It has been 10 years since the badger cull began. Between 2013 and 2021, a third of the entire UK population of badgers has been killed and many more will be subject to the same fate in the years to come, according to the Badger Trust. This is part of the UK Government’s twenty-five year program to eradicate bovine tuberculosis (bTB); a disease that is detrimental to the livestock industry, resulting in the slaughter of 10,000s of cattle every year. Culling badgers as an effective means of controlling the spread of bTB, however, is widely contested and has compelled some to take direct action to protect the wild animals.
Lessons from the past
The rhetoric that badgers spread bTB and require culling is not new. In 1971, a farmer in Gloucestershire believed that they were the cause of a breakdown in his herd after discovering the body of an infected badger on his farmland. Subsequently, the government sanctioned the gassing of badger setts. According to The Fate of The Badger, the farmer later admitted that the evidence was ‘totally circumstantial’ and estimated that up to 15,000 were victims of hydrogen cyanide poisoning. Though gassing was eventually banned, culling resumed following further demonisation by a commissioned report.
The legitimacy of culling only began to be officially challenged a decade later. In 1986 a report found that ‘infected badgers can exist with an extremely low probability of transmitting the disease to cattle’, though a form of culling continued. A further review of bTB was published in 1997 and claimed badgers were a ‘significant source of infection in cattle’ yet stated that the evidence was ‘indirect’. As this was inconclusive, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) launched The Randomised Badger Culling Trial to investigate the relationship between the spread of bTB among cattle, badgers and other wildlife. The results of the trial, carried out between 1998 and 2006, stated that “badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain”; a conclusion that had been reached at the expense of 10,979 badgers.
With mounting pressure on the government to halt the spread of bTB, Sir David King, the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser at the time, published a report, produced in less than six weeks, that justified an intensive badger cull. This was met with criticism in the scientific journal, Nature, which stated that “it is likely that political factors will ultimately overrule scientific ones”. This concern was to become a reality in 2011 when the Secretary of State for DEFRA, Caroline Spelman, announced the UK Government’s plan to cull badgers, which began two years later. Consistent disruption was caused by anti-cull activists and though they claimed they would “not be able to save all the badgers” their efforts were successful. This was later confirmed after it was revealed that less than half of the minimum quota were killed.
With the badger cull entering its 10th year, which could see a minimum of 23,652 killed according to government figures for intensive and supplementary culling, activists continue to take direct action to protect one of the UK’s most iconic wild animals. However, the extent of this work is unbeknownst to many.
Though Natural England publishes licences for badger culling, the specific locations of where culls take place are redacted from the documents. Tip-offs and leaks have provided information on those involved, but a sure method to confirm where culling activity is taking place is through extensive surveying of the countryside. This should not be limited to searching woodland and agricultural farmland though, as culling has also taken place elsewhere, including at a five star hotel with a golf course and a wedding venue which offers itself as a well-being and yoga retreat. Not everyone within the perimeter of a cull zone is taking part, however. Badgers may be confined to setts clustered together in specific areas or they may be spread out more evenly. This is due to a myriad of factors including terrain conditions, access to food, and disturbance caused by human activity. Therefore, even if there is reliable information on who is taking part in the cull, it is considered essential to survey the landscape to understand local badger populations and how they may be targeted.
The process is simple; activists walk vast amounts of the countryside, covering as much woodland, copse, field boundary and hedgerow as possible, and whatever is discovered is collected as data. As well as evidence of culling, it is important to confirm the locations of badger setts. Some can be found with relative ease, as some sett entrances are clearly visible in the open, whilst others require more of a detailed search. Where they are well hidden or otherwise inaccessible due to undergrowth or being located on steep terrain, their existence is suggested by the presence of runs – paths created by animals and embedded in vegetation or soil due to consistent use.
Other evidence of badger activity is the presence of latrines; small pits or holes where the wild animal will defecate. The number of them, as well as the quantity of their contents, can indicate how prevalent a local population is and on inspection of their faeces, can reveal whether badgers are ingesting peanuts, the bait used for culling.
Search and destroy
One of two methods that are used to kill badgers is by cage-trapping. Whilst foraging at night time, the wild animals are lured into a cage and trapped before being shot in the head the following morning. Initially, small amounts of peanuts can be scattered around an active sett to encourage them to search for more. Larger quantities are placed further away, sometimes directly on or near a run, with the intention of leading badgers to the specific location of a cage trap. These are often positioned on even ground, sometimes levelled using a spade, and bedded in with soil which is placed on the floor of the cage. As badgers predominantly rely on their sense of smell, they are cautious of new objects and changes to their habitat, especially where there is a human scent. Because of this a cage trap has to be tied open and baited for multiple days for it to become familiar and recognised as a source of food. Once this has been achieved, the cage is set to trap by either attaching a stone directly to the trigger mechanism of the door using twine, or by creating a triangle shaped trip-line in front of the stone. Multiple traps can be used at the same time.
In addition to surveying landscapes for the presence of badgers, activists seek bait points and cage traps, both of which can be found in close proximity to an active sett. Flat stones covering peanuts can be found with ease and removing them can reduce the chance of badgers being successfully baited. Though activists consider this a worthwhile tactic, it requires checking often as bait points are replenished on a regular basis.
The ultimate damage to this method of culling is achieved by targeting cage traps. Finding them, however, is more of a difficult task. Whilst some are placed in clear view in open spaces, many are well concealed within the topography of the landscape. Regardless, activists persevere and, on discovering them, action may be taken: some activists might trigger them (eliminating the chance of trapping) while others might risk a charge of criminal damage by flattening and reshaping them beyond repair. Though traps can be replaced, the process of baiting and correctly installing just a single cage trap is a considered and time-consuming effort. Having to do that repeatedly may put some operators off using them entirely.
For the activists involved, it is inevitable to be confronted with the bleak reality of the cull. Fresh blood and other remains found on or around cage traps confirm that some badgers have already been killed and acts as a stark reminder of why they chose to take action. Though emotive, they have little choice but to take solace in the actions they take and to continue the search for more.
In the line of fire
Another method of culling that is carried out is controlled shooting, often referred to as free shooting. Rather than being lured into a cage trap, badgers are baited away from their setts toward clear open spaces where they are shot at night from a distance by marksmen. Larger quantities of peanuts are used and are often buried deeper to encourage the wild animals to become stationary in order to enable marksmen a clear shot.
Similar to cage-trapping, successfully baiting badgers is a slow process that takes a number of days, which gives activists an opportunity to intervene. These bait points can also be found whilst surveying during the daytime, though they are more difficult to discover. Rather than concealing bait underneath a flat stone, bait points often blend into their surroundings with a tuft of grass or a clump of soil. Their locations also differ for this method of culling and are placed seemingly at random. However, as they need to be refilled on a regular basis, repeated vehicle drivings in fields can inadvertently lead activists directly to them. Once they have been discovered, the peanuts are dug out, bagged and taken away.
As controlled shooting takes place after dark, the efforts to protect badgers continue throughout the night and into the early hours of the morning. With the benefit of establishing where shooting may be taking place, activists will drive around country lanes in search of suspicious activity. This task is made easier once a marksmen’s vehicle is known and, once identified, pursued. An alternative tactic is to park by the entrance to land where shooting is known to take place and wait. The presence of activists on the road is often enough for marksmen to move on to another area, or give up for the night altogether.
Deterring marksmen on the roads cannot always be achieved. At any given time, the presence of those attempting to shoot outnumber those trying to stop them and can get into position unnoticed. As it varies when badgers will leave their setts, predicting a time best to target them becomes difficult. The longer marksmen have to wait for the opportunity to shoot the wild animals, the more likely it is for them to be found by activists.
Isolated areas of the countryside are plunged into near total darkness at night. Because of this, activists utilise the same technology used by marksmen to detect badgers; thermal imaging. Through the lens of one of these monoculars, whole landscapes can be scanned from a distance and will illuminate those trying to remain hidden.
Those intending to shoot badgers are legally required to be in possession of an appropriate firearms certificate and must adhere to health and safety regulations. Failure to do so may lead to the licence being revoked and further legal actions taken against them. Marksmen must not shoot if there is a risk to public safety and, taking advantage of this, activists will make their presence known using powerful flashlights and position themselves in the area where shooting is intended to be carried out. Once again, the marksmen have little choice but to either move on or pack up for the night.
Attempts to locate marksmen are not always initially successful. A seemingly quiet night for the activists can soon change on hearing the faint noise of a distant shot. Activists rush in search of the location of the shot, hoping what they heard was an unsuccessful attempt. At times it is unfortunately too late and, on tracking down the culprit, the body of a newly shot badger is also discovered. Emotive and deflating, the activists’ presence still has purpose as it prevents the marksman from achieving their ambition of killing multiple badgers.
Denial and death
The key to the success of protecting badgers during the cull is consistency. For the duration of the six to eight week period of intensive culling, searching for bait points, cage traps and marksmen is a daily task that gives little opportunity for rest.
As well as tiredness and subsequent burnout that are the result of this work, activists also put themselves at great risk. Interfering with the efforts to cull badgers can be met with violence by those directly involved as well as those who sympathise with it. In addition, taking direct action can have legal ramifications if caught and convicted, including charges of criminal damage and aggravated trespass.
Often culling activity intensifies in the closing weeks in an attempt to boost their quota, especially as an act of desperation in areas where regular disruption has been caused. This increases tension from those intending to cull badgers and also puts additional pressure on the police to apprehend activists. This is a challenge to activists but their efforts can be achieved by maintaining a sensible and tactical approach, though this becomes increasingly more difficult; especially for those who are approaching levels of burnout.
Since its first year in operation, the badger cull has expanded exponentially. Though the next phase of combating bTB was published and highlighted a focus on vaccination, the reality for the plight of badgers remains bleak as culling is yet to be discontinued. However, activists remain positive that they can not only make it extremely difficult for the cull to be carried out but can also directly save badgers from being killed, giving local populations an additional chance at longer term survival.
bTB is one of many diseases that has a direct relationship to ingrained issues of poor biosecurity within animal agriculture. There is an abundance of research that studies the spread of the disease amongst wildlife and livestock, which have been comprehensively undertaken over a period of decades, and yet there is still no concrete evidence to justify the culling of badgers. Until we accept that this is not a solution, or even part of a solution, to the issue of bTB and move forward, badgers will continue to be persecuted and activists will strive to protect them.
Images: Aidan Frere-Smith (2022) Feature image: an activist flattens a cage-trap beyond repair