Are Badgers over-protected?

IMG_5615“We asked some the other farms round here what to do about these badgers.” The estate keeper told me as I secured the camera trap to a post, in a thick ‘Hampshire-hog’ accent. “But they just tell us to gas the setts, or shoot ‘em as they come out into the fields and dump the bodies on the road.” He paused to take a puff on his cigarette, smoke melding indistinctly with his condensed breath on this crisp January morning. “But we don’t want to work like that. I mean it’s illegal and all, but the badgers have got just as much right to be here as we have. Just gotta work round ‘em .”

That was just over three years ago, when I had been called out to assist in a badger problem at a local fishing estate back home. Each night, the animals had been visiting the picturesque front lawn of the house, and in their quest for caddis fly larvae, had created a scene that could quite comfortably win an Oscar for set-design of the Somme. Even I thought it was feral pigs or boar at first, until I noted the tell-tale kidney shaped prints among the destruction. So it was a surprisingly refreshing stay-of-execution to hear from the keeper, despite the trouble. He was one that some would describe as ‘true country folk’ (not that I am fond of the phrase) – worked on the land since his teens, fingers hardened and earthy from decades of practical jobs in all weathers, and certainly not a glad sufferer of fools. Yet he lacked one trait I have found extremely common in this demographic, which is the desire to kill badgers.

It’s something I’m sure many a ‘badger person’ can relate to having witnessed. There are some village pubs where even the mention of the animal’s name becomes a trigger word for trouble. “There’s too many badgers!” rings loud and clear across the rural landscape.

Undoubtedly, when it comes to its national population, the badger is what you’d call successful. Whether you’d define there as being too many depends on your outlook, but at the last government guess there may be anything between 285,000-290,000 of them in the UK between 64,000 social groups [1]. There are likely two main reasons for their abundance; while badgers are particularly fond of earthworms (which is probably why they do so well in pastoral farming landscapes like the West Country), they’re quite happy to snuffle up pretty much anything they can fit in their mouths. And perhaps more obviously, both the animals and their setts have been fully protected since the 1973 Badgers Act.

Unfortunately, the former habits don’t necessarily come with concessions to conservation efforts. The animal can have a significant impact on nationally declining hedgehogs [2, 3] and some vulnerable populations of ground-nesting birds [4, 5].

Before I continue however, I want to make two points very clear. The first is that I by no means have anything against badgers – in fact they’re among my favourite animals. Their social dynamics, individual characters and behaviour is just fascinating. I have spent many atmospheric evenings sat outside setts, studying wild badgers in my local wood back home, and at locations in the New Forest; the observational data I gather at the latter going right back to the New Forest Badger Group, of which I am proud to be a member. As part of my duties to the group, I will and have investigated any suspicious activity in relation to the animals or their setts, and will report to the police if necessary. I’m always keen to find as conflict-free a solution to badger problems (usually related to their digging, as was the case at the fishing estate) as possible. And as others will attest with pity, I will happily dive off the path mid-conversation to investigate a newly found latrine or paw-print like a mad sniffer dog.

And neither do I support the current culls in response to bovine tuberculosis. It’s such a huge issue, and one not particularly relevant to the points I wish to make, so I won’t make it the focus of this article. But my view is shaped by the scientific evidence available, and that is that culling is not an effective long-term solution for significantly reducing BTb [6, 7].

But if naturalists and wildlife conservationists want to hold any credence to the claim of thinking by scientific principle, we can’t just assume that having a very high population of opportunistic carnivores in a heavily human-altered ecosystem will have no consequence 100% of the time. There is little protest of the fact foxes, stoats and weasels can be lethally controlled on the general licence, and charities like the RSPB and Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust regularly do so to protect vulnerable species.

Additionally, the need to cull deer due to the absence of top predators is willingly accepted by most, given the damage deer overpopulation creates within forestry. But few also pick up on another consequence – mesopredator release. Badgers and Britain’s suite of other mammalian carnivores are all classed as mesopredators, and in a natural system are just as subject to suppression by top predators as the herbivores. Subsequently, the extinction of animals such as wolves and bears in Britain is likely to have lead to larger populations of mid-size carnivores than would naturally be present, with the associated consequences on their smaller prey – a process that has been recorded across the world [8, 9].

So why aren’t foxes protected, but badgers are? The key reason here is by far public image. The iconic striped face that gazes out from the logo of one of Britain’s largest conservation NGOs strikes affection from many, no doubt with childhood memories of Kenneth Graham’s grandfatherly Mr Badger and his ilk lingering in the sub-conscious. The sheer number of badger groups and their frequent top-billing on shows like Springwatch hold testament to this. No matter what the scientific consensus may be, any weakening in the laws surrounding badger protection will be met with howls of protest largely based around the animal’s star appeal.

But conservation is riddled with tough decisions. Much like the lives of the wild animals we are trying to protect, it is filled with trade-offs, un-pleasantries required in order to reach a positive goal, and the more we modify our environment the more these ugly facets raise their head. I’m not calling for an all-out abolishment of the badger act right now. I don’t blame badgers entirely for the decline of hedgehogs and the like, which many on the land are quick to jump on. But I feel we do need to seriously review what we know about badger ecology in the UK, which may at least result in control at local levels. There are times when we need to put aside what are ultimately man-made prejudices, and think carefully – what’s best for nature as a whole?

REFERENCES:

  1. DEFRA Request for Information, 2014.
  2. Young, R. P., Davison, J., Trewby, I. D., Wilson, G. J., Delahey, R. J. & Doncaster, C. P. (2006) Abundance of hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) in relation to the distribution and density of badgers (Meles meles). Journal of Zoology. 269, 349-356.
  3. Doncaster, C. P. (1994) Factors regulating local variations in abundance: Field tests on hedgehogs, Erinaceus europaeus. Oikos. 69, 182-192.
  4. Bolton, M., Butcher, N., Sharpe, F., Stevens, D. & Fisher, G. (2007) Remote monitoring of nests using digital camera technology. Journal of Field Ornithology. 78, 213-220.
  5. Morris, A. J. & Gilroy, J. J. (2008) Close to the edge: predation risk for two declining farmland passerines. Ibis. 150, 168-177.
  6. Donnelly, C. A., Woodroffe, R., Cox, D. R., Bourne, J., Gettinby, G., Le Fevre, A. M., McInery, J. P. & Morrison, I. (1998) Impact of localized badger culling on tuberculosis incidence in British cattle. Nature. 426, 834-837.
  7. Woodroffe, R., Donnelly, C. A., Cox, D. R., Bourne, J., Cheesman, C. L., Delahey, R. J., Gettingby, G., McInery, J. P. & Morrison, I. (2006) Effects of badger culling on spatial organization: implications for the control of bovine tuberculosis. Journal of Applied Ecology. 43, 1-10.
  8. Ritchie, E. G. & Johnson, C. N. (2009) Predator interactions, mesopredator release and biodiversity conservation. Ecology Letters. 12, 982-998.
  9. Elmhagen, B., Ludwig, G., Rushton, S. P., Helle, P. & Linden, H. (2010) Top predators, mesopredators and their prey: interference ecosystems along bioclimatic productivity gradients. Journal of Animal Ecology. 79, 785-794.

6 thoughts on “Are Badgers over-protected?

  1. Thanks for this interesting blog Peter.

    The different protections afforded Badgers and Foxes may also relate to their history as quarry. Foxes by their behaviour lend themselves to being hunted across the landscape, and this has given rise to the Fox hunting tradition (perhaps culture) which so many revere and wish to protect. Badgers however behave very differently and are not amenable to being chased out of coverts or across fields, not least because this would have to happen at night, where the risk of hunters breaking their necks trying to jump hedges (with or without a horse) would stop even the most enthusiastic devotee.

    Accordingly the use of Badgers in sport took a different route, coupled with their phenomenal strength, into the world of Badger Baiting where badgers are caught and then set against dogs, for the purpose of gambling. As this was principally a sport of common people, whereas Fox hunting was associated with, and performed by, the elevated classes, there is a rationale why Fox hunting survives today (despite the Hunting Act) whereas badger baiting has (more or less) ceased – and was outlawed as long ago as 1835. It’s difficult to imagine many badger baiters who were (or are) prepared to lobby Parliament to defend their right to organise Badgers being torn apart by dogs, whereas of course The Countryside Alliance still celebrate their now legendary March against the Hunting Act, where they sought to defend their right to organise Foxes being torn apart by dogs. Both groups continue their past-times to this day, regardless of the law.

    Another thing to be considered in relation to Badgers is whether current farming practices are actively encouraging an increase in the Badger population, albeit unintentionally. The area of farmland in England under Maize is increasing exponentially and badgers love Maize. It is also very unhealthy for them, to such an extent it may make them more susceptible to diseases like Bovine TB. So it’s not just a question of whether there are too many badgers, but whether our unsustainable approaches to land-use, especially farm and renewable energy subsidies, that is causing the population to grow, and creating unhealthy badgers.

    • Thanks for the feedback Miles. It’s an interesting sociological perspective from a level of class in regards to who was killing what, and the idea that foxes seemed to ‘deserve’ death as they were the enemies of the higher sections of society is almost worth its own study!

      Certainly I think pastoral farming has done so down here in Cornwall – the untreated fields are rich in earthworms, and it’s estimated about a quarter of the European population may live in the West Country alone. Unfortunately this, as you know, has lead to the massive conflict over BTb. Interestingly though, I and several other naturalists seem to have noticed a good number of hedgehogs here despite the badger abundance – enough food to go round for both per chance? Agree with you when it comes to arable culture too. I’ve seen the latrines at my local sett in Hampshire filled with the excreted-remains of the local farmer’s maize crop, and the effect you mention on the local population’s health is intriguing. Get some pHDs on that one.

  2. The badger has every reason to be protected. We probably lose
    over 50,000 a year on roads, 10,000 to illegal persecution a year & so far over 4,000 have been killed under government cull licences with this figure likely to exceed 50,000 in the next 5 years as culls are extended. We are also seeing the biggest expansion of house building in 50 years which is a huge threat to badgers & their setts. As a result of these many threats we are in real danger of local extinction of badgers from some parts of the country where they have lived for over half a million years. Now is not the time to talk about lifting protection it’s how best to increase it

  3. Reblogged this on Common By Nature and commented:
    A few days back I touched upon the potential impact of Badgers upon Britain’s declining Hedgehog population and resigned myself to the fact that they probably are somewhat detrimental. Not an easy thing to admit if, like me, you adore the stripey mustelids. For some further reading, I thought I would share this fantastic post by Peter Cooper who here looks at Badgers in a little more depth, asking, ultimately if Badgers are in fact over protected?

  4. Peter
    We have a small grass farm with cattle and sheep on the edge of Dartmoor with a large population of badgers. The badgers are welcome, so long as they are healthy!
    We had a serious bTB breakdown a year ago when a third of our herd was slaughtered, including a cow due to calve in three weeks. We receive some compensation for the cattle slaughtered, although it seldom meets thier acual value, and no compenation for unborn calves worth about £300, and no compensationfor the loss of valuable selected breeding stock. It is truely hearbreaking to see animals you have raised from birth and maybe helped to calve several times, and cared for for years, just destroyed. We know them and they know us.

    Do not the 26,000 cattle slaughtered each year have a right to live? Any more so than badgers?

    Some points your blogs have not raised.

    Badgers were protected to stop baiting, which is greatly reduced. The legislation was not intended to allow a species with no natural predators become over populated.
    We have often seen emaciated sickly bagers suffering from disease and suffering a lingering death. At present our badgers are healthy – but for how long, with the perturbation effect? Is it acceptable to allow badgers to suffer so from this disease?
    In times of drought – increasingly often due to climate change – badgers here are starved and die due to the excessive population.

    John Whetman

  5. Pingback: Loving the Bug: Volume 2 | Pete Cooper Wildlife

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