THE number of hedgehogs in Britain is falling.

Some estimates put the decrease in their numbers at 30 per cent over the last 10 years.

In response to this, communities across the country are trying to help, with large numbers of people getting interested in their welfare. Hugh Warwick, one of the country's foremost experts on these animals, gave a talk in York at the end of October, to hundreds of people.

Of an estimated 17 species worldwide, the only hedgehog species to be found in the UK is the west European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus). According to charity the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, they are "generalists that can be found across a wide range of rural and urban habitats, although they are absent from moors, coniferous plantations and wetlands.

"Their coat contains about 6,000 spines and hangs around their body in a 'skirt', concealing greyish fur on their underside. They have changed little in 15 million years."

But in the past 40 years, their numbers in the UK have plummeted.

In an attempt to reverse this, initiatives such as "Hedgehog Street" are making efforts to ensure gardens and other green spaces are hedgehog friendly, and also that they are interconnected; a hole in a fence the size of a CD can allow the creatures to move freely between gardens.

One example of a hedgehog-friendly garden is that of Vince Castleton in Low Hutton near Malton - an area of plentiful natural habitat.

Mr Castleton, who has recently gone into semi-retirement, has a garden with specially-constructed "homes" for hedgehogs with anti-cat entrance tunnels, large areas left rough for foraging and cover, as well as a feeding station.

"They're not yet endangered, but they're close to it," he says, before describing the animal's charm. "I've worked in conservation all my life. I grew up on a farm, and I'm a keen conservationist."

He gives occasional talks on hedgehogs at the local Huttons Ambo youth club - combining it with mechanics to cater for all tastes.

Along with a number of other villagers in Low and High Hutton, he keeps tabs on hedgehog activity in the area. He says he's observed a 60-40 male to female split in the village, and there are also well-known local characters, such as Harry, a blind hedgehog often spotted up at High Hutton.

Lately, Vince has also been releasing hedgehogs which have been rehabilitated by wildlife rescuers - people he knows based in Haxby and Raskelf.

"I basically fatten them up and then off they go," he says. "Probably a dozen have come through this year. I also hibernated one last year."

Wildlife rescuers across the district, such as Jean Thorpe in Malton, see a spike in people bringing in hedgehogs in the autumn time. At this time of year, hedgehogs seen wandering around in the daylight may be in trouble, sometimes with dehydration, or perhaps they are hoglets too underweight to go into hibernation.

Mr Castleton says key reasons for the hedgehogs' decline is a gradual loss of habitat, and a loss of food sources through pesticide use.

"We've expanded fields, we've taken hedgerows out, to use more efficient machinery and get the job done quicker," he says.

Vehicles may also be playing a part in their demise. A few days after we meet Vince emails to say he has seen a young hedgehog - a road traffic casualty in the village.