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New hedgehog officer embarks on her mission to make Ipswich the most hedgehog-friendly town in the UK

PUBLISHED: 13:11 19 September 2016 | UPDATED: 14:20 19 September 2016

Ali North Ipswich hedgehog officer

Ali North Ipswich hedgehog officer

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Things are looking up for Britain's beleaguered hedgehogs - but Ali North will spend much of the next two years looking down.

Hedgehog + snail, head close up,  Erinaceus europaeus, Peak DistrictHedgehog + snail, head close up, Erinaceus europaeus, Peak District

In a way, 25-year-old Ms North is coming back down to earth today as she starts her new and innovative role as Ipswich hedgehog officer - a job which attracted applications from all over the world when it was advertised earlier in the summer.

After being immersed in what has, quite literally, been high-flying conservation work in the rarefied atmosphere of Cambridge, researching the grave threats that face the world’s rarest and most vulnerable bird species, she begins her county town mission to improve the lot of an animal that is entirely terrestrial.

It is - or was - a familiar and common garden snuffler, a night-time potterer around any green space it could find and a frequent sight under street lighting or in car headlight beams.

Now, amid worrying population declines across Suffolk and throughout Britain, it is a much scarcer sight and it needs all the help it can get. Public awareness of the plight of the prickly character has recently reached new heights, helped in no small way in Suffolk by work carried out in a strong partnership involving the county wildlife trust, the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS).

The new officer will be tasked with making Ipswich the friendliest town for hedgehogs. Credit: Tom MarshallThe new officer will be tasked with making Ipswich the friendliest town for hedgehogs. Credit: Tom Marshall

The partnership, together with Heritage Lottery Fund support, has led to Ms North’s appointment and now she begins a two-year task in which she will be helping the entire community of Ipswich to “help the hog”. She will be recruiting an “Ali’s Army” of hedgehog champions in each town neighbourhood, trying to establish a network of “corridors” though which the animals can freely roam and working with the community in many other ways.

Her work in the coming months will be a central strand of Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s vision to make the town the most hedgehog-friendly community in the UK.

Bursting with ideas and enthusiasm, and armed with wide-ranging experience gained in an impressive array of nature conservation roles, Ms North says she “just can’t wait to get started.”

“I was drawn very much to this job because it’s a really imaginative and important project to make Ipswich an even more hedgehog-friendly town than it already is,” she said.

hedgehog by tom marshallhedgehog by tom marshall

“It’s been shown to be a hedgehog hotspot and we will be building on that to raise the hedgehog’s profile and the awareness of it across the town. People have been shown to be aware and interested and that is a really great start and we want to build on that and get even more people interested - perhaps those in the community who have not previously been all that interested in nature.

“The hedgehog is one of Britain’s best-loved mammals and here we have a great opportunity to engage even more people in giving it the help it needs.”

She said she would be attending events and working closely with schools, community groups, conservationists - “everyone we can get on board.”

A key aspect of her work would be to help people to manage land for the benefit of hedgehogs - to increase the level of connectivity between the many gardens and green spaces across Ipswich. Connectivity was vitally important for a species that routinely travels long distances - distances that might surprise many people, she said.

“To start with it will largely be all about getting the message out there that now we have an Ipswich hedgehog officer and we want people to get involved in hedgehog conservation - there are many really simple measures people can take to help them.”

Ms North has left her previous post as a researcher with BirdLife International to take on the hedgehog officer role. In the Cambridge-based post she had most recently been working with BirdLife International’s Red List team, updating the threat status of the world’s most endangered bird species.

Armed with a university degree in zoology and a post-graduate degree in biodiversity and conservation, Ms North already has an impressive CV in nature conservation - especially for someone so young. She has worked with PTES to study how farmland management affects harvest mice and other small mammals. She has also studied diseases that can afflict amphibians in garden ponds and had a Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust internship at its famous Slimbridge centre, which was originally established by one of the great founding fathers of nature conservation, Sir Peter Scott.

Swindon-born Ms North said she was “really excited and just cannot wait to get started” in her Ipswich role. Her position is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and BHPS.

Suffolk Wildlife Trust said it had an “overwhelming response” to its job advertisement. There had been interest from “around the world” but Ms North had proved to be the “outstanding” candidate.

However, her salary is not quite as it was reported to be in some quarters. Somehow a decimal point was misplaced and the Taiwanese media reported the salary would be £2.4million a year. Even at the much lower actual salary, Ms North is brimming with enthusiasm.

A Suffolk Wildlife Trust spokeswoman added: “Ali brings a wealth of experience and has the delightful task of delivering the project as the face of hedgehog conservation in Ipswich.

“Her work in the coming years will contribute not only to local hedgehog conservation, but also to our knowledge of the species more widely. Part of her role will be to work with scientists at Nottingham Trent University to determine urban hedgehog populations - the study will be carried out in spring 2017 and will use GPS trackers and camera traps to study populations in a specific part of the town.”

Could Ipswich become the country’s most hedgehog-friendly town?

Suffolk has played a prominent role in the UK conservation movement’s efforts to help the hedgehog in recent years.

The ‘hog certainly needs all the help it can get. Recent People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) estimates suggest a UK population decline of more than one-third between 2003 and 2012. The charity believes there are now fewer than a million hedgehogs left in the UK, down from an estimated two million in the mid-1990s and 36 million in the 1950s.

Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s efforts on behalf of the ‘hog have been Herculean.

In 2014 it launched a citizen science survey asking the public to record hedgehog sightings. Building on anecdotal evidence that hedgehogs were disappearing from places where they were once common, the trust wanted to obtain a clearer picture of the Suffolk situation.

More than 12,000 records were submitted in the survey’s first year alone, detailing sightings of live and dead animals as well as historical and negative records. The records were shared with PTES and Suffolk Biological Information Services. At the trust, the records were used as an evidence base to form its next steps in hedgehog conservation.

Around the same time, Ipswich Borough Council commissioned the Suffolk trust to carry out a detailed wildlife audit of Ipswich.

The audit recorded and assessed the quality of the town’s green spaces, such as parks, allotments and amenity land.

The findings showed a rich network of open spaces and green corridors throughout the town. Taken in association with the hedgehog survey records it appeared that Ipswich was still an urban stronghold for the species, with further opportunity to improve.

At this point, the Suffolk trust’s senior conservation adviser Dr Simone Bullion consulted national hedgehog expert Dr Pat Morris over the next steps that should be taken.

They identified opportunities to further improve, expand and connect habitat within the town centre and they determined that what is known as the Hedgehog Street approach could work well.

Hedgehog Street, developed by PTES and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, works by asking whole neighbourhoods to link up gardens, implementing simple steps such as putting holes in fences to allow hedgehogs to pass through.

The next stage on the journey along Hedgehog Street is perhaps the most significant. Ipswich hedgehog officer Ali North is tasked with building on Ipswich’s hedgehog hotspot status - to make it Britain’s most hedgehog-friendly town.

• Anyone who wants to be kept up to date with the project, or is an Ipswich resident who wants to help as a volunteer, should email Ms North

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