London’s Regent’s Park – 395 acres of parkland between Camden, Marylebone and a short walk from the West End – is an island of greenery, surrounded by a sea of tarmac, traffic, shops and chic apartment buildings. Popular with local sports teams, dog walkers and picnickers, it’s open to humans from dawn until dusk, when park rangers circle the perimeters ringing a bell to weed out the last stragglers.
But few who walk through the gates of Regent’s Park every day know they share it with a beloved, if prickly, companion.
The park is home to around 30-40 hedgehogs, which emerge after dusk to sniff its bushes and long grasses, feasting on invertebrates, fruit, carrion and sometimes even toads. Hedgehogs can also be found in the outer, more suburban parts of London – Hampstead Heath, and the boroughs of Redbridge and Bromley – but notably not in Richmond Park, due to its large badger population, which can both precede hedgehogs and surpass them for food.
But Regent’s Park hedgehogs are the last remaining population in central London. Research has shown that the park is roughly large enough and with enough food and shelter to support a viable population, which remains stuck within its island boundaries.
Ms Tiggy-Winkle lived in a small cottage in the hills of the Lake District, far from the bright lights of central London. Yet, as a report this week showed, hedgehogs are making their way into our cities and towns more and more. The British Hedgehog Preservation Society study showed that while the urban hedgehog population is stable and showing signs of recovery, their rural cousins continue to decline, with numbers dropping by up to 75% in the last two decades.
Part of the reason is thought to be due to greater awareness of hedgehogs and wildlife among city dwellers, with neighbors coming together to make gardens more hedgehog friendly.
But hedgehogs are also a generalist species – spread from Norway to Spain, they are able to tolerate a range of different conditions if given a few basic provisions like food, water and shelter. For this reason, they are often described as a “canary in the coal mine” – if they get hammered, the rest of our wildlife is in serious trouble too.