump in hedgehogs with hundreds of other species.

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