In 1566, Elizabeth I signed an Act which declared that hedgehogs were vermin and allowed a bounty to be placed on their heads.
Local naturalist Colin Hines has published a paper [i] that maps Yorkshire parish data on how many hedgehogs bounties were paid and where. The information was often recorded on vellum in long-hand and usually store by parishes. Hedgehog’s taste for game bird eggs seems to be the justification for including them.
The information spans long periods in many cases and therefore provides reliable information about where hedgehogs were hunted for monetary reward. Of 163 Yorkshire parishes and townships records , 108 referenced bounties being paid for a wide range of species considered to be vermin “ but only 23 (21%) of this latter set contained evidence of payments made for killing Hedgehogs”.
The author concluded that this means hedgehogs were either not universally distributed around Yorkshire or that in some parishes they were not regarded as vermin. One local parish, Worsborough, recorded one of the highest annual number of hedgehog corpses – 38 in 1727 compared with 35 in Wakefield in 1682 and 59 in Thornhill in1823.
The bounty data pre-dates information gathered by naturalists in the late 19th and 20th centuries. There are differences in the distribution of the records of the period when bounties were paid and 20th century records. Most bounties were paid in South and West Yorkshire whereas further north and east none were recorded. A survey of road casualties in the early 1990s recorded more in the northern and eastern parts of the county compared with the south and west.
One explanation offered for the author for differences in distribution shown by bounty records is that they pre-date major drainage schemes in low lying areas of the county. Hibernating hedgehogs would not have survived winter flooding so avoided living in such areas.
National bounty historic data show most hedgehogs were killed south of a line from the Mersey to the Humber. The northern counties of Cumberland, Durham and Northumberland had no hedgehog bounty payments recorded. The latest survey in 2012 shows a reverse of this pattern. Colder and longer winters may have been a factor in the historic distribution but severe winters were also happening in London during the same period.
Colin Hines’ paper provides a useful insight into both historic hedgehog distribution and attitudes to wildlife. Hopefully the current Hogwatch survey will cast more light on the current situation and whether there is a serious long term decline in hedgehog populations and , if so, what is behind it
[i] Hines C.C., 2013. Yorkshire Hedgehog bounty payments: a window on four centuries of status and distribution change. The Naturalist 138, 123-128.