A death in the woods…

Simon Phelps, Your Wild Life Project Officer, updates us on what happened to the hibernating hedgehog he found while on a work party early in December. This post originally appeared on Simon’s website, which also features his wildlife photography.

A month or so ago I was working in a woodland in Solihull with my volunteers, when one of them discovered a hibernating hedgehog. It was a magical encounter, watching the leaves rise and fall as its deep breathing indicated its peaceful slumber. We had found it because we had cleared its habitat away, cutting the dense stand of bramble beneath which it had chosen to spend the winter. We did our best to replace this, covering it back over with leaves and cut bramble. However, the next week the pile had been disturbed and the hedgehog gone, most likely killed by a predator. We were all very sad to know that we had played a part in the death of this lovely creature.

The key for me when anything like this happens is to evaluate it and learn from it. Not least because I take conservation extremely seriously, but also to be critical of one’s actions is key in becoming better at what you do. Conservation, particularly habitat management, is a complicated business and one which there are always difficult choices to make. In this case, the questions soon flooded into my head as I thought about my role in the death of this hedgehog.

Could it have been prevented? What more could we have done upon finding it? Should we have moved it to a safer place? Why did we remove the bramble beneath which it was hibernating? What was the point of our woodland management work?

Bluebell 2

The first is easy to answer; it could have been prevented if we had left the bramble it was hibernating under, however we did not know the hedgehog was there when we decided to remove it. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and looking back it seems that we should have moved the hedgehog to a safer spot, probably beneath a new stand of bramble. At the time we decided against this course of action as we did not want to wake it from its hibernation and felt that waking it would prove dangerous too. We wanted to cause as little disturbance as possible and so felt that the best course of action was to insulate it and cover it as best we could. Looking back, protection from predation was a more urgent priority than insulation from the cold, but I did not know that at the time. Now that I do, I will ensure I do things differently in the future.

Whilst the revelations about the ecology of a hibernating hedgehog have interested me, I find the last two questions more challenging and relevant. To understand why we removed the bramble that was protecting the hedgehog you would have to visit the woodland yourself and take a walk around it. It is a medium-sized wood, dominated by a canopy of oak, with an understory of hazel, beneath which fabulous bluebells bloom in spring. There is no habitat management practiced in the woodland and none has been done for a long time. As a result vast swathes of the woodland are now dominated by invasive species like bramble and holly, which swamp the forest floor, preventing other species (such as bluebell and other woodland flowers) from growing.

Bluebell 1

One of the best ways to make this piece of woodland a more diverse place for as many different species of wildlife is to remove areas of these invasive species; bramble and holly. This was what we were doing when we removed the bramble sheltering the hedgehog. I had chosen a small section of pathway as the focus of our woodland habitat work for the winter. The rationale behind our work was to remove all of the holly and bramble in a strip along either side of the path, thus restoring the neglected rideside coppice and creating open areas, that are scarce in the woodland. The hope is that wildflowers will fill these cleared areas, providing nectar sources for insects such as butterflies and bees, which in turn provide food for birds.

We would never remove all of the holly or bramble in the woodland; it is a question of balance. Neither species are inherently bad, they are just incredibly good at growing and spreading quicker than other plant species. The problem is that since management ceased in the woodland, these species have gradually taken over. We have lost so much of our woodland, that we should want the small, isolated fragments that we have left to be in the best possible condition that they can be. We should want our remaining fragments to contain as much wildlife as possible, and for that to happen we have to manage them.

It is now that we arrive at the crux of the matter; this habitat management cannot be good for all the wildlife within our woodlands. We have to make choices as to what we want to manage the woodland for. In large wooded landscapes there is enough space to manage woodlands for a diverse range of species. Sadly we have few of these spaces left in our countryside; the New Forest is one (and there are many other large woodlands in our country, but they’re all a pitiful remnant of what once was), so we often don’t have the luxury of having space for everything. How do we make these choices? How do we choose which species to proactively manage a habitat for?

For me, whilst the answer to these questions is difficult, the key to achieving an answer is relatively simple; you must use balance. If you have a small woodland to look after you will need to manage it carefully to get the best out of it. Leave some parts alone to become untouched, dense and shaded canopy. Others you can manage as coppice plots or sunny rides and maybe even create a small glade. This same approach can, and should in my opinion, be applied to all habitats. It is what I was doing when I decided to open up the ride and remove the bramble covering the hedgehog. It was done out of a sense of restoring some of the balance back to that small piece of woodland, which had lost almost all of its open forest habitat. There will always be casualties when carrying out habitat management work; you cannot please every species present. It is an inevitable sadness, but as long as you keep the bigger picture in mind and try to retain a sense of balance and perspective, you can ensure that you always leave enough habitat for as many different species to make a home on your site. There is plenty of bramble and shaded habitat for hedgehogs in the woodland I work in, they will live on, so I feel comfortable and confident that I am helping create areas that other wildlife can make a home in.

Simon

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