BitL BLOG: The inaugural Scottish Badgers Autumn Lecture

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On the evening of Thursday 27th October, the new Lottery-funded Badgers in the Landscape (BitL) project hosted our first ever Autumn lecture. Forty delegates gathered at Chatelherault Country Park near Hamilton to hear from badger expert John Darbyshire. BitL’s Project Officer Elaine Rainey reports on the evening…

John Darbyshire is a born and bred Lancashire lad who at 15 started work as a mechanic in the cotton mills. It was during this time that he climbed chimneys with TV personality and steeplejack Fred Dibnah! He then went back to school for O and A Levels, going on to complete a degree in Outdoor Education. He then moved to Edinburgh to work for the Scottish Wildlife Trust and subsequently spent ten years based at their Falls of Clyde reserve, managing woodlands in the Clyde Valley and establishing the highly successful badger and peregrine watches. Since 2000, John has been a full-time environmental consultant and part-time lecturer at Edinburgh University. John describes his other interest as “riding his ordinary bicycle” and it was only when he turned up to our evening lecture with his replica penny farthing that we realised that this meant! 

Photo: John Darbyshire with the SB Team, members and his 'ordinary bicycle'.

John is an interesting chap who wears his expertise lightly. Despite his extensive experience in surveying, bait marking, sett exclusions, artificial sett construction and more, he would never call himself a badger expert. John has an openness in his approach which is refreshing and I have always found him eager to hear the opinions of others, enjoying collaborative problem solving with beginners and experienced alike.

John began his talk by describing the types of habitat where badgers are likely to be found – in the woods where tree roots help hold up the roof of the sett, in the fields where badgers find suitable substrate (a mix of sand and clay), and in towns and cities where badgers are recolonizing from source populations in the surrounding countryside.

Using the number ‘6’ as an aide-memoire, John then described how to confirm badger presence. He used examples of the six parts of a badger footprint and both the tunnel and badger guard hair being shaped like a number six on it’s side. The six theme continued as John described badger foodstuffs – bulbs, fruit, invertebrates (including wasps nests), grain, small mammals and human handouts. He also covered how to identify other field signs such as foraging, scratch marks, dung pit & latrines, play areas and paths. The issue of ‘current use’ of setts was discussed and John gave some helpful pointers regarding the levels of trampling and polish on spoil heaps.

John then introduced some key ecological concepts relevant to badgers including metapopulations, wildlife corridors and source & sink dynamics. These concepts were brought to life as John described the current Clyde Corridor Badger Survey – a project that he is working on with volunteers to locate main setts along the Clyde corridor and to look at connections and interactions between populations within this area. This study is already yielding interesting results, identifying barriers to movement and likely ‘source’ populations.

John then showed us various case studies from his extensive work in sett protection and mitigation. This included moving roads, collapsing footpaths, forestry operations over badger setts and badgers in gardens. We then saw various examples of artificial sett construction – typically required if an important existing sett will be lost to a development.

We finished off with a Q&A with questions on, for example, the usefulness of bait marking (where coloured pellets are mixed with food and placed at main setts then dung pits are checked to determine territory size/shape and connections between adjacent social groups). John gave good examples of how bait marking had been successfully employed to inform mitigation.

Through donations, new memberships and merchandise sales, the event raised much needed funds to support the work of Scottish Badgers. Thanks to the generosity of our delegates, we raised £400 on the night!

Many thanks to everyone who came along and to John Darbyshire for his informative and entertaining talk. The feedback from those who attended has been great so we hope to make the Autumn lecture an annual fixture in the SB calendar.

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