SNH, the government’s countryside advisers, began a programme to rid North Uist and other Outer Hebridean islands of hedgehogs in 2003 because of the threat they posed as alien species to internationally important wading bird populations.
But a report put before the SNH board last week revealed that although North Uist was “cleared” by 2007, the creatures are now making a comeback, with around 20 found living on the southern part of the island.
Researchers working for the Uist Wader Project (UWP) also reported serious concerns that individual animals have been spotted across the island, including in areas where they have not been seen before.
The board has now sanctioned additional spending of £33,000 to add to the project’s annual budget of £200,000 a year. Additional trappers will be employed to “minimise the risk of a viable population [of hedgehogs] becoming established in North Uist” while maintaining current levels of control in neighbouring Benbecula.
The extra cash comes despite the acknowledgement by the SNH that there is “no statistically valid evidence that the UWP has resulted in an upturn in wader populations”.
David MacLennan, SNH unit manager for Argyle and the Outer Hebrides, said it is very difficult to prevent the movement, via causeways, of hedgehogs from neighbouring islands.
It was also unknown whether the re-emergence of hedgehogs in North Uist last year was due to breeding, migration, unintentional transportation by humans, for example in hay lorries, or deliberate human intervention.
However, MacLennan insisted it was important the trapping project continued. “We have a legal obligation to protect these birds,” he said.
The number of hedgehogs exploded in the area during the 1970s after a homeowner imported several of the animals to deal with garden pests.
The UWP was launched to comply with European directives on protecting birds. An initial cull led to widespread protests, and an informal agreement was reached with Uist Hedgehog Rescue to relocate them instead.
Last year, the cost of that agreement was formalised, with Uist Hedgehog Rescue being paid £20,000 a year to relocate 250 hedgehogs.