The badger: when to see, what they eat and bTB

David Chapman / 27 May 2020

With the problem of bovine tuberculosis causing much concern and debate in our rural communities and the continued increase of the associated badger cull David Chapman takes a look at the private life of the badger and gives some of the facts around this difficult topic.



The private life of the badger

The annual cycle of life for our badgers begins in January or February when the sow (female badger) gives birth to between three and five helpless young cubs. Soon afterwards she will come into season so outside her nest the dominant boar patrols his boundaries depositing scent marks to proclaim his territory and waiting for his moment. The sow will keep him away from her cubs because he may be a danger to them but when in season she will respond to his calls and mating may then occur on several successive nights. The gestation period is approximately eight weeks, but the female delays the implantation of the egg in the womb by up to ten months so she will give birth at the same time next year

During March the sow makes regular and frequent trips to gather food, favourites are earthworms and slugs, but she doesn’t wander far from the sett since she must return to suckle her young.

When is the best time to watch badgers?

In April and May the young badgers start to venture from the sett and the sow becomes confident enough to wander farther from home in search of food. The short nights offer less time for badgers to hunt in darkness so many come out before sunset. This is why May and June are the best months to watch badgers in the wild. If you want to try to see badgers remember to sit downwind of the sett and remain quiet, you shouldn’t need a hide, just wear dark clothing and don’t wear perfume.

In a good year the sow will be able to raise all her young but in particularly dry conditions she might not be able to find enough food to produce sufficient milk for them all. Those that make it to adulthood become sexually mature after about eighteen months and can live for up to fifteen years, generally females live longer than males. Badgers don’t have any natural predators, but humans are responsible for the death of many whether deliberately or accidentally.

What do badgers eat?

Badgers eat a lot of grubs and worms but will take a wide range of foods including, most astonishingly, larvae from wasp and bee nests. During very dry summers they may have difficulty in finding enough food and this is when they can cause damage to gardens. A well-watered lawn is a perfect foraging ground for badgers and they may turn over the grass in pursuit of worms.

If you think you might have badgers in your garden and would like to watch them more closely then try leaving a trail of peanuts for them. If you have motion activated security lights you will notice that the badgers become quite accustomed to them. Find out about photographing wildlife in your garden.

A history of persecution

Before I look at the issues around the badger cull and bovine TB, I think it is worth reminding ourselves of the historic relationship that we have had with badgers. Most notably the incredibly cruel sport of badger-baiting, in which badgers were restrained and, in some cases, had parts of their jaw removed whilst dogs were set upon them. This activity was made illegal in 1835 but was still being practised in the twentieth century.

We can see other examples of the way in which wildlife is treated as a commodity for our sadistic pleasure in hare coursing, another ‘sport’ now illegal but still practiced. The reason why I mention these activities is to highlight the attitude that some people have towards wildlife. Whether or not badger baiting still occurs in the countryside there is no doubt that it lives on in our language. The verb ‘to badger’ is a direct reference to the taunting to which badgers were subjected. The badger has been persecuted by us for centuries and even when it became a specifically protected animal in 1973 this persecution continued, literally underground.


Badgers and bovine tuberculosis

On the subject of badgers and their impact on the spread of bovine TB in cattle I have spent many hours analysing the facts and figures available and I have interviewed Rosie Woodroffe who was the ecologist-advisor for the Krebs trial, a scientifically-informed trial badger cull carried out from 1998 to 2007.

What I conclude from my research is that the whole topic is a mess of miss-information, prejudice and politics. The two sides of the debate put forward their own arguments, interpreting the statistics in a way which suits their own end.

So here I present some of the pertinent facts, which I have done my best to verify.

Bovine tuberculosis is a disease of cattle. Initially it was spread entirely between cattle. After time it spread to wild species of animal in our countryside and these species include badger, deer and others.

There is some evidence to suggest that bTB can spread back from badgers to cattle but a twenty-five year-long study of genetics in cattle and badgers in Gloucestershire has concluded that cattle are twice as likely to contract bTB from other cattle as they are from badgers.

Currently we cannot vaccinate cattle against bovine TB because our tests cannot distinguish between a vaccinated animal and an animal with the disease and this prevents us exporting the animals or their meat to Europe. There is some chance that a different testing regime or us leaving the EU might change this. In March 2020 it was announced that Defra do plan to phase out culling and replace with vaccinations due to a new test developed to differentiate between vaccinated and infected cattle, however new badger culling sites are still being approved with seven new sites announced since it was announced it would be phased out.

A badger being vaccinated against bTB
In Cornwall, where I live, there are trials testing the effectiveness of badger vaccination and the ways in which badgers and cattle come into contact on farms.

The Kreb’s Trial remains the largest scientific trial to look at the impact of badger culling on the spread of bovine TB. It concluded that to have any positive impact on the incidence of bTB in cattle at least 70% of badgers in any given area must be culled. If fewer than this proportion is killed then the spread of the disease can increase because badgers will move into the territories of others.

Despite the results of this trial the government has encouraged culling since 2013. Each year since then the number of culling areas has increased. Now we have 40 areas involved. So far it is estimated that 130,000 have been killed and that has cost us £60 million. That’s a cost of about £500 per badger.

As an aside it is interesting to note that approximately 50,000 badgers are killed by cars on our roads every year. So, in the period of the cull about 350,000 badgers have been killed anyway.

In 2016, almost 1000 badger corpses from the cull were tested for bovine TB and only 4% of them were found to have the disease, so 96% of them died unnecessarily.

This makes me wonder about the size of the population of badgers in the UK. Well, we have about 25% of the European population of badgers in the UK and there is little doubt that their numbers rose between the 1980s and the early part of this century. It’s difficult to get any reasonable estimate of their population now but it is likely to be between 300,000 and 400,000 in England and Wales.

There is a drive towards vaccinating badgers against TB. I commend the conservationists who are driving this initiative because it is costly and time-consuming. Their motivation is the love of wildlife and a desire to find a solution which doesn’t involve killing. However, funding from the government is small with just £300,000 set aside in 2019. The National Trust is supporting badger vaccination trials but it is not allowing the cull of badgers to take place on its land. Their decision is based on the lack of scientific evidence for the effectiveness of cull.

Professor John Krebs, when writing his report, concluded that the government and farming industry need to tackle biosecurity on farms to prevent the spread of bovine TB from farm to farm. But it seems to me that the greater emphasis from our government has been on culling badgers and I fear this is more of a political decision than an informed scientific one.

Bovine TB is a disease of cattle. The only way to tackle it fully, in my opinion, will be to vaccinate cattle. In the meantime, we have conservationists trying to find solutions that don’t involve killing wildlife and many landowners resorting to the culling of badgers possibly out of desperation.

What you can do to help badgers

If you feel strongly about stopping the badger cull then there are some things you can do:

Join the Badger Trust: badgertrust.org.uk/cull
Make a donation towards the badger vaccination scheme, through the Badger Trust or your County Wildlife Trust (if they are operating a vaccination scheme);
Join other conservation groups who oppose the cull eg The National Trust, your County Wildlife Trust and the RSPB
Write to your local Member of Parliament or the Prime Minister.

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