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Britain's national species revealed
Britain has never had a national species – until now. Ben Hoare reveals the results of our hugely popular poll to choose a UK wildlife icon.
Your votes have been counted and verified, and we can now reveal that the winner of our poll to choose a national species for Britain is… the hedgehog.
The prickly insectivore with a prodigious appetite for caterpillars, beetles, slugs and snails (not to mention noisy sex) was a firm favourite. Pipping the badger into second place, with the oak tree third, it picked up 42 per cent of the 9,108 votes cast.
Ann Widdecombe, one of the species’ highest-profile champions and patron of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, says: “I’m over the moon that the hedgehog came top in the BBC Wildlife poll. It is a quintessentially British creature.” But she adds: “We all need to rally to help the species, which is declining at an alarming rate.”
BBC Wildlife launched the public poll to find a national wildlife icon in our June issue, as part of our 50th birthday celebrations.
It seemed curious to us that a country of nature lovers, gardeners and ramblers, boasting perhaps the highest collective membership of conservation organisations per capita anywhere, should not have a wild animal or plant emblem to call its own.
Not only that, Britain can also claim to have been a key player in the emergence of the modern conservation movement in the Western world, thanks to the work of pioneers such as John Muir, Charles Rothschild, Octavia Hill and Emily Williamson, one of the women who fearlessly campaigned against the trade in bird plumes for millinery.
The hogs have it
“Britain is bereft,” lamented Patrick Barkham in the article that introduced the poll (‘A wildlife icon for Britain’, June).
“Search for ‘Australia’ and ‘identity’ using Google Images and you will find pictures of kangaroos. Type ‘New Zealand’ and up pops the kiwi. But try ‘Britain’ and ‘identity’ and all you get are some bland images of identity cards.” Perhaps not for much longer, though.
Thousands of you clearly think that the hedgehog would make a fine addition to the UK’s other insignias, such as the monarch’s coat of arms.
True, the choice of BBC Wildlife readers may need to be ratified by a wider plebiscite, and it remains to be seen whether the leaders of our political parties will include an unambiguous commitment to a referendum on a national species in their manifestos at the next general election. But still, we have started a debate that we hope highlights the importance of wildlife and nature conservation to Britons.
In the meantime, it is worth asking why the hedgehog has done so well. Its unique appearance, fascinating lifestyle and unthreatening nature must all play a part. Sometimes the temptation to anthropomorphise an animal becomes irresistible and, in the hedgehog’s case, the word that best seems to sum up its character is ‘friendly’.
We treasure fond childhood memories of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle (named after Beatrix Potter’s own pet hedgehog), who is warm-hearted, welcoming, generous, humble and industrious, qualities that we might like to associate with ourselves.
Developing a close bond
The real animal, of course, is one of the gardener’s best friends, able to gobble up 60–80g of invertebrates nightly (that adds up to an awful lot of hosta-munching molluscs and other pests).
When you consider that female hedgehogs produce litters of four or five babies, and that – like their parents – these hoglets are slug-eating machines on a mission to lay down as much body fat as possible prior to hibernation, the species’ impact as a biological pest controller in suburbia is considerable.
Hugh Warwick, author of A Prickly Affair: My Life with Hedgehogs (a bestseller, it should be noted), has another theory to explain this mammal’s enduring popularity. It becomes almost unbelievably tame.
“We can love a hedgehog like no other animal,” writes Warwick. “It is the first and probably only wild animal that we urbanites and suburbanites have a chance of getting really close to. Feeding ducks doesn’t count – you can throw bread at them, but have you ever felt any sort of bond?”
I think Warwick is onto something here: I can recall perfectly the time, about 30 years ago, when a hedgehog appeared as if by magic in the pile of autumn leaves next to the school playground.
My class, then virtually the entire school, crowded round. The hedgehog simply ignored the entranced faces only a few centimetres away. Formative encounters with wildlife don’t come better than that.
It would be hard to find anyone who has a bad word to say about hedgehogs. But, sadly, that’s not the case for the second-placed species in our poll.
The badger has, in some ways, become a symbol of the highly politicised climate that now influences most discussions about our wildlife and natural habitats. Many thought that Brock would win the vote; in the end, it seems that the stripy-faced mustelid might have been just too controversial a choice.
Ultimately, concepts of national identity are harder to pin down than we might like. Some species at home in our countryside – brown hares, little owls and horse chestnuts, for example – are non-native, yet pose no threat and are generally accepted to have earned their place here.
Do they, therefore, now pass the British citizenship test? How long must a harmless species be resident before it can claim to be as good-as native?
As for the hedgehog, there is no doubt: though it was introduced to Ireland, probably by the Normans, it has snuffled across England, Wales and Scotland since Mesolithic times, at least 9,500 years ago. That’s longer than many of our own ancestors have been here.
We think it’s an admirable national wildlife icon for Britain.
In June, we published a list of 10 species and asked you to choose one as Britain’s national species. Here’s how you voted…
1 Hedgehog championed by: British Hedgehog Preservation Society, votes: 3,849
2 Badger championed by: Badger Trust, votes: 2,157
3 Oak tree championed by: Woodland Trust, votes: 950
4 Red squirrel championed by: Red Squirrel Survival Trust, votes: 730
5 Robin championed by: RSPB, votes: 626
6 Otter championed by: Wildlife Trusts, votes: 270
7 Bluebell championed by: Plantlife, votes: 198
8 Water vole championed by: Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, votes: 150
9 Swallow championed by: BTO, votes: 108
10 Ladybird championed by: Buglife, votes: 70
Find out more about the winning national species for Britain.
Find out how you can help hedgehogs.