Rescue in a cull zone: How a badger cull zone and the Covid-19 pandemic affects badger cub rescue
by Andy Parr, the Somerset Badger Group
The lockdown associated with the Covid-19 pandemic is causing significant problems for badger groups in the way they respond to and deal with calls relating to badgers. If you are living and working in an area subject to badger culling, then this becomes even harder.
I received a call from Secret World Wildlife Rescue (SWWR) regarding a 10 week old badger cub that had been taken into their facilities. The cub had by all accounts fallen down a near vertical 8m embankment onto a single track road, linking two rural villages. These roads are common in many areas of Somerset where historically engineers have simply dug through a hill reducing the road incline. However, at field level this creates steep embankments or drop-offs that fragment the landscape making the passage and connectivity into neighbouring fields difficult for most wildlife.
SWWR asked if I could look into the circumstances as to how this cub became trapped at the road side and explore the options of trying to re-unite the cub with its sett and social group. The Somerset Badger Group (SBG) formalised their own Covid-19 protocols and are currently only physically responding to RTC’s and badger cub incidents. I was happy to undertake this task and I had access to PPE (via our vaccination project and my own stocks) and I was confident I could maintain social distancing.
My initial thoughts on this cub were positive in that it was found in reasonable condition, though hungry and somewhat dehydrated. Google street view provided my first port of call and it was immediately evident that at the top of the road where the embankment became less severe a clear badger path could be seen descending down the shallower sides of the embankment, crossing the road and then up the other side into a neighbouring field. It was highly probable the cub had followed the sow on this route and instead of crossing the road it travelled down the road and became confused and trapped.
The SBG provided me with detailed grid references and records of badger activity for the surrounding area and one sett (which was approximately 400m from where the cub was found) looked to be the most promising. However, it was located near to an active farm with few footpaths and accessing the sett was going to be a problem.
A local dog walker had initially raised the alarm regarding the cub, though other villagers had seen and ignored the cub huddled at the side of the road taking shelter under overhanging rocks. I contacted the finder via phone, and he was very amenable offering support if we tried to return the cub. At the time of writing this article, April 2020 was heading towards being the driest month on record and if this cub was returned, it would probably require support food and water on a regular basis. The dog walker mentioned that the farmer who owned the field was very approachable and wildlife friendly and he was confident the farmer would be able to help. I was more cautious; not all farmers want a badger cull and I have had some very supportive farmers helping me return injured badgers or badger cubs on their land. But I know through experience that situations such as this have to be approached with caution.
It is common knowledge that the area where the cub was found (and now most of Somerset) is in a cull zone. So, for a farmer to be wildlife friendly and have badgers on his land within a cull zone was the tipping point for me to contact the farmer and explore the potential at surveying the land and ultimately returning this cub. The initial phone call could not have gone better; both the farmer and his son were supportive in returning the cub and the farmer informed me that there was in fact a sett nearer than the one I had suggested, one which we knew nothing about.
With agreement I attended the farm the following day and maintained social distancing. We had a positive conversation regarding the return of this cub, with the farmer stating that his sett was only a few hundred metres from where the cub was found, and it was an active sett.
There was however the “elephant in the room” and I had to broach the subject of culling and was his land part of an active cull? Although he did not answer the question directly, his response was somewhat evasive, and I concluded that it probably was. I changed tack and we had general conversations regarding cattle testing and badger vaccination and I must have won him round as he then, without further prompting, openly admitted he had signed up to the cull and they were two years in. To say there was a degree of awkwardness between us would be an understatement. The farmer stated that if the cub was returned and he agreed to suspend culling for this year on his farm, his neighbours would certainly not.
We parted on good terms but I was disappointed by this outcome, especially following my very positive conversation with the farmer the previous evening. What is clear is that many farmers sign up to the cull under duress and peer pressure.
I contacted SWWR and we discussed the options open to us with the cub and its potential return. However, there were too many problems associated with attempting a natal return; the cull alone would not necessarily be a reason not to return it, but there would be other factors to consider. In the case of this cub the tipping point was the fact that the whole village and local farmers were aware of the cub and to return it would draw unwarranted attention, both to it and the surviving badgers in that locality.
The fact that the cub would have to stay in SWWR facilities and be released later in the year at a new release site could be seen to be a positive outcome and the “safe thing to do”. However, having been involved in the release of badger cubs at SWWR from 2009 – 2015 I know how difficult this process is. The cub will have to go through a strict blood testing regime and if it fails, it will be euthanised. The problems facing SWWR and other rescue facilities these days are even harder than when I worked there; with vast areas of the country now under a cull or under the shadow of a proposed cull, new release sites are as rare as hen’s teeth.
Facilities such as SWWR and other rescue centres around the country are facing very difficult times with lockdown, reduced income and staffing issues regarding Covid-19 risk management and self-isolation. Many people think that once a cub or other wild animal has been admitted into a rescue facility the job is done, but this could not be further from the truth, their job has only just begun.
If you can offer physical or financial assistance to your local rescue centre then please do so and if you or any of your groups have access to land that may be suitable for a badger cub release site then please contact SWWR or even myself for advice.
With regard to undertaking the natal return of badger cubs, it is important to seek experienced help as soon as you are aware there is a cub in difficulty as time is critical in most cub returns.
Unfortunately, SBG were unable to reunite this cub with its clan. Now it is one of a number of cubs within SWWR facilities looking for a safe release site.
Further information and support on the natal return of badger cubs can be obtained by contacting Andy Parr: firstname.lastname@example.org
Andy Parr Somerset Badger Group
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