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04/11/2020 - Badgers and their role in farming and biodiversity

SUMMARY

We’re writing in response to recent negative comments raised following the publication of a NatureScot (formerly Scottish Natural Heritage) literature review, on the impacts of badgers on farming and biodiversity in Scotland. The review broadly demonstrated empirical evidence that badgers have no or non-significant negative impacts on livestock and wildlife, and we had hoped this would allay concerns within certain sectors. Unfortunately, we are seeing a rise in unsubstantiated claims regarding badgers, despite these being addressed in the review, and calls for badger populations to be controlled. We have included some additional information below in response to recent press reports.

The review can be found on the NatureScot website

KEY NOTES

1. Badger numbers in Scotland

Some are concerned that badger numbers are increasing; however, badger numbers have been suppressed historically by persecution, resulting in extinction in many areas and unsustainably low numbers in remaining populations. The purpose of introducing the Protection of Badgers Act in 1992 was to address this issue and to support the recovery of the species.

However, badgers and their setts are subject to continued persecution in Scotland and badgers face pressures from habitat loss and fragmentation, decline in food availability due to intensification of agriculture, and high numbers killed on roads. [1]

There continues to be gaps in the population; badger setts are absent from the vast majority (80%) of Scotland’s land and sett density (even in the highest density areas) is a fraction of the level that occurs across much of Britain.[2]

2. Evolving and co-existing in nature

Badgers and a range of other wild species – including hedgehogs, wild bees, and ground nesting birds - have evolved together and coexisted in farmland landscapes for thousands of years. Some farmland landscapes continue to support all those species together, including badgers[3].

  • Badgers and hedgehogs

British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS) findings show that the downward trend in hedgehog populations is the same whether badgers are present or not. BHPS scientists state that the primary causes of population decline in hedgehogs are intensification of agriculture, habitat loss and fragmentation, decline in insect and invertebrate availability, and an unsustainable level of mortality on roads[4] [5].

  • Badgers and bumblebees

Studies found evidence of bumblebee remains in a very small percentage of badger scats, less than 1% by volume.[6]

  • Badgers and birds

Agricultural practices are the demonstrated cause of declines in ground nesting bird populations, for example curlew populations globally are on the decline, trampling by livestock is an important variable in nest loss, and there is no evidence that badgers feeding on birds or eggs is anything other than opportunistic.[7] [8] [9] [10]

3. Badger/ livestock interactions

Field studies in 2015 by the Scottish Government showed that badgers demonstrated minimal interaction with lambs. It would not be surprising if badgers were to take, as carrion, lambs that were already dead, but the paucity of reports of lamb remains found in scats or stomach contents of badgers suggests that even this behaviour is rare.[11]

There is evidence from nightly video footage that interaction is minimal between livestock and badgers, ewes seem unperturbed and no badger has attempted to harm sheep or lamb.

If evidence is available that the presence of badgers is posing difficulty in carrying out an agricultural activity, there is an existing legal route through which applications for a licence can be made. The NatureScot Review says:

“The low number of licences issued for this purpose suggests that such situations are not common.”

4. Intensification of farming methods

One important area of empirical science is not reported in the review – which reveals that the sharp declines in wild species, including hedgehogs, pollinators, and birds, are undoubtedly and primarily the result of the intensification of farming methods over the past 50 years.[12]

5. The roles fulfilled by badgers in soil health and habitat health

Arguably the top priority for future research effort will be to develop our understanding of the roles fulfilled by badgers as ecosystem engineers in the maintenance and regeneration of soil health, in seed dispersal, in creating habitats for small mammals, amphibians, plants and fungi, and in maintaining the balance of vole populations allowing woodland to regenerate. Such research will benefit agriculture going forward as new, greener, solutions become necessary and intensive methods are no longer affordable or possible.[13]

If you or someone you’ve been reaching out to would like to know more, please contact our Chair or Secretary.

[1]  G Wilson, S Harris, G McLaren (1997) Changes in the British Badger Population People’s Trust for Endangered Species; Roper, T (2010) Badger p 27

[2] Rainey, E., Butler, A., Bierman, S. and Roberts, AMI (2009) Scottish Badger Distribution Survey 2006 – 2009: estimating the distribution and density of badger main setts in Scotland

[3] Byrne et al 2012 p107-108

[4] Wembridge, D. & Langton, S. The State of Britain’s Hedgehogs 2015 British Hedgehog Preservation Society and People’s Trust for Endangered Species http://www.britishhedgehogs.org.uk/pdf/SoBH_2015.pdf

[5] Wilson, E and Wembridge, D. The State of Britain’s Hedgehogs 2018 British Hedgehog Preservation Society and People’s Trust for Endangered Species https://www.britishhedgehogs.org.uk/pdf/sobh-2018.pdf

[6] Goulson, D., O’Connor, S. & Park, K. J. 2017 Causes of colony mortality in bumblebees https://zslpublications.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/acv.12363

[7] Decline of Breeding wetland birds - https://www.bto.org/sites/default/files/shared_documents/publications/research-reports/2014/rr562.pdf

[8] http://www.globalraptors.org/Grin/researchers/uploads/302/the_recent_declines_of_farmland_bird_populations_in_britain.pdf

[9] Predation by cattle of nests - https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/70029328

[10] Trampling of nests livestock – https://www.jstor.org/stable/42657033?seq=1

[11] Roper, T J (2010) Badger, p 128 

[12] WWF Living Planet Report 2020, The Mammal Society and WWF.

[13] R. Delahay, G. Wilson, S. Harris and DW Macdonald Mammals of the British Isles 4th Edition chapter 9.   Jones et al, 1994.   Byrne et al 2012

24/08/2017 Bovine TB in Cumbria, England

There have been recent misleading reports about bovine TB in Cumbria where cattle movement control measures are less stringent than here in Scotland. In Cumbria, despite warnings from DEFRA in 2015, some traders  continued to import cattle from High Risk Areas resulting in around 6 new incidents of bovine TB annually. The recent incident has been traced to an infected cow brought in from NI. 

Scotland has had official bovine TB free status since 2009 which means that its bovine TB level is less than 0.1% over 6 years. Scotland's farming community has followed more stringent cattle-based measures over a long period, including pre- and post- movement testing of cattle, slaughter inspection and the fast removal of infected cattle from a herd to stop it spreading to other cattle. We want Scotland's farmers to maintain their hard-won achievement of OTF status, both to minimise the stress for farmers who experience cattle TB breakdowns as well as for the good of the environment and our proud heritage. It's in no-one's interests to introduce cattle from High Risk Areas into Scotland.

With respect to England's High Risk Areas, which pose a completely different problem, there is strong confirmed evidence showing that reducing the interval between cattle tests is the most effective strategy to reduce bovine TB in the herds. A strategy that ignores this evidence continues to let down farmers and cattle alike. 

READ our Fact Sheet on bovine TB for more facts.

 - Elspeth Stirling, Secretary, Scottish Badgers

Badgers and Farming

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