Sleuthing for spikes: how to track hedgehogs and other elusive beasties on campus

You may have been lucky enough to spot a hedgehog on campus during some late-night wanderings, but unfortunately such sightings are becoming increasingly rare. A team of staff and students are stepping up to track hedgehog presence at the University of Glasgow, sharing their survey tips here!

Hedgehog Friendly Campus (HFC) is a nationwide initiative, with the goal of making university, college and school sites more hospitable for Britain’s native Eurasian hedgehog. The University of Glasgow signed up to the scheme in August last year (2020), following the troubling news that hedgehogs are now classed as ‘Vulnerable’ on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List for British mammals. HFC targets academic institutes as hedgehog populations are recovering in urban areas, with university grounds and gardens making ideal habitats for these prickly characters. The HFC team at Glasgow has now grown to include members of GUEST (Glasgow University Environment and Sustainability Team) and staff from the zoology teaching department, meaning the work is feeding into the wider environmental policy at the university. 

As part of the scheme, a group of seven staff and students from the zoology department have been carrying out surveys to assess hedgehog presence on campus. The team have access to footprint tunnels and camera traps which they regularly use in the Wildlife Garden and other leafy sites around Gilmorehill. Footprint tunnels are simple cardboard or plastic structures with an inky pad and paper inside, which capture the prints of any creature that may pass through during the night. We found that dog or cat food is a great way to attract hedgehogs into the tunnels – as long as we remember to adjust the trap size and keep out those pesky cats. Tunnels are then checked daily, with clean paper replaced and results recorded for each night. A survey webinar kindly delivered by Jo Wilkinson at HFC gave the team the basics they needed to carry out the surveys, with exciting results! 

Credit: Magda Butowska/ Colette Martin, An example of a footprint tunnel used on campus with suspected hog print circled in red. 

Camera traps also yield some exciting evidence of animal activity and offer a more hi-tech approach to surveying. Cameras are left in strategic areas, tied to trees or fence posts, or nestled just in front of a footprint tunnel but away from long vegetation that might accidentally trigger them on a windy night. When a scurrying creature passes by, the cameras capture short snippets of footage, along with accurate temperature and time data. A key leader and enthusiast for the HFC Campaign is Professor John Kusel, who fine-tuned this technique over summer 2020. John shares his experiences below: 

“One evening in early March 2020, returning from walking Ruhan, our cocker spaniel, we came across a motionless hedgehog in our grassy front garden. What joy! We put out hard dog food each night (unbeknown to Ruhan) and the food vanished. We thought we had a hedgehog staying in the garden, not realising that he/she might not live there and might have traveled a kilometre or two for the food during the night.” 

“We contacted Jo Wilkinson, coordinator of the HFC campaign, and asked her advice about camera traps. Jo advised me on some basic settings, but the best approach I found is to try everything that you can and stick with what works. I tried mounting the camera in several different places, using 30 second video capture with mixed results. What always worked was to place the camera on the ground about 2 yards from the food source, but not near flexible plants like large grasses or flowers. During a windy night, any plant waving in the wind will trigger the camera many, many times without any sign of an animal! The joy of photographing two lovely hedgehogs that came regularly was inexpressible. They seemed to be a couple because they jostled and fought gently and on one occasion were seen mating.” 

Credit: John Kusel, A still from John’s footage

The back garden was then used but no hedgehogs appeared, even though our garden is very untidy – perfect for providing cover for foraging hogs. We made a gap in the fence and the very next night the hedgehog appeared, but by that time there was sadly only one. The other, we were shocked to see, was a victim of roadkill on a local ring road not far from our house. We continued to put down tunnels and obtained very clear hedgehog and other rodent prints.” 

Despite the sad loss of one of their visitors, John’s success with the footprint tunnels and camera has been a great experiment in data collection, providing a good foundation of experience which the team can use in their own surveys in 2021. John plans to build two hedgehog houses from logs, twigs and leaves in a secluded spot in the garden next autumn. By adding a covered entrance, he hopes they will be used for hibernation. 

Along with surveying, the Glasgow HFC team will be carrying out more activities in Spring 2021 when it is safe to do so, including grounds developments, fundraising and campaigning. If you’d like to find out more, or get involved in surveying yourself, please contact the HFC team on Twitter (@UofGHedgehogs) or Facebook (@UofGHedgehogFriendlyCampus). 

Written by: Lizzy Cairns, a 3rd year Microbiology undergraduate student at the University of Glasgow, with a keen interest in sustainability and promoting biodiversity. Fascinated by fungi and marine life, Lizzy balances her studies by heading out into nature whenever possible! 

Feature image: Original artwork courtesy of PhD researcher Eleni Christoforou, 2021©

Edited by: Alexa Roditi and Taya Forde

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