Archive for the ‘Badger Rescue’ Category

Want to see badgers near to you?

Monday, August 9th, 2010

Today’s blog talks about one of the key questions we are often asked on, namely: How can we get some badgers to come and live near us?

Over the past few days, I have been in email contact with a friend of mine who works in the badger business – or more accurately – for an excellent badger charity. For want of a better nickname, let’s call my friend “Secret Andy”. Over the years, I have done a bit of work with Secret Andy – helping to move a family of badgers from under a road and a house to a safer location in a new nearby woodland. I also worked with Secret Andy on a badger release project in the North of England. When I say “worked together”, I really mean he did 99% of the work and I did 99% of the write-up for a newsletter report!

Secret Andy has a dream job, which involves caring for baby badgers at one of the world’s most important badger rescue centres; assembling them into perfect new families, and finding them homes in the wild. However, like any dream job it is not a job for the fearful or the faint-hearted.

Often the badgers that come into Secret Andy’s care are orphaned cubs, whose mothers have been killed in road traffic accidents in the first few weeks and months of the year. The biggest killer of badgers in the UK is the motor vehicle; and this takes a huge toll on the badger population. Every year baby cubs, yearlings and adults are mown down on the roads and railways – perhaps as many as 50,000 badgers die on the roads every year. Although every accident has a victim, the worst tragedy of all is when a nursing mother (called a sow) is killed. Her young cubs, still dependent on her milk will remain in or near their sett waiting and crying patiently for her non-return. Over a number of days, they will become ever hungrier and more dehydrated; and increasingly at risk of predation by foxes and terriers which have been slipped off the lead by the small proportion of dog-owners who are classed as dim-witted.

In some cases, older badger cubs may be seen at or near the entrance to the sett, where they may be observed by keen badger watchers and perhaps even rescued if they know a dead nursing sow has been found recently. Cubs only a few weeks old will remain underground – their eyes still not open and their little legs still not strong enough to emerge from their underground birthplace and into the hands of a potential rescuer. Far far too many badgers cubs die underground in this way. It is amazing that so many orphaned badger cubs are rescued every year; and that so many find themselves placed into the care provided by Secret Andy and his many co-workers and volunteers.

Once at the rescue centre, the little orphans are assessed for their state of health and fed and watered – sometimes as often as every hour – by a band of dedicated and increasingly tired workers and volunteers. Badger cubs are very cute little critters and every-one who comes into close contact with one soon becomes very attached to them. The cubs are assessed in terms of whereabouts in the country they came from and their ages, sizes and sexes; and placed into new families. The idea is that the badgers can be raised as a proper family unit which can be released back into the freedom of the countryside as a family unit; and ideally into the same county that they came from. Over the space of several weeks, the badger cubs get used to their human carers and their new families and generally do well in the rescue centre.

The next stage for the badger cubs is that they need to be removed from the company of their human carers so they can become wild again. Of course, when they are on the hourly feeds; the cubs do get used to human company and close contact. However, this is a bad idea for release-badgers as their cousins who have always lived in the wild remain very wary of humans – often with very good reason. At the rescue centre, the badgers are placed into special pens where they can be observed and fed remotely, but they do not generally see humans except in the most unusual circumstances. I guess you could see this as “tough love”, but it’s probably an awful lot tougher on the human carers than the badgers.

Being a world-class badger rescue centre, the badgers are treated according to a detailed agreed protocol. This procotol means that the badgers are assessed for their state of health at various points in their lives to make sure that they remain as healthly viable animals. Although you might want to do ALL you can to treat an animal; living in the wild is a tough job and you have a responsibility to make sure that every animal can make the grade. Sadly a few animals are too poorly to be in with a fighting chance in the wild and not all survive.

The other key test when working with badgers which are to be released into the countryside is the issue of bovine tuberculosis (i.e. the form of TB which cattle spread to one another, to other animals and, potentially, any-one who is reckless enough to still drink unpasteurised cows milk). Many people are unsure of the relationship between the bovine TB you get in cows and the bovine TB you then get in badgers, deer, cats, rats, mice, moles, earthworms, llamas, goats and people. Some of the people who are unsure as to how bovine TB works work for DEFRA – some of the others work for the National Farmers Union (NFU) and some are still Ministers in the Welsh Assembly Government (though God knows why after the debacle over the Welsh badger cull in Wales). Let’s just none of these confused people end up working in the NHS!

Anyway, back to the care and the science and the responsibility of Secret Andy at the badger rescue centre. ALL their badgers are tested to see whether they are carrying the bovine TB infection. This isn’t the sort of crappy cheap-as-chips unreliable test that the government uses too infrequently on too few cows; this is a proper scientific test which is both expensive and highly-accurate. If the test shows that the badger has or even might have the TB infection it is put to sleep and a post-mortem done and various bits of the animal’s tissue cultured to see if the poor badger actually had TB. Needless to say, although a very small % of badgers do show that they have been exposed to TB by the test, virtually none actually have TB in reality in their bodies. A few weeks later, the badgers are tested again to see if they have picked up the TB. And, a few weeks after that, the badgers are tested once more. At each stage, any badger which shows an undesirable result is put to sleep, post mortemed and cultured. Virtually no badgers have TB on post mortem or on culture. Full Stop. So there we have it, badgers released according to the badger procol are tested THREE times to make sure that they do not carry the bovine TB infection. Badgers which are released according to the badger protocol, do not have bovine (cattle) TB. The suggestion that they do is put about by certain members and spin-doctors associated with the No Flaming Use brigade. They should be ashamed they have to lie to what they think is clearly a gullible public.

Importantly, though, there is relatively new development known as the badger vaccine. This is based on the BCG vaccine that protected much of the human world from TB, but it has now been adapted for badgers. Seems to be a brilliant idea on the face of it and well worth pursuing. Given the choice of a low-speed injection with a needle and high-speed injection with a hunting rifle, I know which one I’d choose. Badgers which have already passed the three high-tech bovine TB tests are now being given the badger vaccine as yet another safeguard against the flow of the TB infection around wildlife and the environment.

As an aside, I sometimes have a strange dream where I wonder whether any-one might have thought of inventing some sort of vaccine which farmers could give to their cattle to stop them getting the bovine TB infection and therefore stop passing their bovine TB to other cattle and other species! Clever scientists have won Nobel prizes for work like this! Businessmen have even won houses and yachts in Monaco for similar work!

Back in the real world , if all this work with the badgers seems like hard work it is; although it must count as one of the most rewarding jobs in the world when things go right.

The next part of the operation seems like the easy bit – take the nearly-grown-up family of badgers into the countryside and release them! If it were only that simple!!

A bit like the residents of Royston Vasey, badgers, as a species, remain in a very small very local area throughout all their lives – they are not wide-ranging like deer or cattle trucks for example. Partly because badgers remain within a mile or so of where they were born, badger clans (families) are highly territorial. In other words, they have their own main underground home (called a sett) and an area around it which they will defend with great vigour. The very last thing that a clan of badgers wants is another clan being released into their home area. If this were to happen, the badgers would fight for dominance which could result in serious injuries and even deaths. Eventually, the weakest surviving badgers would be driven away by the stronger ones; but only after a huge amount of suffering.

For this reason, when new badger familes are released; they usually go into an area of countryside which provides them with food, shelter and safety; and is a decent distance away from other badger clans. One of the really, really difficult bits of Secret Andy’s job is finding these vital areas. You might find, for example, that there are loads of suitable badger foods and there are some great woodlands for them to shelter and make their homes in, but the site is too near where badger baiters operate or it’s too near a busy road. The problem of finding suitable release sites for new badger families is an annual problem. With every new summer/autumn there are several new badger familes which NEED a home in the countryside so they can live their natural wild lives. With every successful release of a new family; there is the immense joy, pride and delight on the part of the badgers rescuers of another family returned to the wild. And, there is the thought, that we now need to find another great badger release site to replace the one that has just been used.

Actually a great deal of work goes into finding suitable badger release sites. Secret Andy does a lot of the surveying work and the detailed suitability assessment; but much of this is in close collaboration with badger groups and other animal rescue organisations.  The landowner is the key contact, as he or she needs to give their permission. After that neighbours may be asked for their opinions and whether they might want to get involved. Overall though, the process is very much a colloborative one with people working together with patience and understanding, and in a few cases gentle pursuasion.

Having been involved in one of these badger releases, I can say that this was more interesting, fulfilling and rewarding than anything else I did that year. I can heartily recomend any-one to get involved in work like this- it will certainly be a damn sight more interesting than going to another set of lectures or boring business meetings or wasting money on frippery in the shopping centre or whatever.

As a landowner or a long-term tenant, you don’t necessarily need to own a massive area of land – if you have a few acres/hectares in which a temporary straw-bale or a permanent artificial badger sett could be built that might be enough – especially if surrounding areas provide a good habitat for badgers in terms of shelter, food and safety. Landowners are increasingly seeing themselves not just as owners of the land but as custodians of the wildlife and the ecology of the land.

Of course, in contacting Secret Andy at the badger rescue centre you are embarking on a dual process of hope and discovery. It may be that, at this precise moment, the circumstances are not right or the environment around you is not rich enough in terms of woodlands, fields and biodiversity; but the environment is a long-term thing. Getting the ball rolling in the right direction is something you can start now, even if it is a year or two before everything falls into place. It’s certainly worth making a phone call as you have nothing to lose and a new badger family has everything to gain. If you or a neighbour might be interested in seeing badgers on your land, I would urge you to contact Secret Andy to see how you can help one another to help Britain’s badgrs live their wild lives.

You can contact Andy at Secret World on 01278 783250.

Simon Flory

Badger Specialist