Hedgehogs are among the UK’s most beloved wildlife but their numbers have been dropping sharply in recent years. Keeping track of the dwindling hedgehog population poses serious challenges, but it’s nothing a dog’s keen nose cannot handle.
Rescue Springer spaniel Henry did not have the best start in life. By the time the energetic puppy found his forever home with Louise Wilson, of Conservation K9 Consultancy, he had already been adopted and returned several times. But with eighteen years of experience training detection dogs, Louise could give Henry the perfect home – and the perfect job.
As hedgehogs are nocturnal and quite shy, finding them to keep track of their dwindling numbers and work on ways to protect them poses a challenge. Dr Lucy Bearman-Brown, a senior lecturer at Hartpury University, turned to Louise to test how effective a wildlife detection dog could be in locating hedgehogs – and Henry was the right fit for the job.
Louise recalls, “We were asked to train a detection dog to help find hedgehogs, both in daytime while nesting and at night, to compare Henry’s effectiveness to other methods of search, such as spotlighting and infrared thermal cameras.
“We started training in 2018 with Henry and it took about eight months to complete it, because we had to go in areas where we knew hedgehogs were – we wanted him to indicate where they were in a non-invasive way. Of course, in order to do this we had to make sure he had no prey drive or desire to interact with the hedgehog once found!
“A lot of people think that dogs with prey drive would make good conservation dogs, but it is often quite the opposite. I trained Henry in a similar way to how I trained explosive detection dogs – making sure he wouldn’t be overly interested in the odour he’s looking for. What Henry really wants is his tennis ball, so that is the reward when a hedgehog is found – not the itself! Henry and I have a quick play session while Lucy checks on the hedgehog, and then we move on to look for the next one.”
Henry proved himself to be very effective, and capable of covering a large area in a short time. He was able to find animals burrowed quite deeply in the most unlikely places, even when the thermal camera had been unable to pick up their presence.
The work of detection dogs will allow us to understand hedgehogs better, and make sure they remain part of the British countryside for a long time to come
“I remember one time he signalled the presence of a hedgehog in the middle of a field,” Louise recalls. “I really thought he must be wrong, but there was a hedgehog hunkered down in the grass! They really burrow in the oddest places, and they are especially hard to find during the day or while hibernating in winter, but Henry never misses a beat. No matter how well hidden they are, he just follows his nose to them.”
Henry is currently the only dog in the UK trained specifically to find hedgehogs, but his high success rate opens up exciting possibilities for the use of detection dogs in their conservation. Henry can help conservationists keep track of the UK’s hedgehog population, sniff out hedgehogs in places where their presence may not be known, and upon occasion alert on their nests before any landscaping work takes place.
Louise says, “We are getting interest from some people and London parks, requesting us to check for hedgehogs before doing landscaping work, which can save lives.
“If hedgehogs are found, of course we can’t just pick them up and move them – but it may help landscapers work around them. The best advice is to leave them alone for a bit, perhaps start working on hedgehog-free areas – they tend to move around, and won’t stay in the same spot too long. A little compassion is all that’s needed.”
Henry has proven so successful, he may not remain the only hedgehog detection got in the country for long. The work of detection dogs will allow us to understand hedgehogs better, and understanding is key to saving them – and make sure they remain part of the British countryside for a long time to come.
Henry was trained as part of a joint project with the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and Hartpury University. For more information about Conservation K9 Consultancy, visit www.conservationk9consultancy.com.