£1.3m hedgehog cull to save islands' birds eggs 'fails'

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EIGHT years on, £1.3 million spent and more than 1500 hedgehogs killed or relocated. But a new report on the attempt to eradicate the animals from the Western Isles in order to protect wading birds says there is no evidence that the culling operation has had any effect.

The report to be presented this week to the board of Scottish Natural Heritage - which sanctioned the Uist Wader Project - admits that an analysis of the removal of the hedgehog population from North Uist and Benbecula had revealed that "there is currently no statistically valid evidence that the UWP has resulted in an upturn in wader populations."

It also concedes that egg-eating hedgehogs may not be the only culprits in reducing the numbers of wading birds - such as redshank, dunlin and snipe - with the effects of changes to farming practices and increasing flocks of predatory herring gulls also possibly to blame.

However, scientists say they want the board to sanction a more targeted, four-year project to find out whether the hedgehog-eradication programme works at a further cost of close to 1m. If "no robust evidence" emerges by the end of 2015, they suggest ending the project. Numbers of hedgehogs, an alien species in the Outer Hebrides, exploded in the 1970s after a homeowner imported several of the animals to deal with garden pests.

But as they spread, studies suggested that the animals, which normally eat insects, were also dining on eggs laid on the fertile coastal Machair by the wading birds.

In 2003, SNH, the government's nature agency, launched the UWP to comply with European directives on protecting bird populations.

An SNH spokesperson defended the project saying: "In the Uists we have some of the most important populations of ground nesting birds in Europe. It is our responsibility to do whatever we can to protect those birds."

But Ross Minett, from Uist Hedgehog Rescue, said: "We welcome the fact that SNH are considering this monitoring programme.

"However, we have always considered that the hedgehogs are likely to be only one of several factors impacting on the wader populations, and simply tackling the hedgehog problem will not be a 'magic bullet'."