Pictures: Searching for top predator that's also the most loveable
Conservationalists seek out Sheffield's badger population for vaccinations.
As is often the case, Gail Weatherhead is rooting about in the undergrowth on a steep bank in an obscure Peak District woodland.
“Not much sign of any activity at the moment,” she says, before scratching in the earth by a large black hole under the trees. “Ah,” she smiles, holding in her fingers a small white hair.
“And look along there,” she indicates a narrow badger-sized track, like a tunnel under the bracken. “They might have been using that path for hundreds of years.”
After years of working with the country’s top predator, Gail agrees with the British public that badgers are “adorable”.
Gail is a National Trust ranger working with colleague Debbie Bailey of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust (and over 100 volunteers) on the the UK’s largest badger vaccination scheme.
“It’s a really rewarding, fabulous job,” Gail says. Natural England agree, designating the ‘Badger Edge’ vaccination scheme in the Peak District as a centre of excellence, with people from all over the UK coming to Edale to see how it’s done.
Between April and October, Gail, Debbie and teams of volunteers have been seeking out badgers in the Edale Valley area.
They initially check known badger sites for ‘activity’ such as droppings, digging, moved bedding (badgers regularly change their dry grass bedding to keep their setts clean) and even footprints. Once a badger home is confirmed, the vaccination team hide peanuts under a large stone - badgers love peanuts, says Gail, but unlike foxes, rodents or deer, will happily move small boulders to find them.
The team visit late in the afternoon to check if badgers have raided the peanut larders, and then set up cage traps around the bait. Early next morning, they arrive with bovine TB vaccine to inject any badgers they’ve caught, who generally seem unworried by the experience.
“They’re often just asleep when we find them, although one did start somersaulting and sometimes the cubs puff themselves up and spit and growl,” said Gail. “But when we’ve vaccinated and marked them with sheep dye, they often just wander off and we find them in the trap again full of peanuts the next morning.”
The scheme around Edale has been growing since 2014, with funding from the government, the National Trust and from donations to Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, along with expertise and volunteer help from the High Peak and Mid Derbyshire Badger Groups.
Recent new funding from DEFRA is allowing the vaccinations to expand over the next few years to Hayfield, New Mills, Lyme Park, to the Eastern Moors near Sheffield and perhaps further, subject to enough badger loving volunteers being available to help.
The national ‘Badger Edge’ vaccination schemes are so-called because they operate on the ‘edges’ between areas of high and low risk of bovine TB, to trial vaccinations as an alternative to the more expensive culling schemes.
“You don’t need to shoot badgers to control TB,” Gail says. “The science doesn’t support it, and we don’t think it’s effective.”
What scientists have discovered is that culling causes ‘perturbation’ in badger communities - the surviving badgers in a particular area scatter after their families have been shot, while badgers from elsewhere move in, spreading the TB bacteria.
Bovine TB spreads from cattle to other wildlife, including badgers, foxes, rodents, deer and even earthworms.
And although Gail says infected badgers do play a ‘minimal’ part in the transmission of TB back to cattle, insecure movement of cattle around the world appears to be a much bigger risk.
A study by Nottingham University tested over 100 badger carcasses found on Derbyshire roads and found only 4 instances of bovine TB, all strains originating outside Derbyshire (one from Spain and one from Ireland). Since Spanish and Irish badgers rarely holiday in the Peak District, the implication is that these TB strains arrived in imported cattle.
“We’ve had good conversations with local farmers who are involved in the process. They’re now really supportive about what we do and the facts behind it,” says Gail, before heading back to the Peak District undergrowth.
“In this area we don’t believe we’ll be any use to the farming community if we go along with culling.
“It’s far better to ensure we have a stable population of healthy badgers,” added Gail.