Behind the scenes at the Derbyshire badger vaccination project
PUBLISHED: 00:00 20 March 2019
Derbyshire Life's wildlife photographer and writer Paul Hobson reports on time he spent last summer with the Derbyshire vaccination project
There are not many more contentious issues in the wildlife and farming world in Derbyshire today than talk of a badger cull. Many words, spoken and written, have been used to argue for both sides of a very difficult and divisive topic. Many of us have our own views and many people still have to be persuaded one way or the other. As a wildlife lover, photographer and ex-Environmental Science lecturer of 27 years I have made up my own mind. It’s not hard to guess what it is and it would be disingenuous of me to pretend otherwise.
An outbreak of Bovine TB (BTB) for a farmer is a catastrophe on many levels from the economic to the personal. The question everyone wants the answer to is – how can we control the spread of such a devastating disease? Unfortunately there is no simple quick fix at the present. Perhaps in the future we may be able to inoculate cattle (as we do humans), to render them immune, but at the moment this is not possible for a variety of reasons.
Part of our government’s proposed strategy is to cull badgers in BTB hot spots, and this has been done in Gloucestershire and Somerset. Derbyshire has now been added to the list of 21 cull areas in the UK by DEFRA (Department of Environment, Farming and Rural affairs) but to date no cull has actually taken place in the county.
Killing badgers is clearly an anathema for many who love wildlife. However, we do cull animals (such as red deer, rabbits and grey squirrels), when they cause environmental, economic or even conservation problems without it resulting in such a heated debate. Part of the answer to any debate when there is opposition to a strategy such as culling is to offer an alternative, to be able to demonstrate that there is another way forward. So, how can we halt the spread of BTB?
It is here that Derbyshire Wildlife Trust (DWT) and the National Trust (NT) have stepped in with a bold and ambitious plan to start a programme of badger vaccination. They joint fund the project and started on some of the DWT reserves four years ago to learn the practicalities of running a successful vaccination programme before rolling it out into the wider countryside of the county. I wanted to learn more about the project so I contacted the head of the project, Debbie Bailey, who also works for DWT, and Debbie’s assistant Gail Weatherhead, who works for the NT. As a result I was able to work as a volunteer for two weeks last summer on Year One of a four-year cycle in one of mid-Derbyshire’s vaccination areas.
Before Debbie and Gail can start a four year vaccination cycle they need the landowners’ permission. Some estates and farmers are very supportive, others are unsure, and some at present don’t want to get involved. A lot of time within the project is actually spent talking to landowners, giving presentations, and making the argument for the vaccination programme. One of the most persuasive strands of this argument is that if a farmer or estate gives permission they won’t have to pay a penny. Normally culling would cost them thousands of pounds because they have to stand the cost of hiring the company to cull the badgers. DEFRA pays for the monitoring of the cull.
In the vaccination zone where I volunteered I managed to work every day bar one throughout the two-week period. The following is an abbreviated diary of my experiences.
On my first day I met up with all the other volunteers and Debbie and Gail split us into three teams. For both weeks I worked mainly with Debbie’s team which covered four farms. The other two teams worked on farms and one large estate.
Last summer was incredibly dry and Debbie and Gail both suspected that the number of cubs born would be very low.
Our first task was to survey an area of steep hillside comprising small fields and woods. We were looking for three things – badger latrines (hopefully with fresh poo), badger tracks in fields and woods, and badger setts. We eventually found a number of latrines – during the whole project I must have inspected bucketfuls of badger poo! Badgers are very clean animals when it comes to depositing their waste and they regularly dig a small pit to drop their deposits in. It is fairly easy to decide if the poo is fresh or not simply by how dry it looks.
We also found a number of tracks and two setts. These setts were not in active use but badger groups often have alternative setts which they can quickly decamp to if the mood takes them. It’s quite easy to decide if a sett is active or not by the presence of freshly dug soil and fresh bedding above ground, and if there are lots of leaves in the large entrances.
Over the two weeks our daily chores were pretty similar. We usually started by visiting the largest sett in our patch. This had at least five active holes and there was often fresh soil and bedding around. When we arrived at a sett we were always cautious. Badgers can hear and feel vibrations through the soil so we talked quietly and walked slowly and placed our feet carefully.
Our first task was to set up a number of bait points. These are simple depressions in the soil in which peanuts are placed, which are then covered by a large flat stone. Putting the stone over the top is an attempt to stop wood mice and pheasants hoovering up all the peanuts before the badgers find them. Badgers are strong animals and it’s very easy for them to push the stone to one side. However, even with the best laid plans, we always ended up feeding a lot of wood mice!
With the bait laid, the next step of the project was to set a trap and see how many of these creatures of the woods we would attract…