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Importance of understanding badgers

by
01 July 2011, at 1:00am

RICHARD GARD talks to countryman Bryan Hill about badgers and their relationship with cattle

FOR most people, their only awareness of badgers is from a car. If the sighting, dead or alive, occurs near to a farm, is the animal a threat or a benefit to any cattle within the farm? 

It seems highly important for more individuals and groups to have a much greater awareness of the relationships between badgers and cattle. In order to seek understanding, questions were put to Bryan Hill who has a deep appreciation and a passion for the subject. 

He also has practical experience, does not use a computer and does not write reports or papers. This countryman uses the age-old method of passing on knowledge through word of mouth. 

  • Why do badgers visit cattle farms? 

“Historically, the badgers have been on the land for generations. Cow pats encourage worms and grubs and the more food that is available, the greater the number of badgers. Dairy herds produce the most dung and attract the highest number of badgers. 

“Of course, the badgers are likely to include more than one farm within their territory. The dung provides food all the year round and the cattle share the night-time grazing with the badgers. Through the cattle muck comes all the other wildlife. Cattle contribute an essential part of the food chain to all wildlife and cattle farms influence the landscape.” 

  • What effect does the sale of a dairy herd have on the badgers? 

“This has a similar effect to the slaughter of the cattle and sheep to control foot-and-mouth disease and changes to the planting of crops. Severe winters, dry summers, flooding – all also contribute to a loss of food for the badgers within their territorial boundaries. BSE has had the opposite effect. Since foot-and-mouth in 2001, a lot of cattle farmers have given up and all changes have a consequence for the wildlife.” 

  • So food becomes more scarce, what happens then? 

“Gradually the fitness and health of the badgers within their territorial areas decline. Within the community the badgers will fight and the strongest evict the weaker ones. These evicted badgers have to go somewhere and they will be seen off by badgers from neighbouring territories if they cross their boundary. 

“This process has a significant contribution in passing on infection, with open and weeping wounds. With the dry summers and severe winters that are being experienced, the badgers are often in a poor condition when the cubs are born in the spring. 

“With the current drought, people are concerned about crop yields for human and livestock consumption but the badgers are also short of food. The badgers need to put on weight in the summer and utilise the fat off their backs during the winter. When a badger sow is unable to suckle the cubs for a full lactation, the cubs are more susceptible to disease and starvation.”  

  • What is the significance of BSE? 

“It really is very simple: BSE changed farming. During the BSE restricted years, farmers had to feed their bullocks to be fit for market within 30 months and, to get the best price, this time-scale still applies in practice. 

“In order to meet the requirements, supplementary feed was put out in the fields including creep feeders, blocks, licks and grains. This was good for the badgers and the extra food was available in the cattle sheds in the winter as well. 

“The badger numbers grew. The pressure for cheap food now means that a growth in planting high-energy lowcost crops and cattle feed offers consistent food for the badgers.”    

  • What happens to the evicted badgers? 

“These badgers are now isolated. They have no territory and are not protected by other badgers. They are likely to have bite and claw wounds, are probably in a weak physical condition and are frightened of other badgers. 

Temporary sanctuary 

“They will look for somewhere to hole up. This may be an abandoned sett due to flooding or disease, under a tree stump, beneath discarded galvanised iron, or in a farmyard within a little used barn or under an unused piece of machinery. Anywhere that offers the badger temporary sanctuary. 

“Increasingly, nests are found outside a sleeping hole. It appears that the badger is struggling to breathe underground. Water is important and water troughs are easily available.” 

  • What is the importance of the badger territories? 

“Historically there would be one main sett. As the population grows, more setts are created but this is all within the original territory. The boundaries of a territory are created by the badgers to include feeding areas and dictated by the presence of other badger groups. 

“Badgers have no appreciation of farm, parish, roadway or river boundaries. The historic sett is in a well-drained dry location with good water access. To accommodate greater numbers, more setts are created and occupied in less beneficial locations within the territory. 

“With recent wet summers, more flooding is experienced and often the satellite setts are badly affected, which makes them uninhabitable, causing more stress and disruption. Badgers within the wetter grass growing areas are more susceptible to this disruption because of the land structure. 

“When inquisitive cattle are turned out, anything entering the field is investigated, including a badger. An aggressive badger is likely to turn and spit into the face of the cow or bullock. 

“The health of badgers in that grazing area is crucial to the health of all cattle on those pastures. A good indication of disease in badgers is a decline in activity. A hotspot of diseased badgers is likely to include the land of more than one farm as their feeding area. The greater the decline of the traditional territories the more these hotspots are created.” 

  • You mentioned badger stress, how does that matter to a farmer? 

“When a healthy badger community is disrupted and the badger social structure is weakened, or there is a shortage of food (as now), there will be fights, a lack of stability and an increase in stress. Infected animals become infectious so disease increases, more badgers become skanky and the risk of transferring infection to cattle increases. 

A herd of cows that has previously been within the protection of one or more healthy badger communities, now comes into contact with unhealthy badgers. These badgers will only infect a small area at a time so a herd may only have a few infected cows. The more diseased badgers and the development of badger hotspots, the bigger the risk for the farmer.” 

  • Do farmers know about the healthy and unhealthy badgers? 

“In principle, many farmers are aware but I have yet to meet a farmer who knows about the full extent of badger activity on his farm. Most people look at established setts, which are not a guide to the diseased badgers. Occasionally a dead or dying badger may be seen within the farm building and a badger seen in the daytime is a cause for concern. Badgers are mainly active at night and rest up underground during the day. 

“When a herd is tested positive for TB, the farmer assumes that the nearest badgers may be the cause of his problems. It is often the badgers that he is unaware of that are the issue. Many badgers will be coming to the farm but it is the ones outside the healthy territorial areas that are significant for the health of the cattle. Activity, territory and area assessment are crucial before any assumptions of where the problems exist.

Unusual behaviour 

  • Is it practical to locate the badgers showing unusual behaviour?

“Yes. The same pattern of badger behaviour has taken place consistently throughout the last 14 years that I have taken a keen interest. There is so much information that is available from the land and it is like a jigsaw that only reveals the full picture when all information is collated.  

“I travel every hedgerow, woodland and stream to detect the activity of the badgers, identify the territory of the healthy badger communities and locate the unhealthy badger sanctuaries. This survey is best done in the winter when the ferns, bracken and nettles have died down. 

“It requires the agreement of neighbours to access their land and this includes non farmers. Most people are anxious to know whether the badgers on their land are healthy.” 

Bryan points out that the issue of badgers and cattle is simple and straightforward. For anyone who is not familiar with wildlife, and when the subject is committed to paper, this topic may sound complicated. At field level, Bryan insists that it is easy to detect the local interaction, once you understand the significance of what you are seeing. 

  • Bryan and Richard can be contacted via e-mail: richard@agmed.hypermart.net