Saturday February 20. A sunny day with snow on the ground and clear roads. Ideal conditions for going out to check on some of my local badger setts to see what the resident Brocks had been up to. Little did I know that when I went down to the woods, I was in for an unpleasant surprise.
Despite the wintry conditions, there were plenty of signs of Spring’s approach. In the trees, robins, great tits and chaffinches sang, proclaiming territories which will be used for breeding later in the year. The hazels were adorned with yellow catkins. Down on the ground meanwhile, the emerging leaves of bluebells and other Spring wildlflowers could be seen braving the cold.
There is new life emerging below ground too at this time of the year. February is the peak time for the birth of badger cubs. Born in litters of one to five (but most often two or three), newborn cubs are around 15 – 16 cm long and weigh around 100 g. They have a covering of silky fur which is mostly pale grey in colour, but darker on the legs and, even at this early age, two dark facial stripes – the badger’s trademark – can be made out. The cubs are blind and totally dependent on their mothers.
While some animals hibernate through the British Winter, our badgers do not. Indeed, the birth of their cubs marks the beginning of a period of intense activity for badgers. The sows who have given birth must now try to find food not only to sustain themselves, but also so that they can produce milk for their young. What’s more, those sows also come into season now and so are much sought after by adult boars. So I was not surprised to find plenty of signs of badger activity at all of the nine setts I checked yesterday, including many trails of paw prints, evidence of foraging, fresh dung in latrine pits, and bundles of bedding.
Clearly, this is a critical time of year for badgers. Finding food can be difficult when the ground is frozen, and as they are now much more active badgers also cross roads more often and their exposure to the danger posed by road traffic is greatly increased. There are other threats too.
When hunting foxes with hounds was legal in this country, badger setts across the land were blocked in advance of hunts taking place in order to prevent foxes from using them as refuges. The practice was known as “stopping up” and in theory it involved lightly filling badger sett entrances with soil or straw. In practice it could on occasion also mean sett entrances being heavily blocked with chunks of heavy clay, with rocks, with branches, with agricultural chemical drums, and worse. We will never know how many badgers lost their lives after being buried alive in this way. When badger setts were given legal protection in 1991, hunt supporters in Parliament made sure that a clause permitting the stopping up of setts by fox hunts was included in the legislation. Although the practice remained legal, the timing of sett stopping and the materials which could be used were specified by law for the first time. Despite this, many examples of badly blocked up setts were still found by Badger Groups.
The Hunting Act 2004, which came into force at the beginning of 2005, amended the Protection of Badgers Act and finally put a stop to the stopping up of setts. Or did it? Sadly, five years on some setts are still being blocked up shortly before the hunts take to the field. While most of the setts I checked yesterday were free from disturbance, others had recently been blocked up and showed signs of spadework around their entrances. It almost beggars belief that at a time of year when badgers have young cubs below ground, during a period of freezing, snowy weather, and in direct contravention of the law, there are people who are callous enough to do this.
Far be it from me to say that those setts which I found blocked yesterday, were stopped up at the behest of, or even with the knowledge of, one of the local fox hunts. I have no direct evidence to support such an assertion. Given that hunts should no longer be pursuing foxes with their hounds, there should be no need for setts to be stopped up before the hunts meet. Nonetheless, it is happening. The crater in the photo here is the result of repeated blocking of a badger sett entrance, with soil dug from the top and sides of the hole (which was illegal even before the Hunting Act). Last year there was an open, active hole at the bottom of it. As of yesterday it was not even possible to see where the hole was.
David Cameron has promised that if he becomes Prime Minister at the forthcoming election he will give MPs a free vote on repealing the Hunting Act. If there is a majority of Conservative MPs in the Commons, such a vote would most likely be passed. If that happens it is not only foxes, deer and hares who will suffer. Badgers will too, as hunt supporters will once more have free reign to block up setts even when mothers and young cubs are below ground. Useful links for anyone wishing to find out more and take action regarding this threat can be found below.