Germany has the magnificent Golden Eagle, Italy the wolf, India the Royal Bengal Tiger, and Uganda the proud crested crane. And our national animal? Perhaps the mighty red deer, or fearsome hunter the otter? Or beautiful barn owl? No. The people (or at least the readers of the BBC Wildlife Magazine) have spoken, and our national animal – the creature that represents Britain – is the humble hedgehog.
At first I was a bit taken aback by this. The hedgehog isn’t exactly top of the foodchain, and in looks, it’s more cute than beautiful or awe inspiring. Hedgehogs remind me of wombles, with their mobile noses. While they’re good at what they do, they’re not the cleverest creatures. They’re not even cuddly. Hedgehogs are more often the butt of jokes than anything else. (How do hedgehogs mate? Carefully.)
But on reflection, hedgehogs are a great choice. There’s something appealingly egalitarian about hedgehogs. You don’t need to live in a national park to stand a chance of seeing one – they live among us, even in urban areas. You don’t need to stake them out for days, in special hides with high powered binoculars. Most nights (when not hibernating) they happily stop and eat just 2 metres from our patio doors, and don’t mind the garden light.
They’re also very inoffensive. Our more impressive animals all have groups of people they’re unpopular with. For deer it’s people whose crops and trees they damage. Foxes are unpopular with poultry keepers, and otters and herons with fishermen and fish farmers. Badgers are meles non grata with cattle farmers, and game keepers often aren’t keen on birds of prey. But hedgehogs? Almost no-one dislikes hedgehogs. As Pat Morris recounts, in his excellent The New Hedgehog Book, a survey of over 1,200 WI members in 1990 found that 98% of respondents liked hedgehogs.
In fact, not only are hedgehogs hard to dislike, they’re positively popular. Gardeners love them because of their insatiable hunger for garden pests. One of my Dragons Den ideas is to start up a hedgehog farm, to sell to gardeners. Disappointingly, the ones that visit our garden seem remarkably uninterested in eating slugs (of which there are plenty). I’ve watched a hedgehog tucking into mealworms, carefully munching around a slug that has climbed into the bowl. But still, despite not pulling their weight in the slug devouring stakes, they’re always a welcome sight in our garden.
So, on reflection, I think the readers of BBC Wildlife Magazine have got it right. Hedgehogs are a great choice for national species. One everyone can get behind. And one that needs everyone to get behind it. According to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, hedgehog numbers dropped by one third between 2003 and 2012. What was once a common sight is now becoming rarer, and many people I speak to have never seen a hedgehog in real life.
If you’d like to do something to help our prickly national species, there’s some good advice here. Better still, you could become a hedgehog champion as part of Hedgehog Street, and work with your neighbours to create a hedgehog friendly street. Let’s try to make sure that the British national species is around for future generations, and doesn’t become as rare as the Welsh dragon…