These short-legged digging omnivores are surely one of most controversial mammals in any rural community, due to the alleged connection with bovine TB. Under the Protection of Badgers Act, 1992, these shy crepuscular creatures (active at dawn and dusk) are rarely spotted but leave traces of their activities and five-toed claw-marks around their setts, in field and hedgerow edges. It is an offence to “…kill or injure a badger, or to damage, destroy or interfere with its sett or allow a dog to enter.” Illegal baiting continues and it is estimated to account for about 10,000 badger deaths annually. In Pembrokeshire, the Sealyham dog breed was originally developed for badger culling.
Related to others in the mustelidae group such as otters, polecats, weasels and wolverines, badgers are called such due to their badge-like markings or possibly after the french for digger – becheur. Until 1523 these mammals were called brocks and this name still remains in use. Traditionally their pelts have been used for shaving brushes, due to the water-retaining properties, and until the 1980’s gassing of badgers was commonplace. There are currently approximately 250,000 in the UK, and an astonishing 50,000 run over on our roads each year; badgers will always follow the same tracks, hence the need for tunnels under new roadways.
The European Badger grows to about 71 cm in length, can weigh up to 12 kg and lives in clans of 2-15 in each underground burrow, called a sett. These can be surprisingly large and can undermine field edges and woodland banks. The male is a boar, the female called a sow and the young are called cubs. Their gestation period is 49 days. However, the embryo does not implant for 9 months so although badgers mate in the spring the young are not born until the following February, with 2-3 cubs in an average litter. At six weeks old they open their eyes and have teeth. They start to leave the sett about two weeks later. By four months of age, a badger can feed itself. Usually shy and docile, a badger can become fierce when cornered or in territorial disputes. Feeding on a varied diet that may include earthworms, insects, grubs, the eggs of ground-nesting birds, amphibians, small mammals, roots, fruit and, unfortunately, hedgehogs; you will not find any hedgehogs in an area rich in badgers. Most badgers do not exceed 6 years of age and only 50% make it to adulthood. Each sett will oversee up to 150 hectares of land and a mixed habitat is preferred. They can climb trees and swim, if need be. They are always keen to keep their burrows clean to avoid fleas and lice and never eat or defecate underground.
The controversy over badgers being the cause of bovine TB has been a political issue for the last few decades. Some farmers are adamant that badgers must be culled, while campaigners to save them would prefer vaccinations. Government trials of culled badgers in 2002-5 found that 83% were TB free. In 2010 a proposed cull in Pembrokeshire was halted after protests from the Badger Trust. Emotional, scientific and economic arguments are raised and a test cull in August 2013 in parts of West Somerset and Gloucestershire proved inconclusive, to say the least. Costs incurred outweighed any savings for the agricultural sector and the methods deemed ineffective and inhumane. Ian Boyd, Head of DEFRA, has stated that badgers contribute to only 6% of bovine TB and that a cattle vaccine should be a priority. However, the clamour for some action understandably continues when 1000’s of farms are devastated by bovine TB, which is highly infectious. Numbers affected in West Wales have been increasing in 2016.
During 2015, the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales vaccinated badgers, as the second year of a 5 year programme of vaccination. There were 1118 vaccinated in North Pembrokeshire alone, with a unit cost of £824. This programme is due to recommence in 2017, but a global shortage of BCG vaccine could prove an obstacle. At a recent NFU meeting in Pembrokeshire, the Chairman stated that:
“… the global shortage of BCG vaccine means that badger vaccination is not an option for this new Welsh government.”
On Tuesday 18th October 2016, the Welsh Government unveiled new plans. Wales will be divided into different areas with low, intermediate and high incidence of the disease – Pembrokeshire is in a high zone.
A tailored approach will be developed, after consultation across Wales, to reflect the varying disease conditions and risks. Infected badgers will be humanely destroyed by lethal injection but there will be no widespread cull.
Research continues and the issue remains controversial.