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A prickle of hedgehogs and a scurry of squirrels among garden wildlife secrets

Last modified: 28 April 2015

Foraging hedgehog

There are thought to be less than one million hedgehogs left in the UK

Image: Ben Hall

The RSPB is encouraging people to get out and uncover the secrets of their gardens and outdoor spaces, after the second round of RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch results highlighted the importance of gardens to threatened UK wildlife. 

Sixty-five per cent of RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch participants reported seeing a hedgehog snuffling around their garden at some point in the year. But over half revealed they’d never set eyes on a slow worm or grass snake slithering in and around their garden.  

In excess of 585,000 people across the UK took part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch during the weekend of 24 and 25 January, with 72 per cent of them also supplying information on the other garden wildlife they saw throughout the year.

Daniel Hayhow, RSPB Conservation Scientist, said: “Once again the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch survey has highlighted how important our gardens are for an amazing variety of wildlife living there. A lot of garden wildlife is in desperate need of our help. By providing shelter and a safe place to make a home, gardens provide an invaluable resource and are a key element in helping to save nature, perhaps even playing a pivotal role in reversing some declines.”

Brand new figures released this week from the RSPB show that membership for the year 2014/15 is at an all time high – 1,159,094. This is a 44,000 increase on last year’s figures and highlights the continued growing support for nature. 

Daniel continued: “The RSPB is encouraging people across the UK to make the most of the spring weather to go out and explore their garden or outdoor space to uncover the wildlife that is living there. In a few years’ time we’ll be able to show any changes in the distribution of garden wildlife using this fantastic data. By bringing people closer to nature and learning new ways we can all give nature a home, we’ll see improvements rather than declines.”

For the first time, Big Garden Birdwatch participants were asked to keep an eye out for slow worms and grass snakes slithering around their gardens. These secretive reptiles are often found in compost heaps or near a source of water. The results revealed that eight per cent of people spotted a slow worm regularly throughout the year, while only two per cent saw a grass snake.

Daniel added: “Despite remaining widespread in many areas of the UK, important habitats for slow worms and grass snakes have been lost. As gardens have become tidier, reptile homes have been lost, leaving a shortage of suitable habitats in which to live and breed. 

“Piles of logs, compost heaps and ponds provide ideal warm, sheltered environments for these species to breed, find food and to hibernate. The more people providing these features will increase the habitats available for all reptiles in their gardens and will hopefully contribute to reversing their widespread decline.”

For the second year running, grey squirrels remained the most widely-spotted non-bird visitor, with 74 per cent of participants spotting one scurrying across their garden or climbing up a tree at least once a month. At the other end of the scale, the grey’s native relative, the red squirrel, continued to struggle and was one of the least-seen species – with just two per cent of people seeing one on a monthly basis. 

The red squirrel is under threat by loss and fragmentation of woodland habitat, and a lethal virus carried by the grey, and has been lost from large parts of the UK. This virus is relatively harmless to grey squirrels, but is fatal to reds. 

However, in rural Scotland, where 75 per cent of the red squirrel population is found, almost one in six people spotted one at least once a month scampering around their garden.
Hedgehogs remained a popular garden visitor for the second year running. Over 65 per cent of people set eyes on the spiny species throughout the year, although it is thought populations have declined by 30 per cent since 2003 – with less than a million left in the UK [note 3].  
Badgers were spotted by twice as many people living in rural areas than those living in suburban or urban areas, with over 40 per cent reporting to have seen one during the year. The contrast in sightings between rural and urban areas was mirrored by reports of muntjac and roe deer; around 35 per cent of rural residents saw either species of deer compared, to only seven per cent of urban dwellers. 

The RSPB is encouraging people across the UK go out and explore their garden or outdoor space to uncover the wonderful wildlife that is living there. The State of Nature [note 4] report revealed that many garden favourites, such as: starlings, hedgehogs and butterflies, were all in trouble. By giving a home to the nature on our doorstep, everyone can help reverse these wildlife declines.
The RSPB’s partners are highly enthusiastic about the wildlife results and the help that they provide in building a better picture of UK wildlife.   

Dr John Wilkinson, ARC Science Programme Manager, added: “Yet again the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch is providing useful data on the importance of UK’s gardens for wildlife. As natural habitats become increasingly fragmented, gardens provide essential living space for some reptiles, especially grass snakes and slow-worms, which live and breed in compost heaps and find shelter in neglected areas.”

Henry Johnson, People’s Trust for Endangered Species Hedgehog Officer, said: “No other country in the world can muster half a million people for a wildlife survey. Spotting animals is just the start. For more people to see hedgehogs in the future, we need more holes in fences, joining up gardens, and more insect-friendly gardening.”

Marina Pacheco, CEO of The Mammal Society, said: “The growing pressures on the countryside mean that gardens are vital not only for birds, but for mammals too. These fantastic results show the importance of our gardens not only for birds but for the whole range of wildlife including our mammals. Records for mammals are particularly scarce and as we are currently collecting data for a national mammal atlas these records, plus any other people send in, are invaluable for informing future conservation.”

Big Garden Birdwatch is a part of the RSPB’s Giving Nature a Home campaign, aimed at tackling the housing crisis facing the UK’s threatened wildlife. The charity is asking people to provide a place for wildlife in their own gardens and outside spaces – whether it’s putting up a nest box for birds, creating a pond for frogs and toads or building a home for a hedgehog.

To find out how you can give nature a home where you live visit:  

How you can help

We need nature. Join us, and ask your MP if their Party will Act for Nature, and commit to a Nature and Wellbeing Act in their election manifesto.

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