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British Homeowners Build A New Superhighway — For Hedgehogs

Gary Snyder has holes in his garden fence.

That's not normally the kind of oversight you'd find in a well-kept British garden in a market town like Chipping Norton, 75 miles northwest of London. But the holes are there for a reason: hedgehogs.

Snyder's backyard is now one small rest stop on what conservationists hope will be a network of hedgehog superhighways crisscrossing Britain.

Snyder says at first he didn't even know he had hedgehogs coming through — they're nocturnal, hibernating during the winter months. But one night he was in bed with his wife.

"We heard this funny grunting noise," Snyder says. "And we looked out our bedroom window and we saw — there were two hedgehogs actually in the back yard, and it was a courting process."

When he went outside, Snyder realized the wonderful thing about hedgehogs: they aren't scared of humans. The noisy little things just rolled up into a ball, spikes out, and Snyder could pick them up. If you tickle the spines, he says, they open right up.

Snyder did some research and found out that hedgehogs are long-distance commuters, wandering as much as a couple of kilometers a night. That can lead them right into Snyder's housing development, where his sturdy British fence was trapping them.

Gary Snyder helped start a campaign to encourage homeowners in the countryside north of London to leave gaps in their fences to allow hedgehogs to move freely.
Robert Smith / NPR
Gary Snyder helped start a campaign to encourage homeowners in the countryside north of London to leave gaps in their fences to allow hedgehogs to move freely.

So he made a small hole, and another. And convinced his neighbors to do it. And so on through the neighborhood.

The British Hedgehog Preservation Society has been encouraging people throughout Britain to do the same thing, calling it the Hedgehog Street project. A couple of inches of clearance means that hedgehogs can truck right through suburbia as if it didn't exist.

Of course, this does lead to other problems.

Hedgehogs are perfectly designed to fend off predators, but those spikes are terrible when it comes to human trash. Rubber bands dropped by British mail carriers get stuck around hedgehogs and can create infections, and hedgehogs can get their little spiny heads stuck in cups thrown by the side of the road. The Hedgehog Preservation Society has been working on more awareness around product design to help keep the creatures safe.

Hugh Warwick, an ecologist who works with the society, estimates that the number of hedgehogs in Britain has dropped by 30 percent in the past ten years.

All the little things like hedgehog highways and beverage cup redesign can help, but he says there is a bigger issue: Britain's small farms are disappearing, becoming industrial agriculture plots and housing developments, which is forcing hedgehogs into the human world more often.

A hedgehog superhighway is great, Warwick says — but saving their homes would be even better.

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Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.