I RECENTLY spent a couple of days being taken around badger territory and learning about healthy and unhealthy setts.
A great deal can be learnt from the seat of a vehicle concerning the health of badgers within an area and driving around is the way to start an investigation. From this starting point, a walk across fields to streams, banks and woods will reveal very much more to those with the knowledge to read the signs.
The farms visited are typical livestock and badger territory with plenty of lush grass, water boundaries and woodland in between. Badgers and cattle thrive in this environment for much of the time. Deer, rabbits and foxes are also plentiful and sometimes share the same routes, through hedges, with the badgers.
Our first stop was to view badger dung beside a gateway. There was plenty of dung together with recent prints in the mud. The paw prints showed no evidence of long claws and this location is a territory boundary for a healthy sett.
The badgers from this sett are marking their boundary regularly, giving a message to other badgers to keep out. This boundary may be a long way from the sett. An historic sett of 40 badgers may cover several fields as their territory and healthy badgers will be on patrol during the night. Roads and water are typical boundary marker sites.
A well-worn badger track is a good healthy sign. Regularly used tracks are made by badgers on their way to mark their territory or heading for a known food source. If the boundaries are not being marked, or the paths not being used, then the badger men start to get worried.
Along a roadside hedge there was evidence of recent digging. Many rabbit holes had been enlarged and this was a sign of badgers digging out baby rabbits. “They love baby rabbits,” was the comment from my guide.
We tracked off to follow the signals to the historic sett. This sett has been in use for decades and tracks lead to small satellite setts where the young females go to have their cubs in peace. There are many entrances and exits to the main sett and breather holes that drop down several feet. A sett such as this could have tunnels of a mile or more.
On the other side of a field the situation was not so healthy. Here was a sett that had suffered from flooding and the old tracks were overgrown and little used. A paw print was noted with elongated claws, which indicates a sick badger that is not digging for food or clearing out a sett or engaging in normal activity.
At the sett there was dung next to an entrance. This is a very bad sign. A badger within the sett is not marking a territory but simply dunging outside and foraging in the earth near the entrance. This indicates that the animal is not healthy.
The probability is that the healthy badgers have forced the sick animal out of their sett. There may well have been a fight and the badger may have been injured. Without seeing the badger it is difficult to tell.
A few yards away, in a line across a field, there were new boundary markers, which is unusual. This is understood to be where the historic sett badgers have put down a marker to the unhealthy sett badgers not to cross back into their territory.
Badgers can suffer terrible wounds from attacks by other badgers. The badger men recognise that healthy badgers will not tolerate sick badgers within their sett. Dead badgers have been found by farmers, in and around the cattle sheds, with a runted like appearance, rough coat, extended claws and bites to the jaw and legs.
It is the belief of the badger men that it is a good thing for Devon cattle farmers to have healthy badgers within their farm but it is a bad thing to have unhealthy badgers. Before the unhealthy badgers die from hunger, disease or injury they will interact with the easiest sources of food available, such as supplementary feed and licks put out in the fields, feeding troughs and feed stores around and within the farmyard.
Curious cattle will sniff a badger in the fields, lick the dried, salty urine from tracks and badgers have been seen to spit at inquisitive heifers. In times of food shortages, lactating badger sows can be stressed and have half-starved cubs that venture into farmyards. Healthy badgers will also take easy pickings. Many farmers are aware of the need to practise badger biosecurity but it is not easy to prevent unwanted nighttime visitors.
To introduce a mass slaughter of badgers, for disease control, is seen as unnecessary by the badger men. Any attempt to trap badgers with wires, cages and the like will catch the healthy badgers going about their normal activities, weaken the social structure and risk penetration of a sett by unhealthy boars. Identifying the unhealthy setts is the way forward, which for most farms will take about two hours.
The unhealthy badger, or badgers, within a sett could be dealt with efficiently and humanely by carbon monoxide from an old smoky tractor during the day when the badgers are holed up. The smoke is needed to make sure that all the entrances visually emit smoke, indicating that the many chambers and tunnels have been penetrated.
Cubs are born in the spring and sett numbers increase. When historic sett members are stressed, from drought or over-population, there are likely to be more health problems for badgers, sick individuals will be driven out and unhealthy setts develop. The setts within and around a farm should be checked for health each year in March and November.
The time to deal with unhealthy setts is from November to early May. A badger man can assess three to four farms a day and six men could visit a hundred farms in a week. Unhealthy setts would be marked on a map and dealt with the following day.
A local team of six wildlife assessors and 12 controllers could move through the county from next November and over 2,000 farms could have a healthy badger population within their farm by this time next year.
Targeting unhealthy setts for wildlife management means that healthy badgers are not disturbed or distressed and carry on their good work of keeping sick badgers away from healthy setts.
There may be some merit in veterinary surgeons learning the details of healthy and unhealthy badger setts. Conversations indicate that many farmers are unaware of the state of badger activity within their land. On one farm visited, with a long-standing TB problem, the farmer believed there were “masses of badgers”.
The assessment showed that there are four unhealthy setts, one fully functioning healthy sett with an active population on the fringe of the farm and one sett occupied by a sow and her cubs. This is a very low level of badger activity for this location. The badger men are concerned that unhealthy badgers have an open door to visit much of the farm and the farmer, along with his neighbours, should be encouraged to establish healthy setts so that the farmland is patrolled by healthy badgers.
- My thanks to John Daw and Brian Hill for encouraging my visits and sharing their awareness and expertise.