Training dogs for hedgehog conservation

How Hartpury's Dr Lucy Bearman-Brown and a springer spaniel called Henry are at the forefront of research

The situation

One of the UK's most popular animals, the hedgehog, has seen its numbers drop by a concerning 50% across a decade. This alarming figure has been put down to factors such as loss of habitat, use of chemicals in gardens and on farmland, death through accidents on roads, and other human-related factors.

“One of the biggest causes of hedgehog decline is habitat fragmentation," explains Dr Lucy Bearman-Brown, leading hedgehog conservation expert and Senior Lecturer in Zoology. "As housing estates are built, roads are built and the landscape is broken up into increasingly small chunks. That can make it harder for hedgehogs to find each other for mating and they might struggle to find enough food and nesting sites.”

Project partners

The process

Lucy initially established the effectiveness of ‘traditional’ hedgehog detection methods such as spotlights, before Henry was sent in to search the area. Lucy then searched again using thermal cameras to see if modern technology could also help with detection rates.

After his training, Henry was able to detect significantly more hedgehogs than were found by spotlight, and didn’t miss a single animal that was also detected by thermal cameras. He was able to cover large areas in a short time, finding hedgehogs at a distance and in unlikely places.

“Henry is trained to locate hedgehogs without stressing or hurting them," confirms Lucy. "They burrow in the oddest places, and are especially hard to find during the day or while hibernating, but Henry never misses a beat.

One time he signalled the presence of a hedgehog in the middle of a field. I thought he must be wrong, but there was a hedgehog hunkered down in the grass!"

The impact

Though Henry is currently the only dog in the UK trained specifically to find hedgehogs, the success of Lucy's research has opened up exciting possibilities for the use of detection dogs in conservation, drawing interest from development projects across the UK. She hopes that through the combined efforts of researchers, the public and organisations, the decline in hedgehog numbers can be halted.

"In urban environments it looks like there might be some degree of recovery in the population.

Henry can help us undertake more reliable counts of hedgehogs, whilst also providing a way of protecting hedgehogs in the wild. The plan is that more dogs can be trained so we can better understand how hedgehogs use the landscape, and work towards protecting the most important areas.”

An award-winning team

Lucy has subsequently shared her research nationally and internationally, and was interviewed live on the BBC’s popular programme, The One Show.

Henry has also received recognition, winning the Worker category at the inaugural Naturo SuperDog Awards, which celebrates and recognises the UK’s exceptional dogs.

Research at Hartpury

Research is central to life at Hartpury. Every year we support projects across a wide range of subject areas that help drive positive change. Many have gone on to be published and presented at conferences worldwide.

With expertise and experience spanning all areas of agriculture, animal, sport, equine and veterinary nursing, our academics are actively involved in research and knowledge exchange. Studies undertaken here are often embedded in larger scale research projects.

Our research centres