By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website
The annual cull of Britain's favourite animal, the hedgehog, in the Uist islands of Scotland looks set to end.
Hedgehogs are declining across Britain but a problem in the Uists
Wildlife experts have withdrawn their support for the cull, and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) will debate on Tuesday whether it should be scrapped.
The cull was instigated in 2003 to protect eggs of nesting birds.
Scientists recently showed that hedgehogs transported to the mainland could survive well, and SNH may opt to try such a scheme this spring.
The agenda for its board meeting in Inverness shows three options up for debate: continue with the cull, initiate a one-year trial of transportation to the mainland, or take no action for 2007 while further assessments are conducted.
SHN staff are recommending the board adopts the translocation option, with operations overseen by St Tiggywinkles wildlife hospital.
"The idea is that the hedgehogs would come off the island and go to seven main distribution centres around the UK," St Tiggywinkles founder Les Stocker told the BBC News website.
"The animals would end up placed in people's gardens all over Britain - gardens are really the perfect nature reserve for hedgehogs now; the countryside is getting a bit bland - and volunteers would monitor the hedgehogs and feed information back about how they're doing.
"It's a relief that we've got this far, and we're keeping our fingers crossed and hoping SNH say 'yes'."
Beak and tooth
After their introduction into the western isles about 30 years ago, the hedgehog population expanded rapidly, and their taste for eggs began to compromise wading birds.
The Uist islands are one of Britain's most important sites for waders, providing a home for a quarter of the nation's breeding populations of dunlin and ringed plover.
During the 1980s and 90s, parts of the islands lost more than half their populations of snipe, dunlin and ringed plover, while redshank and lapwing also fell dramatically.
Hedgehogs caused drastic falls in birds such as the lapwing
Many of the waders are also in decline nationwide; hence the establishment of the Uist Wader Project, and its decision to cull hedgehogs.
Across Britain, however, the mammals themselves are in decline, with a 20% fall in numbers between 2001 and 2005.
And with hedgehogs coming top of an Environment Agency poll to find the favourite animal of people in England and Wales, the cull became highly controversial, pitting mammal conservationists against bird lovers, and prompting one hedgehog group in England to call for a boycott of Scotland and Scottish goods.
Key to the debate was the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA), whose advice in favour of culling was accepted and acted upon by SNH.
"The view at that time (2003) was that too many hedgehogs would suffer from the journey or die of malnutrition and that culling was an undesirable, but better, welfare option," recalled SSPCA chief executive Kay Driver.
Wildlife officers have since killed about 690 hedgehogs on two of the islands, North Uist and Benbecula, mainly by lethal injection.
Meanwhile, volunteers with Uist Hedgehog Rescue have captured an even higher number of the animals and transferred them to the mainland.
And recently, research conducted by Professor Stephen Harris from Bristol University and independent scientist Hugh Warwick showed the mammals survived as well after transportation as indigenous populations.
"This new study now offers proof that translocation can be successful," said Ms Driver. "We now wish to see an end to the culling of hedgehogs, and instead would recommend that a pilot scheme of translocation be carried out in 2007."
Not surprisingly, local hedgehog enthusiasts are delighted with the latest turn of events.
"We believe that scientific research and decades of practical experience have shown that translocation is the humane and ethical solution to this problem," said Ross Minett from Uist Hedgehog Rescue, which intends to stay involved with the translocation programme.
With bird groups apparently unruffled by SNH's review of the culling programme, the stage is set for a solution to the Uist hedgehog issue which will leave lovers of fur and feathers equally content.