A STAY of execution was confirmed yesterday for hedgehogs in the Western Isles just weeks before a new cull was about to start.
The board of Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) agreed to halt the controversial killings while a trial goes ahead to relocate captured animals to the mainland.
It follows a change of heart by the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA) which originally backed the cull, but last week decided translocation was a better option after it was decided enough hedgehogs would survive the move to justify the trip.
While some SNH board members questioned SSPCA's change of mind, it was agreed the agency had to take advice on animal welfare from the society.
The cull started in 2003 as part of the Uist Wader Project, led by SNH, to protect internationally important native species of birds whose numbers had dropped significantly after their eggs were eaten by non-native hedgehogs.
Since then, 690 animals have been killed in North Uist and Benbecula after being trapped and given a lethal injection at a cost of 186,000 a year.
The project will continue this spring with the trapped animals being handed over to wildlife groups which will take them to sites on the mainland. SNH will help fund the monitoring programme, the results of which will be reported to the board later this year.
Andrew Thin, SNH's chairman, said: "The board was unanimous that the welfare of hedgehogs in Uist is of paramount importance, but so is the welfare of very important bird populations, so we are trying to square a very difficult circle.
"We are not experts on animals welfare so we listen very carefully to what the experts say. The experts have clearly changed their view and, given that advice, we need to go forward and trial a relocation and see what happens.
"If advice changes then it would be completely irresponsible of us not to listen to that new advice. The previous board of SNH did not have that advice.
We will not just relocate those animals and abandon them. We will put public money into monitoring what happens to them to make sure the relocation is in their best interests."
The suspension of the cull delighted Ross Minett, spokesman for Uist Hedgehog Rescue coalition (UHR), which has campaigned against the cull. Celebrities, including Brian May, the Queen guitarist, and actresses Joanna Lumley and Jenny Seagrove had also written to SNH urging them to end the killing.
UHR has rescued and relocated 756 hedgehogs from the Uists over the past four years at a cost of 50 a head.
Mr Minett said: "We are delighted that at long last we are going to see an end to the killing of these perfectly healthy wild animals. While the policy change is welcome it is disgraceful that it has come too late for the hundreds of hedgehogs already killed by SNH. As we have said all along, we believe that scientific research and decades of practical experience have shown that translocation is the humane and ethical solution to this problem."
The SSPCA said initially that too many hedgehogs would suffer from the journey to the mainland or die of malnutrition and that culling was an undesirable, but better welfare option. However, it then said research by Professor Stephen Harris, of Bristol University, and Hugh Warwick, an ecologist and journalist, offered proof that translocation can be successful when the animal spends a number of weeks stabilising at a wildlife unit.
2M FROZEN AMID SHOOTING FEARS
SCOTTISH Natural Heritage (SNH) yesterday withheld a 2 million funding package for the Mar Lodge estate on Royal Deeside, amid concerns that the money could be used to fund deer stalking and grouse shooting on the estate, owned by the National Trust for Scotland.
The SNH board, at its meeting in Inverness, voted to delay making a final decision on the funding package, pending further talks with the National Trust on how the money will be spent.
Andrew Thin, the chairman of SNH, said the board wanted assurances that the funding - worth 2 million over five years - would be used for conservation and not for grouse and deer shooting.