AI to track hedgehog populations in pioneering UK project

Artificial intelligence will be used for the first time to track hedgehog populations as part of a pioneering project aimed at understanding how many of them are left in the UK and why they have suffered a decline.

Images of the prickly mammals snuffling around urban parks, private gardens, woodlands and farmland will be captured by cameras and filtered by AI trained to differentiate between wildlife and humans.

The images will then be sent to human “spotters” who will pick out those featuring hedgehogs and send them to analysts, who will record the numbers and locations.

Using this method, the National Hedgehog Monitoring Programme (NHMP) hopes to be able to produce estimates of hedgehog populations in different habitats across the country, show how these are changing year on year, and – in time – give a national estimate of the UK’s hedgehog population.

The British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS) and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) said this would produce crucial insights into the factors causing hedgehog populations to plummet, and enable conservationists to implement practical conservation measures to try to reverse the decline.

The three-year project is in partnership with Nottingham Trent University, ZSL’s London HogWatch, Durham University and MammalWeb, and largely funded by Natural England.

Dr Henrietta Pringle, the NHMP coordinator at PTES, said: “For the first time in the history of hedgehog conservation we’re using AI to open up new opportunities, which is extremely exciting. Previous studies have estimated hedgehog populations, but there has never been a rigorous nationwide survey of them – until now.

“We know hedgehogs are struggling – especially in the countryside – but before we can put practical conservation measures in place we need to understand where they are and why they’re declining.

“This is the first study where populations are measured year after year in the same location, which will produce vital data and allow us to identify those at risk, which in time will hopefully help us to reverse the decline. The results will also allow us to see regional and habitat differences, and identify what factors impact them in different places, which will not only be fascinating but also incredibly useful for their long-term conservation.”

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Fay Vass, the chief executive of the BHPS, said: “Everyone loves hedgehogs, but we recognise that not everyone is in a position to help them in the wild. Becoming a ‘spotter’ for the National Hedgehog Monitoring Programme is a fantastic way for everyone to get involved. Now, those with mobility issues, who don’t have a garden or perhaps are away studying at university or college, can help from the comfort of home.

“Helping hedgehogs has never been easier or more accessible, so we really hope people from all walks of life take part.”

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