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4.1 Digging near badger setts
If any authority, landowner or builder knows they are going to have to dig a trench or pit within 20 metres of the nearest entrance to a badger sett, such as for laying drains or cables, they should contact the local office of the relevant Statutory Nature Conservation Agency (for development operations) or the relevant Agricultural Department (for agriculture or forestry operations) in advance to inform them of the site and date of operation and to establish whether a licence is needed (see below). Under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 anybody found digging at a badger sett would be considered to be a badger-digger until they could prove otherwise. Prior notification may avoid a problem with the police if they are reported by the public. If heavy machinery is to be used near to a sett, even if it is only for a short period, it is advisable to mark off an area 20 metres from all entrances, using coloured tape or rope, so that it is unlikely that tunnels would be run over by accident. Otherwise badgers may be crushed or trapped underground. In some situations, tape can flap in strong wind, and may frighten badgers and affect their emergence. In such circumstances, rope is to be preferred. A longer-term building project employing heavy machinery would necessitate a more permanent post and netting fence for the same purpose. This would need to have gaps at points where it crossed any badger paths.
As a general rule, English Nature require a licence if the work is to be carried out within 10 metres of a sett, sometimes for work 10-20 metres from the sett, and probably not if the work is to be more than 20 metres from the sett, although this may vary according to the circumstances, and operations such as blasting or quarrying more than 20 metres from a sett might still require a licence application. In practice, this means that all setts need a 20 metre protection zone unless a licence application has been made to undertake work closer to the sett. If there is any doubt as to whether the operation is close enough to a sett to require a licence, the relevant Statutory Nature Conservation Agency must always be consulted prior to the onset of work.
This section is not about the illegal 'sport' of 'badger digging' but discusses the quandaries felt by conservationists when faced with the problem of whether or not to dig into a badger sett (i.e. not one from which the badgers have previously been excluded). It is unclear from reading the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 as to whether 'digging for a badger' is specifically licensable or is included under 'taking', as section 2(1)(c) of the 1992 Act reads 'a person is guilty of an offence if, except as permitted by or under this Act, he digs for a badger' without actually saying where in the Act and under what conditions that permission is listed as licensable. However, licensed digging into setts (prior to or without exclusion) or digging for badgers should only be carried out under extreme emergencies. No licences to dig for badgers were issued under the pre-1992 legislation to our knowledge, and any applications are likely to be viewed with concern by the Statutory Nature Conservation Agencies. We can only think of the following four situations where, in our experience, conservationists may be faced with such a quandary and give our opinions on the pros and cons of digging into a sett.
The first problem is whether to dig for badger cubs when a lactating sow has been killed e.g. on a nearby road. However, we think that in such situations it is best not to dig into the sett, for several reasons. Firstly, you cannot be sure whether the female was from a particular sett, or in fact whether she actually had any cubs of her own. Sometimes a sow will suckle another sow's cubs e.g. when her own have been killed. Also, it is unlikely that in a large and complex sett the cubs could be found, and in any case digging will destroy the sett and prevent it being used by the remaining badgers and future generations of cubs. Finally, any cubs found may belong to another female and not the one that was run over. The other problem is a legal one; the 1992 Act does not allow for the digging into setts to bring out badger cubs for welfare reasons either under the exceptions listed or under licence from the Statutory Nature Conservation Agency, which issue licences for 'taking' only under specific circumstances. Thus it is far better to keep a close watch on the sett from which the sow was thought to come, and other nearby setts, and to check for young and dependent cubs coming above ground when they get really hungry; orphaned cubs may come above ground three to four weeks earlier than they would normally do so. They may be found close to a sett entrance or wandering about in the vicinity of the sett. Once found under these conditions, the cubs can be taken into immediate care without a licence (see 8.1. Chapter 8. Rehabilitating badgers).
The second situation is a particularly complex issue to resolve, and involves the disappearance of small dogs, usually terriers, down setts, to the owner's great agitation. This excuse for digging in a badger sett is frequently used by badger-diggers when caught and challenged. Sometimes it may be the truth. However, the people digging into the sett are still committing an offence because they have not obtained the necessary licence. Dogs are legally considered to be property, and so licences to interfere with a sett to recover a trapped dog fall to the Agricultural Departments to issue. The normal arrangements for such situations require that the dog is left for up to 48 hours before taking any action, although each case is judged on its merits. Thus, even though the owner of a trapped dog may want the sett excavated (often the local Fire Brigade is called in to do this), no action must be taken to 'save' the dog, or to 'protect' the badgers from the dog until all the relevant parties (the appropriate Agricultural Department, the RSPCA, SSPCA or USPCA, the police and the landowner) have been consulted and the best course of action decided upon. This is particularly important because the badgers are much more likely to be stressed by the digging than the presence of the dog, and excavating the sett would destroy it for future use. The dog will almost certainly emerge within 24 hours when hungry and thirsty, and make its own way home. Even if the dog is really stuck, it will usually free itself after a day or two without food and a little bit of weight loss. Dogs can survive below ground without food for several days, although lack of water may be more of a problem, especially in sandy soils.
If you are unsure where the dog is, or whether the dog is actually in the sett, a remote controlled video camera on a trolley may be useful in finding the dog. These are sometimes available from the Local Authority, who may use them to inspect underground pipes. However, their use in such situations may well not be legal if the dog had entered the sett of its own volition, and hence no offence had been committed or suspected. Where it is believed that a dog had been introduced into the sett either deliberately or recklessly (see 3.2.1. Chapter 3. Badgers and the Law), then an investigation licence authorising the use of such cameras could be obtained from the relevant Statutory Nature Conservation Agency.
Thirdly, under section 10(1)(f) of the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, the Statutory Nature Conservation Agencies are empowered to licence interference with a badger sett for the purpose of investigating whether any offence has been committed or for gathering, evidence in connection with any legal proceedings that may be taken. This is included presumably to allow an authorised person to dig into, say, a gassed sett to see if any badgers died underground or to dig to see if badgers have been killed by, for example, heavy machinery being driven over the top of a sett and crushing or suffocating the occupants or even to see whether badger digging had occurred (though the evidence of this activity is usually all too clear - see the Mammal Society Publication Badger Persecution and the Law). Where the sett has been attacked by diggers, or crushed, then extra digging may do little further damage. On the other hand, when the sett itself is still intact, then digging may destroy part of it for the further use of badgers. Where a sett has been seriously damaged, remember that it can be repaired and made stronger, as described in section 4.3.1.
The fourth situation is one where there is a dire emergency with human life at stake. Such a situation may arise with the discovery of a badger sett undermining a busy road or railway line, when action has to be taken quickly (this may be required even in the breeding season) and there is no time to erect one-way gates to exclude the badgers (see 5.7.2. Chapter 5. Badgers in the Way). However, if the sett is a main sett and both large and deep, and in an area heavily populated with badgers, it may be that more distress is caused by excluding the badgers, since any emergency work near the sett may sometimes last for several weeks. In such circumstances, it may be preferable to work on or around the sett whilst it is still occupied, so long as the sett itself is not destroyed, and only part of it damaged or affected. There have been situations where extensive work, involving damage to tunnels or chambers of a main sett, has not led to desertion by the badgers. However, expert advice is needed before embarking on such a course of action, and of course the Statutory Nature Conservation Agency must be fully consulted at all stages and the appropriate licences obtained.
In summary, there is a basic presumption by the Statutory Nature Conservation Agencies against digging into badger setts, because these are a valuable and vulnerable resource for the badgers, and you should not excavate setts to remove any chemical deterrents, look for dead badgers to aid in a prosecution, or to free trapped dogs.
Badger digging is widespread in Britain, but at present is only a severe problem in a few areas. The best strategy to help reduce the incidence of digging is probably one of increasing public awareness, and many Badger Groups have been very successful in mounting publicity campaigns that inform people what to do if they see someone behaving suspiciously near a badger sett. The production of leaflets with a contact number such as a person in the Badger Group, the local RSPCA, SSPCA or USPCA office, the county Wildlife Trust, or the police Wildlife Liaison Officer, can be widely circulated and the impact enhanced by publicity in the local press and the display of posters in village shops, libraries, and other prominent localities.
When a dug sett is found, it is important that once all the details have been recorded for the police and all the necessary photographic evidence collected (see the Mammal Society booklet Badger Persecution and the Law - Chapter 12 Further Reading), the sett is repaired as quickly as possible. This requires a licence from the relevant Statutory Nature Conservation Agency, but when necessary this can be issued very quickly. If all the dug holes have been left open, it is easy to fill them in again, taking great care not to block any of the tunnels. If you do, you could seal a badger into a blind-ending tunnel in which it will suffocate. So carefully inspect the damage and remove any loose soil to check that no side tunnels have been blocked. This is especially important when the dug sett has been back-filled by the diggers. It may then be necessary to remove all the back-fill to check no tunnels have been blocked or closed off. Then use bricks and flat stones to rebuild the tunnels before the soil is replaced. Alternatively, old plastic barrels cut in half can be used, so long as they are clean and have no residual smells. This is vital if the barrel has been used for holding a strong smelling substance. Plastic barrels are very useful because they can be cut to any shape or length, and holes can be cut at points where side tunnels join the main tunnel. In addition the barrels can be cemented into place or covered with flints and bricks to deter future diggers (and also see 4.3.3 below).
Where a sett is subjected to repeated digs, it may be necessary to use some form of sett protection. Alarms have been used successfully, but they have a number of disadvantages. In particular they may give a number of false alarms, are expensive, require regular maintenance, and are only effective if there is someone on hand to respond to an alarm at any time of the day or night. The alarms can be activated by an infra-red beam or a wire which is buried into the ground and broken by diggers or strung above ground and activated by being disturbed. The last approach is probably the easiest, with the wire attached to a 'plug and socket' system that is easily dislodged when the wire is disturbed. It is best not to try to cover too large an area with the wire, since this leads to many false alarms. Also, since the line has to be under some tension, it is best to run the wire in straight lines and to use sticks or poles to change direction, as this prevents the wire snagging or catching. Finally, whether a wire or an infra-red beam is used, it is best that the triggering mechanism is set at chest height. This means that most wild animals will not trigger the alarm, but the mechanism cannot be used where cattle have access to the sett area or where large wild animals such as fallow or red deer are common. Here a wire buried in the sett area, particularly at points where the sett is liable to be dug, may be more suitable; this is easiest to use where the sett area is small and the area liable to be dug is easy to anticipate. However, burying a wire around a badger sett would require a licence from the Statutory Nature Conservation Organisation.
Clearly alarm systems are only of limited practical use, and can be used to protect very few setts. Hence their overall contribution to badger conservation must of necessity be small. Perhaps their greatest value is any deterrent effect they have on the local badger-diggers and the publicity they generate for the local Badger Group. This deterrent effect is sometimes enhanced by putting notices on trees by the sett warning that an alarm has been installed although, of course, these signs also draw attention to the sett area.
Methods of reinforcing setts to protect them from badger-diggers are probably of greater value than alarms. Any measures that can be used to strengthen a sett, and hence make it much harder (and slower) for diggers to attack are likely to greatly reduce the risks of that sett being dug, although they cannot protect the sett from being gassed or the badgers from being persecuted with lurchers. The systems described below have now been used to protect many setts in South Yorkshire and elsewhere, and so far no major problems, such as badgers deserting the sett, have been experienced. However, remember that these measures are extreme, and should only be attempted in areas where badger digging is a frequent and serious problem. If you really do think that sett reinforcement is necessary, you must first discuss your plans with the landowner and the Statutory Nature Conservation Agency, who will issue the appropriate licence if they agree with the need for the action you propose. It would also be useful to discuss your problems with the South Yorkshire Badger Group to obtain first-hand advice on any problems you are likely to encounter (see Chapter 11. Useful Addresses). The following notes are based on their experiences.
If a sett has been dug or is at risk, temporary protection can be achieved by cutting trees or branches, covering the sett area to a minimum of 50 centimetres, and by wiring these to nearby trees and stakes driven into the soil (fig. 2). The trees to be cut or felled should be at least 50 metres from the sett area, but if they are too far away it is a lot of work to carry them to the sett site. Obviously, before embarking on such action, the landowner must be contacted and the Local Authority arboriculturalist notified. It is also important to ensure that no sharp ends of the cut wire are left to injure the badgers, and where the wire is anchored to trees it must be checked periodically to ensure that it is not becoming embedded in the tree. Whilst it can be effective, this form of sett protection is no longer used by the South Yorkshire Badger Group because it has two disadvantages. Firstly, it can draw attention to the sett, and secondly, vandals have been known to set fire to the wood, although this risk is minimised by only using thick branches that are more difficult to burn.
Laying cut trees and heavy branches on a sett is not a means of achieving permanent protection for that sett, but simply a means of deterring badger-diggers. It will certainly mean that they take much longer to dig down to the badgers, and hence enhance their chances of being caught. The effect can be strengthened by first of all laying crisscross layers of 'Rylock' netting (used for sheep or pig fencing) over the sett area. The cut ends of the wire should be bent over and buried into the ground to prevent injuries to the badgers. The wire should be held down with pegs, stones or soil. Other types of netting can be used for this temporary form of protection, but remember that many types of netting will corrode quickly. The netting can be covered with a thin layer of soil, but this is usually not necessary, and vegetation will normally quickly grow through the mesh, making it more difficult for badger-diggers to locate. After the netting is in place, just cover it with branches or cut trees as described above. However, this method suffers from the same two disadvantages as the previous approach.
More permanent protection can be achieved by removing the top soil over the sett and burying reinforcement materials. Soil should be removed to a depth of 15-30 centimetres unless the protection is on farmland that may be subsequently ploughed. The depth should then be increased to 30-50 centimetres following discussions with the landowner to determine ploughing depth. Multiple layers of netting or mesh should be laid over the cleared area; the heavier the section of the mesh the stronger the protection will be. Ideally four or five criss-cross layers of concrete reinforcing mesh made from 6-12 millimetre thick wire will give the best protection, but thinner materials can also be used and the number of layers can be varied. The layers of mesh should be fastened together to form a complete mat, normally by tying with fencing wire but a welder can be used if one is available. The mat of mesh should be thoroughly staked down using angle iron stakes bent in a U-shape or lengths of steel rod with barbs welded on to keep them in the ground and pigtail ends to trap the mesh. These can be concreted into holes for further strength. A layer of concrete 8-15 centimetres thick can be laid over the whole area (fig. 3) but this is normally expensive, presents access problems with getting the concrete to the sett and is not essential. Once everything is complete, the soil can be replaced, any sods put back on top and the whole area returned to its original condition. If the sett is in scrub or woodland, brambles, gorse, holly, hawthom or other suitable plants should be planted over the sett.
Remember that however a sett is to be protected, it should only be attempted when really necessary i.e, at setts that are, being dug or badly disturbed, or likely to be. In areas where badger digging is a serious problem it may also be advisable to protect inactive setts in the hope that the badgers can recolonise them, or to reinforce a sett that is to be used as a release site for rehabilitated or translocated badgers (See Chapter 8. Rehabilitating Badgers). When protecting a sett, it is better to protect the whole sett area, so there are no weak areas through which the diggers can gain access. Also, it may be necessary to visit the sett periodically and reinforce any new tunnels that have extended out beyond the protected area. Although sett protection undoubtedly causes disturbance to the badgers, this can be minimised by having enough personnel available to complete the work in a minimum of time i.e. one or two days. Also, ideally the work should be done in the period July to November (See 3.2.8. Chapter 3. Badgers and the Law), although work outside this period may be necessary in areas where digging is frequent. For inactive setts, the work can be done at any time of the year, although it will still require a licence if the sett is considered to be in 'current use' - see 3.2.1 Chapter 3. Badgers and the Law. If in doubt as to whether a licence is required, always consult with the Statutory Nature Conservation Agency.
Protecting badger setts with a dig-proof roof is a relatively new operation, although it has already been applied to over a hundred setts in South Yorkshire. Whilst it may be the only way to save setts in areas with heavy persecution, it should only be done where absolutely essential, and it is desirable to monitor the reinforced setts to see if any problems occur in the long term. Also, setts that are frequently dug are often in loose, sometimes even sandy, soils. In such soils, tunnel collapses are likely to occur if any heavy work or digging is undertaken above the sett. Hence extreme care is needed to avoid causing further damage to the sett.
Badger watching is a popular activity with many naturalists, and the value of badger watching in providing valuable information on the biology of badgers should not be under-rated (see the booklet Projects on badgers - Chapter 12 Further Reading). However, it is important that badger watching is undertaken in a responsible manner, especially since badgers are sensitive to disturbance and excessive or irresponsible badger watching can be detrimental to the long-term breeding success or survival of a group of badgers.
First of all, ensure that the landowner knows what you are doing and that you have his/her permission to be on the land. This prevents ill-will towards the watchers and, more importantly, the badgers. Also, by keeping the landowner informed about the badgers, you may engender a degree of interest in their welfare. A landowner who is interested in the badgers on his/her land will be more willing to keep an eye on the sett and ensure that it is not dug or disturbed. It is also important not to start watching at a sett which is being watched by someone else. Several groups of people watching the one sett on different occasions must be avoided.
When watching a sett, remember that it is important not to disturb the badgers before, during or after the watch, since disturbance will affect their behaviour and, in periods of food shortage, may reduce the amount of time available to the badgers for foraging. Ideally, the badgers should never know of your visit. Hence keep the number of people on each visit to no more than two or three except for large setts where people can be more widely spaced, always approach the sett from downwind, be in position well before the badgers emerge, and do not position yourself too close to the holes. Watching from a tree may help reduce the chance of disturbing the badgers, but make sure you are in a comfortable position, so that you do not move or fidget when the badgers emerge. A good insect repellent may help here. Also, ensure you are wearing dark clothing that does not rustle.
If for any reason the badgers do detect you and bolt down a hole, then leave to ensure that they will not be alarmed again when they re-emerge. Otherwise, never leave before the badgers have dispersed well away from the sett area, and remember that it is just as important not to disturb the badgers when you leave. So take exactly the same precautions as when you approach the sett, and do not talk or make a noise until you are a long way off. Finally, remember that there are already lots of very good badger photographs available; photography will scare the badgers and ruin the watch. So observe the badgers rather than take flash photographs. If you want to take your own photographs, try to habituate the badgers to your presence before you start taking pictures. A few peanuts may help to dispel the badgers' initial fears, and adjust your behaviour to the response of the badgers; if they are very nervous, do not try to take more pictures until they have settled down. Finally, never change the environment around the sett, such as by clearing vegetation, just to enhance the quality of your photographs, since this may significantly change the behaviour of the badgers. This is at best very bad practice, and in excess e.g. clearing scrub, would require a licence. It is unlikely that a licence would be issued for such an operation.
Whilst trying to minimise the disturbance to the badgers, it should also be remembered that watching wild badgers is a particularly rewarding experience, especially for young people, and that the benefits obtained by stimulating this interest are immeasurable. So there are great advantages in having a suitable sett to which to take people to watch badgers. Assessing what makes a suitable sett is difficult, but ideally it should be easy to watch without disturbing the badgers, and one where several people can be positioned with good views of the badgers. In addition, if the badgers are relatively tame or used to the presence of people, this is a great advantage. But if you have a show sett, be careful not to over-exploit it.
People who regularly watch at a particular sett, or who have badgers come to their garden each night, are often tempted to start feeding the badgers because this greatly facilitates watching and provides a great deal of enjoyment. Other badger watchers are very much against this practice, since they prefer to watch their animals behaving naturally and not greedily guzzling hand-outs. There are some arguments for and good arguments against this practice.
On the plus side, supplementary food can be invaluable in increasing the chances of cubs surviving in hot, dry summers, when natural food is in short supply. Also, some additional feeding even in normal years greatly increases the rate of growth of the cubs, and presumably enhances their chances of survival in adulthood. A list of some potential food items is given in fig 8.4. Chapter 8. Rehabilitating Badgers. Supplementary food can also be beneficial at other times of the year when food is short e.g. during long cold, frosty periods. Some people also argue that supplying food helps reduce the damage to their garden crops, although there is no unequivocal evidence for this. In fact the reverse could happen; by specifically attracting the badgers to your garden, you could increase the amount of damage you suffer.
The problems with feeding come when people supply large amounts of food each and every night. In extreme situations this can make the badgers totally dependent on that food supply, and sometimes the number of badgers in the social group is in consequence much larger than the territory can support naturally. In fact one or two studies have found social groups of badgers living in an area that could not support them in the absence of these large amounts of additional food each night. When the person who normally feeds the badgers goes on holiday, these badgers experience considerable problems, and should the person die or move away, the badgers cannot survive. Other problems may also occur. You should not feed the badgers if they have to cross a busy road to gain access to your food. Some people have been known to do this and then wonder why the badgers get run over! Finally, think about your neighbours. They may not welcome the badgers attracted by your feeding, and take action against them. If you feed badgers in a garden, it is possible that they will come to regard gardens, and possibly domestic pets, as a legitimate source of food, thereby causing additional problems. So in conclusion selected feeding, and not feeding too much at a time, can be beneficial, but do not get the badgers totally dependent on you and your hand-outs.
The effects of public access on badgers are little understood, and it is a subject on which we need a great deal more information. Studies in Bristol, Copenhagen and Essex have shown that badgers are very susceptible to disturbance, and that long-term pressure from humans can lead to a decline in badger numbers. In Bristol, it was found that badger setts in areas with public access became inactive, where as those in nearby gardens were better protected, and thrived. Similarly, the study in Copenhagen showed that badgers are particularly vulnerable to disturbance near the sett, especially by people walking dogs. The problem is particularly severe in the summer, when people are out in the country late in the evening, just at the time when badgers hope to emerge from the sett. At this time of the year, a delay in emergence can be particularly problematic, since the nights are short and it is the period of greatest food shortage for badgers. So restricting the time available for foraging can have serious consequences.
However, there is a plus side, in that isolated setts are more vulnerable to wilful persecution, as was clearly demonstrated in a preliminary study by Stephen Jenkinson in northern England. He showed that setts without public access had five times as many incidents of wilful disturbance compared to those setts with public access, and generally badgers seemed to do better at setts with public access. This clearly shows that public access can act as a deterrent to wilful disturbance; the study also showed that wilful disturbance at setts without public access was more likely to occur at weekends, and to result in long-term abandonment of the sett.
However, these results should not be taken to suggest that public access is a panacea for badgers, since it can create its own problems. Besides delaying emergence at times of critical food shortage, there is the risk of pet dogs entering occupied setts. Any small dog, whether trained to work or not, may enter a sett, and it is quite common in the spring for pet dogs to bring out young badger cubs. In addition, there are problems caused by trampling, excessive noise, hole blocking by children, path maintenance, etc. So a compromise is needed; we suggest that you try to keep human activity away from the immediate vicinity of setts, particularly in the summer, but do not try to prevent any access to the area surrounding the sett, because diggers value seclusion.
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