It is an unfortunate fact of life that badger persecution still happens today. I felt quite sad, for badgers and for society, when I learnt about the various kinds during training from my local badger group (Lancashire Badger Group). There are the slightly less horrific types, like unlicensed development and ignorant farming practices. Then there are the kinds of activities that should have been left in the dark ages: sett digging and badger baiting.
The most common kind of sett digging seen these days is when a small dog is sent into the sett with a tracker collar. The dog is trained to corner badgers, so when the dog stops moving, the owners know where a badger is. They then dig down vertically and either kill or capture the badger. Setts have been destroyed in other ways though, either dug out randomly, sometimes even with heavy machinery, or gassed. That’s right, I said gassed. The criminals block up all but one entrance with soil, then pump deadly gas into the sett to kill all the badgers. This is obviously dangerous for any animals in the vicinity, but also for the next human that comes along, whether it’s the criminals themselves, a dog walker, the landowner or a badger group volunteer.
Badger baiting is how most of the captured badgers meet their end. In this horrific practice, badgers are made to fight against dogs, often in homemade pits or rings. Set against multiple dogs, or inflicted with additional injuries at the first sign of winning, the badgers have no chance. They are either killed by the dogs, or beaten to death by the humans afterwards. The dogs used in this ‘sport’ are often also severely injured, but generally don’t receive proper veterinary care in case this gives the owners away. The badger trust estimates that 9000 badgers a year are killed in this way – to me, that number seems insane. I almost can’t comprehend that so many people take pleasure from such a heinous activity.
So what can we do? Many badger groups or naturalist landowners have utilised trail cameras, which are becoming increasingly affordable and have provided vital evidence in a number of trials. Another option is sett capping, where the top layer of soil is removed from the sett, and a tough material (often metal mesh or concrete) is installed before replacing the soil. This sounds simple but in practice it can be a bit of a headache with uneven ground or trees, walls and other features in the way. Nevertheless, it was the option we chose for a recent sett in Lancashire (unoccupied at the time, but historically used regularly).
The trail cameras on this sett were checked for a week before the capping, to ensure the sett wasn’t active (we wouldn’t have been allowed to continue if badgers were using it at the time). We met in the car park of a local hotel so we could travel to the sett in as few cars as possible. Once at the site, we lugged all our tools and materials over a few electric fences, through a valley and across the odd stream before setting up camp. There was tea a plenty and a hell of a lot of digging! First to remove the soil, then to get spare from elsewhere, then to put it all back on. It was a tough, sweaty day that left my back aching, but we had a few laughs and got it finished in record time.