Badgers may be a protected species...but they continue to make the headlines for lots of different reasons

​Badgers may be a protected species...but they continue to make the headlines for lots of different reasons, writes Richard Halleron.
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The Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (USPCA) has called for renewed action to tackle to scourge of badger baiting in Northern Ireland.

The organisation has recently launched a new report on this issue: Badger Baiting in Northern Ireland.

It shines a light on the clandestine and barbaric underworld of badger baiting and hunting with dogs.

The link between badgers and bovine tuberculosis has been proven. But  what implications will this have for local badger populations?The link between badgers and bovine tuberculosis has been proven. But  what implications will this have for local badger populations?
The link between badgers and bovine tuberculosis has been proven. But what implications will this have for local badger populations?

The report also highlights the lack of enforcement against badger baiting.

Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK where hunting with dogs is allowed. The animal charity says that this provides a smokescreen for those engaged in illegal badger baiting, as perpetrators can claim that they are legally hunting foxes.

The USPCA is calling for Northern Ireland’s politicians to support legislation to ban hunting wild mammals with dogs.

It wants to see greater enforcement of the current law and more public awareness generated improve the reporting of offences.

Intelligence gathering by the USPCA Special Investigations Unit indicates there are more than 150 active badger baiters operating in Northern Ireland and conservatively estimate that over 2,000 badgers are illegally and cruelly killed each year.

Despite these numbers, only three people have been convicted of offences relating to killing or injuring wild animals in Northern Ireland since 2011.

Speaking at the launch of the report, Nora Smith, Chief Executive of the USPCA said:“Badger baiting is a cruel and heinous crime.

" Every year thousands of helpless badgers and indeed other mammals are killed purely for the fun of bloodthirsty individuals engaged in this illegal act of cruelty.

“Our report highlights the shocking reality of badger baiting in Northern Ireland and the considerable weaknesses in the investigation, enforcement and prosecution of these violent and barbaric offences.

"Doing nothing is not an option.”

She added:“The USPCA and the Northern Ireland Badger Group have established Operation Brockwatch to protect badger setts with signage and cameras but further action is needed to protect badgers, dogs and other animals.

“Proper enforcement, a ban on hunting with dogs, and greater public awareness is needed to end this evil practice and protect defenceless badgers who should already be protected by law.”

Veterinarian David Martin spoke at the launch of the new report.

He said that the practice of badger baiting does not just destroy protected animals like badgers: it results in gruesome injuries to the dogs as well.

Martin continued:“Horrific injuries to jaws and teeth will often go untreated as perpetrators fear their involvement in this activity will be discovered, resulting in unnecessary suffering and cruelty.

“In the rest of the UK, since legislation outlawing hunting with dogs was introduced, there has thankfully been a marked decrease in this type of abuse against animals.”

Nora Smith indicated that the USPCA would be keen to join forces with the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) to develop a joint awareness programme, where badger baiting is concerned.

UFU deputy president John McLenaghan attended the launch event. He confirmed that the Union works closely with a range of animal charities, adding:“We totally deplore the practice of badger baiting.”

Meanwhile, farmer-funding to the tune of £1m per annum will be required to pay for the badger cull, which is at the heart of the new Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) Bovine Tuberculosis (bTB) eradication measures.

It is envisaged that voluntary levies on milk and slaughtered cattle – 0.02p/L and £1/head respectively– will be introduced to fund the new measure, which should kick-in during the late summer/early autumn period of 2023.

This time table is based on the proviso that a Stormont Assembly and Executive will be in situ to pass the required secondary legislation.

Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) president David Brown has confirmed that his organisation fully supports the new measures.

According to the UFU representative, farmers funding a badger cull was the only option available, if the eradication policy is to be introduced.

He added that the Union did not want the levy monies to be collected by DAERA. It was for this reason that Animal Health and Welfare Northern Ireland (AHWNI) had been approached to facilitate the role.

Subsequent discussions with AHWNI had been held with the directors of the organisation agreeing to co-ordinate and manage the administration processes associated with the new levy.

A separate company will be established to carry out the badger cull. A model very much centred on the approach now being taken in England has been agreed for Northern Ireland. A mix of night-time shooting and trapping of badgers in ‘hot spot’ areas will be taken in this regard.

Significantly, the strategy steps required to effect a badger cull have been agreed by all participating stakeholders making up Northern Ireland’s TB Eradication Partnership (TBEP).

Each ‘hot spot’ area will be identified over the next few months. However, it was repeatedly pointed out at the Co Down meeting that the badger remains a protected species.

In practical terms this means that no more than 30% of Northern Ireland’s total land area can be included within the envisaged ‘hot spot’ regions

Only DAERA can define a specific ‘hot spot, each of which will comprise an area of 100 square kilometres.

The new culling strategy will allow for approximately 75% of the badgers within a ‘hot spot’ to be removed within a six week period during the months of September and October.

Badger populations will be maintained at this reduced level for a minimum period of four years, after which it is envisaged that a vaccination policy will be introduced.

Badgers will be shot by people, who have been specifically selected and trained to carry out this job.

David Brown concluded:“This is not a badger eradication campaign. The clear end point is to have healthy populations of badgers and cattle living beside each other in the countryside.

“The bTB eradication policies put in place over the past 50 years have not worked. Something has to change.

“It is universally accepted that badgers are a source of bTB. Experience in other regions confirms that the selective culling of these animals will act to reduce overall bTB levels.

“This is why the UFU totally supports the new bTB eradication measures, which have garnered support across all the political parties at Stormont.”

Last year bTB testing, animal removal and farmer-compensation measures cost DAERA approximately £45m. Just over 9.0% of herds in Northern Ireland were directly impacted by the disease in 2022.

In response to this a leading animal welfare consultant has claimed that culling badgers will have no meaningful impact on a campaign designed to eradicate bTB.

Shropshire-based Tris Pearce further explained:“If every badger in the country was vaccinated against bTB, there would still be a residual problem in livestock.

“The core challenge remains that of eradicating TB within the cattle population.”

Pearce made these comments while attending the recent event hosted by the Ulster Society for the Protection of Animals (USPCA) to highlight the scourge of badger baiting in Northern Ireland.

He cited vaccination of all newborn calves as a means of getting on top of bTB.

“This should be the fundamental driver of any campaign that has been designed to eradicate this terrible disease.

“But politics has always come into play in not making this happen. Vested interests, including the farming unions and the practising vets, are very much opposed to the farming industry going down the vaccination route, where bTB is concerned.”

Pearce referred to claims to the effect that badger culls in different parts of the UK have helped to reduce bTB levels as very misleading.

He said.“This is a very complicated subject and getting up-to-date information from the relevant authorities has proven extremely difficult.

“But we do know that in areas where bTB levels have come down, badger culling has been accompanied by enhanced cattle control measures.”

Pearce pointed to modern cattle management systems as aiding and abetting the spread of bTB.

“The growing adoption of total confinement systems means that cattle are living in close proximity to each other the year round. So the potential for bTB to spread from animal to animal is greatly enhanced.”

Pearce continued: “We are also seeing large volumes of slurry spread and silage ground as a matter of course. The fact is that bTB bacteria can live under anaerobic conditions for up to months.

“As a result they will be readily ingested by grazing cattle or brought back into a farming system through their presence in silage.”

He concluded: “It is also unfair that the entire focus of the wider bTB transmission challenge has been focussed on badgers when we know that deer, otters and even rats can both contact and spread the disease.”

Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) has proposed a bTB: badger intervention.

This would entail an initial cull of these animals in many areas, followed by the introduction of a capture, vaccination and release policy.

The Alliance Party’s agriculture spokesman, John Blair MLA, hosted the USPCA event at Parliament Buildings, Stormont.

He confirmed that the party totally opposed the DAERA proposal, adding:

“The prevention of animal cruelty must be a priority at all times.

“I fully recognise the desire of the farming community to have bTB eradicated. What’s needed is a stronger commitment on the part of DAERA to push forward with more research on this critically important issue.”

And, finally, new research carried out in the Republic of Ireland has confirmed that badgers living with helminth parasite infections are more likely to have TB.

Moreover, this finding may well have important implications for policymakers trying to manage TB infection levels within cattle.

Professor Nicola Marples, from Trinity College Dublin’s School of Natural Sciences, explained: "Other aspects of animal health have largely been neglected in previous studies, but it is well known that if animals, or humans, have parasites, such as helminth worms, they are more likely to catch illnesses like TB.

“That's because the immune system can't do everything at once.

“If it's busy fighting helminth worms it has fewer resources available to protect against bacterial infections, like TB, which require a different immune pathway.

“And it's true the other way round too; if an animal has a bacterial infection, it is more susceptible to parasites."

She added: "Domestic cattle are routinely treated for helminths, but badgers are not, so we hypothesised that if badgers were living with a lot of worms; and we know that some do; they might be more likely to catch TB and pass it on to the local cattle."

Her subsequent research found that badgers infected with TB were indeed more likely to be infected with worms.

Professor Marples concluded: "Our discovery has implications for TB management strategies and expands our understanding of the plight of badgers in the Irish environment.”

Earlier this week Defra revealed at least 33,627 badgers were slaughtered in 2022 as part of its controversial badger cull strategy.

Peter Hambly, Executive Director of Badger Trust, said Badger setts across England are lying empty for the first time in history.