SCOTLAND'S natural heritage body should spend £1 million of public money funding another three years of an island hedgehog-trapping project, a report has recommended.
A scheme aiming to remove hedgehogs from the Uists in the Outer Hebrides has already been running for seven years, at a cost of 1.2 million.
Now Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has been advised to spend another 1.03 million on a further three years of even more intensive trapping work to catch more hedgehogs and rehome them on the mainland. So far 1,450 of the prickly animals have been trapped and rehomed, working out at more than 800 per hedgehog.
The spiny mammals are blamed for eating the eggs of vulnerable wading birds on the islands, causing numbers to decline, in some cases by as much as 50 per cent since the 1980s. The Uists have some of the most important populations of dunlin, ringed plover, redshank, snipe, lapwing and oystercatcher in Europe.
A report to be considered at a SNH board meeting today suggests stepping up efforts to trap the hedgehogs further over the next three years.
Trapping should take place all year round, instead of just during spring and summer, and for the first time dogs should be used to track the animals and speed up the work. This has raised concern from some animal welfare groups.
The Scotsman understands the recommendations in the report, written by SNH staff, are likely to lead to heated debate at today's board meeting, particularly due to the amount of money needed to fund the project.
The report highlights that it is a time of "challenging public sector funding outlook" and adds that the "principal risk" of the proposal is "the availability of funding and the risk to SNH's reputation if we are seen to be ineffective".
Despite the huge efforts from the Uist Wader Project team, which have so far focused on North Uist and Benbecula, the report also highlights that as yet there is no "statistically robust evidence" that it "has as yet resulted in a positive response in wader populations".
It goes on to say that there may be "other variables" having an impact on wader numbers such as changes in land use.
However, David MacLennan, area manager for the Western Isles at SNH, told The Scotsman he was "convinced" hedgehogs did have an impact on wader populations.
And he said the lack of evidence for improvements in wader numbers was due to a lack of survey work carried out to assess the impacts, because so far the focus had been on trapping the hedgehogs.
He added that he thought the 1 million cost of another three years was justified.
Hedgehogs are not native to the Uists. After a few were let loose in a garden in 1974 to help control slugs and snails they spread across the islands.