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Badger colonies double, survey finds

 
Badgers in U.K.

Increase in badger numbers is being hailed as a conservation triumph and sign of a healthy habitat. Photograph: Alamy

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Badger colonies double, survey finds” was written by Damian Carrington, for theguardian.com on Thursday 23rd January 2014 14.00 UTC

The number of active badger setts in England has doubled in the past 30 years, according to a new scientific survey. The increase appears to represent a major success for the protection of one of the public’s favourite wild creatures, which has endured centuries of persecution and only gained full protection in 1992. Milder winters that increase cub survival are also thought to be a factor.

“It’s very good news and suggests that badger habitat is in good order,” said Jack Reedy, at the Badger Trust. “It’s quite a relief given all the inroads there have been into the countryside.”

Adam Quinney, vice president of the National Farmers Union, which supports controversial badger culls that began in 2013, said: “Farmers have been telling us for a long time that they have been seeing a growth in the number and size of badger setts on their farms and the results of this survey back up what they have said.”

But the scientist who led the survey told the Guardian “no reliable conclusions” could be drawn from it on whether badgers were a major cause of the rise of tuberculosis in cattle, because the number of badgers inhabiting each sett varies enormously.

Badger cull pilots got underway in autumn 2013 in Gloucestershire and Somerset but failed to hit their target of shooting 70% of all the animals. They were dogged by uncertainty in the numbers of animals in the cull zones, leading environment secretary Owen Paterson to say the badgers “had moved the goalposts”. The shy, nocturnal and subterranean mammals are difficult to count, and the same uncertainty over badger numbers exists at national level, with the last survey done in 1997. That showed a 20% increase in setts since the mid-1980s.

The new survey is the first attempt since then to assess the extent of badgers in England and Wales. It was carried out over the last two winters, when the vegetation that can obscure setts is low, revealed a 103% increase over the mid-1980s in England, but no change in Wales. The total number of clans – social groups – is estimated to be about 70,000.

Dozens of researchers visited over 1,600 randomly chosen areas, each 1sq km, and recorded the number of active setts. In the countryside, over half the squares had active setts, compared to a third in the mid-1980s.

Johanna Judge, at the government’s Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency who led the research published in the journal Scientific Reports, said: “We don’t currently know why the number of setts has risen but we can speculate that it is due to greater protection and changes in land use.” The lack of change in Wales is probably because badger-friendly arable farmland is ten times less common than in England, said Judge.

While the sett study is a significant step forward in understanding how badgers are faring, Judge warned that the number of individual badgers remains unknown. “The characteristics of setts is a very poor predictor of the number of badgers in social groups,” she said. Judge also said previous surveys were carried out in part by volunteers, who may have identified setts differently.

 

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