Brian May’s support for the protection of badgers is well known following his high-profile campaigning against the imminent cull in Wales (see To cull or not to cull). Currently, he is the heart and soul of Save Me, a movement which aims to prevent the repeal of the Hunting Act. The main beneficiaries of the Hunting Act are of course the fox, the hare, and the deer species which were previously all hunted or coursed with the aid of dogs. But did you know that badgers have also benefited from the Act – and that they would suffer greatly if the Act is repealed?
Before the Hunting Act became law, the hunting of foxes with dogs (hunting with hounds, digging with terriers and lamping – hunting with spotlights and lurchers at night) caused three main problems for badgers: the blocking up of setts by fox hunts, the digging out of foxes from setts by hunts, and the ‘cover’ that legalised hunting provided for illegal badger digging and lamping.
The problem of badger setts being blocked up by fox hunts is one I have mentioned already, in the very first entry of this blog: Blocked up. The Protection of Badgers Act 1992 originally included a clause permitting the ‘stopping up’ of setts in connection with fox hunting, and specified the methods by which sett entrances were to be filled. However Badger Groups across the UK regularly reported incidents in which the law was flouted, to the detriment of badgers.
The effects on badgers of hunting with dogs, published by the National Federation of Badger Groups (NFBG, now the Badger Trust) in 2002, explained some of the problems caused by illegal stopping of setts. Noting that the fox hunting season coincided with the badger’s breeding season, the report went on to point out that a study by I. Lindsay and D. W. Macdonald in 1985 did not rule out the possibility of long-term effect on the reproductive success of badgers by earth stopping, while long-term studies by naturalist Eric Ashby in the New Forest “also indicated a definite causal connection between sett stopping and reproductive failure.”
The NFBG report also featured a diagram (which I have included here) showing how the blocking of sett entrances with large volumes of soil could cause the death of those badgers who attempted to dig their way out. The report explained that “ a badger inside a sett will naturally dig at soil blocking the sett entrance, in an attempt to exit the sett. As the badger pushes the soil behind it, further down the tunnel, it creates a new mass of soil inside the sett. Eventually, the mass of soil behind the badger builds up so that the badger cannot move back down the tunnel. If there is still soil in the entrance, it will be unable to move forwards – and the badger becomes trapped between two plugs of soil, suffocating in the restricted air pocket before it can dig itself out.”
Another problem highlighted by the NFBG was that badgers could be physically crushed by the soil used to block their sett entrances, especially following rain. It stated: “An example of this was observed in Leicestershire in February 1995, where a badger was found trapped by the waist in a sett entrance which had been blocked by the local fox hunt. Persistent heavy rain for five days after the sett was blocked caused the soil to mass together and compact around the badger which was attempting to dig out of the sett. The badger was removed from the compacted soil and, due to its condition, was euthanased by a veterinary surgeon. Post mortem examination revealed that the badger had a ruptured spleen and a distended bladder, and it was estimated that the badger had been trapped for two to three days.”
The Hunting Act removed the clause in the Protection of Badgers Act which had permitted hunts to block badger setts. A repeal of the Hunting Act would allow this practice to resume.
Prior to the Hunting Act, it was lawful to dig for foxes, but not to dig into a badger sett for foxes. However, the NFBG reported that badger setts were frequently damaged when hunt terriermen dug into setts after a fox – either in disregard of the law, or because they did not believe the sett to be used by badgers. The effect of this was damage to the sett, which could be considerable, and disturbance to any resident badgers was caused. In some cases, setts were completely destroyed because of terriermen digging in search of foxes which had taken refuge in those setts. A repeal of the Hunting Act could lead to more badger setts being damaged and destroyed in this way.
Traditional fox hunting was not the only threat to badgers. Lampers who hunted for badgers at night with dogs could, if caught, say that they were actually hunting for foxes. An even bigger problem however was that badger diggers caught in the act at badger setts with their terriers (the dogs being used to locate badgers below ground) would frequently claim that they were in fact hunting for foxes. Many escaped prosecution in this way (see examples posted on The Badger Message Board). If the Hunting Act is repealed many more badger diggers will escape prosecution in the future.
It is worth adding that many of those who have been convicted in past years for badger digging have been hunt terriermen, and that even some professional huntsmen have been found guilty of such offences (see examples posted on The Badger Message Board). No wonder the NFBG stated in 2002 that there was “a clear link between hunting with dogs and the abuse of badgers and their setts.” If we are to protect badgers effectively we must ensure that hunting with dogs remains consigned to the history books, by maintaining the present ban.
The photo above shows cubs outside an entrance to a badger sett in Essex in the 1990s, before it was blocked up. The photograph below of the same area “shows that the sett entrance has disappeared after being filled completely with soil. This sett was subsequently deserted by the badgers and remains unoccupied.” (From The effects on badgers of hunting with dogs, NFBG, 2002.)