In September 2010 my wife and I moved to a quiet rural part of Somerset following on from my early retirement the previous year. With plenty of time on my hands now, I am able to wander the numerous footpaths, bridleways and country lanes that criss-cross this area. Armed with a pair of binoculars and a notebook I can, at last, indulge in something that I started doing a very long time ago but increasingly had little time to do – observing and recording wildlife.
Amongst other things, it soon became apparent that this corner of Somerset has an excellent population of badgers. The countryside is perfect for them, a mixture of small pastoral fields, abundant hedgerows, small copses and many old apple orchards. I soon started to map all the occupied badger setts that I came across and by March 2016 I had identified 87 of them, of which 78 are in my defined study area of 43sq km around my house. With very little bovine TB in this part of Somerset, I was not expecting to find any evidence of interference at badger setts – which just goes to show how wrong you can be! I have now recorded seven cases of illegal interference at six of the occupied setts.
So what was going on? On four occasions, all the entrances to the badger setts had deliberately been filled in by machinery, either a tractor with a front bucket or a Hymac. Tyre marks on the ground and scrape marks in the soil were clear evidence of what had happened, all of which I captured on camera. After contacting the Somerset Badger Group for advice on discovering the first case of interference, I went to the police with my photographs. On this first occasion the local police station was not particularly interested, not helped by the fact that at the time there was no Wildlife Crime Officer in this part of Somerset to assist. In the end, I had to explain the badger protection law to the local officers and then take them to the crime scene to show them what had happened.
Even then there was a distinct lack of interest and I more or less told them what to do next, which was to make some enquiries at the two nearby farms. Although of course, no one was going to admit to the illegal interference, at least this would make the farmers aware that the police were now involved and hopefully this would stop them from doing it again. On the second occasion, I went to the police with details of sett blocking I received a slightly more sympathetic response and this time the local officers knew what to do!
The good news is that all four setts that had been filled in were subsequently re-opened by the badgers. As for the fifth site, this was slightly different because the interference here had been caused by forestry operations that had resulted in large piles of brash and fallen timber being left scattered across the entrances to the sett. This was clearly bad forestry practice, in total contravention of the Forestry Commission’s Code of Practice No. 9 – “Forest Operations and Badger Setts” and no doubt also contravening the terms of the felling licence.
In due course, I was able to contact the Head Forester for the wood and to meet him on-site to discuss the issue. He was most concerned to see that the forestry contractor had totally ignored the badger sett and he promised to take it up with the contractor as soon as possible. Hopefully, this will not happen again and the badgers will be left in peace. This did not appear to be deliberate interference, more a case of ignorance or couldn’t-care-less attitude and the sett was not damaged, so the matter was not referred to the police.
Meanwhile, the sixth site was very different. The sett in question was a very well established one which had probably been in existence for many years. In April there were plenty of signs of occupation, with fresh diggings and piles of winter bedding around the entrance holes. But just three months later when I visited again there were no obvious indications that the sett was still in use. More to the point, a large pheasant release pen had been constructed right on top of the sett and the following month was full of juvenile pheasants. When questioned by the landowner, the tenant farmer responsible for the pen claimed that the sett was unoccupied, a claim that he was unable to substantiate. By now the badgers had dug a tunnel underneath the fencing, which extended into the ground, and were clearly still using the sett. The farmer was told to dismantle the pen and soon afterwards it and all the associated equipment had been completely removed, with the badgers then allowed to go about their business in peace.