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“It's easier if you push your hand under its chin so it won’t be able to use its muscles to curl up. Then, you can unroll it to check its underside,” Emma said, her voice travelling well in the still, dark night.

With the team leader’s words at the back of my mind, I knelt in the dewy grass and gently lifted the prickly ball. I dropped my arms down lightly to simulate a fall, and it instinctively loosened and stuck its feet out to brace for landing. I shifted my fingers but barely got them under before it curled back up into a tight ball.

Hedgehog #185: 1

Me: 0

It was 3 am on a Saturday morning and our team of five were roaming the eastern flank of The Regent’s Park for the park’s biannual hedgehog survey.

We were on our sixth capture of the night. I had serious doubts about my ability to spot them at first, armed with just a small torch. But Emma was very knowledgeable and demonstrated how to keep the torch low and sweep the area effectively. In fact, she spotted the first hedgehog barely 30 seconds into our shift.

“This is the best night of my life,” I whispered, carrying the hedgehog.

“You’d be surprised how often I hear that,” Emma said as she recorded its details into her clipboard.

The team was to collect a range of data from each hedgehog we found, such as its tag number, location, weight, and circumference. There were also vials for collecting spine samples for testing the genetic diversity of the population.

Over the course of the night, we had a few repeat catches, suggesting at least some hedgehogs had stayed within the area for their nightly roam. We learnt during training that hedgehogs are quite the walkers, with females traveling about 1-1.5km at night, while males travel about 2-3km. (More information: A critical look at the use of GPS tags to study the movements of hedgehogs in a London park)

This means a significantly large, contiguous ground is needed to sustain a breeding hedgehog population. Of central London’s Royal Parks, The Regent’s Park has the only population. The park itself has the basic requirements for a hedgehog habitat, but improvements are being continually made to improve the site for its prickly residents.This includes creating wildflower meadow areas, planting new hedgerows and ensuring that there are gaps in fences (also known as hedgehog highways!) to allow free access across the park.

As I traced my path, I heard a shout from one of the other volunteers. Another find! I briskly walked over and saw her carrying what looked to be a hefty round ball. As portly hedgehog number #312 was unrolled. I said offhandedly that it was so round it looked like a sea urchin. Emma, filled with wonderful hedgehog facts, shared that Shakespeare had said something similar, and referenced hedgehogs as urchins in his work.

“Ten thousand swelling toads, as many urchins, Would make such fearful and confused cries”

-Titus Andronicus, Act 2, Scene 3

If only they made any noise at all in the short grass. The night was silent apart from the crunching of the ground as we walked. As such, we were dependent on a visual search in the dark. Fortunately, we also had a thermal imaging camera to help. It wasn’t for me though – I thought squinting in the dark figuring out if I was looking at a hedgehog-shaped leaf or an actual hedgehog was more thrilling.

One of the other volunteers took to it quickly. He spotted four hedgehogs, two foxes, and even the warm body print of a hedgehog which had since walked away. While the camera was useful for spotting them in open areas, an earlier study showed torches were also relatively effective. (More information: An evaluation of thermal infrared cameras for surveying hedgehogs in parkland habitats)

Three hours into our shift at 4am, we had to call it a night. Despite the time, I felt very awake during our walk back to Hedgehog Headquarters. I hadn’t expected to learn so much about hedgehogs this year, and tonight’s field session helped put parts of the earlier training session into perspective.

Knowing that the data we collected could inform plans and strategies for hedgehog conservation in the park gave me a newfound appreciation for how much could and was being done to help the natural world thrive. I was glad to have a chance to contribute and felt I should be doing more. For a start, I’ve put in a calendar reminder to look out for the next study.

*Written by Jane Baoying Ng



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