Badger digging through the decades
One of our SOU inspectors (anonymous, due to the nature of their role) shares their experience of how badger digging has changed over the years.
When I joined the RSPCA in 1991 I found myself posted back to my home county of Lancashire. I was always aware of badger digging and lamping. In fact, having grown up in East Lancashire most of my childhood friends owned lurchers and terriers. It was a tradition, passed down from father to son. Foxes were seen as vermin and needed to be controlled and badgers were the same but posed a different challenge for your dog.
My grandfather was a poultry breeder and owned a hill farm, he always had a problem with foxes but would never see any unnecessary harm come to them when it came to controlling the population. I grew up with a respect for wildlife and came from a very similar background to those I would later find myself investigating during my RSPCA career.
The 60s and 70s
Employment prospects in rural areas
East Lancashire consists of several towns running through a valley, from Blackburn in the West to Colne in the East. The towns are scattered along the valley, surrounded by stunning hills and moorland. Sheep farming is the staple and you don't have to walk far to find yourself in the deep countryside.
Traditional industries such as cotton weaving gave way to light engineering in the 60s and 70s, however, the employment prospects for those semi-skilled or poorly qualified are still bleak. Petty crime and the consistent spectre of drug misuse coupled with poor employment prospects have made employment difficult for some.
Low penalties for badger crime
The Protection Of Badgers Act was introduced in 1992 and, if prosecuted for an offence, the maximum prison term you can face is six months. This isn't a big incentive for badger diggers to stop. Throw in the fact that most badgers are dug on private land with the landowners' permission in remote locations and you can see why detection by the authorities was unlikely.
During my childhood, the main animal welfare legislation was the Protection Of Animals Act 1911. There were no provisions to obtain a warrant under this legislation and it only protected a wild mammal if it was confined for a period of time. It still made it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to a domestic animal, however.
Badger diggers were difficult to trace
During the early 90s, I investigated several complaints about the digging of badger setts. The scenario was always typical; a sett in remote woodland, traditionally dug using a terrier underground which would hold the badger until it was dug (or crowned) down. The badger was often killed in situ and placed back into the sett which would be backfilled making it difficult to see if they'd been dug at all. When you spoke to local people, no one had ever seen anything.
I had some successes catching diggers in the act, but they were few and far between. Most of the intel on them was that they were middle-aged men, semi-skilled workers or tradesmen that dug at the weekends using quality dogs that rarely got injured. They'd been doing it for a long time. Lamping (where a bright light is shone into a field at night to dazzle the quarry animal then lurchers are released to run and kill the quarry) was virtually unheard of.
Social media helped organised crime
In 2006, I joined the RSPCA's SOU where I could concentrate more on investigating serious animal crimes, such as badger offences. During this time, society saw an upsurge in social media. A new generation was communicating in a different way and becoming more organised in whatever they did.
The same story, demographically, was still unfolding in East Lancashire however, and I now had a chance to see that it wasn't just here. Large areas of Northern England and South Wales were experiencing the same thing; a growing, disillusioned youth population. Some were the offspring of 'traditional' badger diggers, living in semi-rural areas, but something had changed. The whole atmosphere of society seemed to have shifted to a more sinister, threatening and violent undercurrent. Certainly for those involved in criminality a new label of being 'organised' developed. The gap between those who have and those who haven't seemed to widen and this was reflected in a very stark way through popular culture, social media and television. The police started talking of 'organised crime groups' or O.C.Gs. Indeed, it was Lancashire Police who first used this moniker to describe a particular group of wildlife crime offenders.
It now became apparent that young males were organising themselves to commit not just wildlife crime but rural crime in general. They would travel at night with bull lurchers (a type of dog not seen frequently in the 90s - a product of lurchers being crossed with bull breed dogs in order to take down large game such as deer) and steal anything they could find, run on red diesel, intimidate landowners and lamp badgers, foxes and deer. Indeed, new phrases such as "out on the venny" (venison), "out on the shine" (lamping) and "out for the big boys" (badgers) were coined and became commonplace in some online forums and social media groups.
The Animal Welfare Act exposed dogs used for badger digging
In 2006, a new piece of legislation was introduced; The Animal Welfare Act. This was vitally important as it gave provision for the police to obtain a warrant if a domestic animal was being caused to suffer.
Most dogs, when they come into combative contact with a badger, suffer horrific injuries. The skin on their bottom jaw is often torn away resulting in terrible wounds. These dogs are not taken to vets but instead treated by individuals responsible for 'medical". Veterinary drugs are obtained online, often illegally, and used to treat injuries, often unsuccessfully.
We finally attracted media attention for these sorts of offences in 2014 after ours and Lancashire Police's successful Operation Gateway in which we cracked a gang of rural criminals. Three offenders received custodial sentences; their seized mobile phones revealed disturbing footage of badgers being ripped apart by lurchers and cats being baited. Their text messages uncovered the element of organisation that we'd always suspected.
The change in 30 years
In summary, over the last 30 years, I've seen a shifting demographic when it comes to badger persecution. Sadly, there are just as many individuals committing these offences now as there were when I started out; possibly even more. The recent trend is very disturbing with youths as young as 14 being implicated in investigations.
The 'traditional' diggers still exist, but the trend of lamping and digging badgers in the younger generation is, unfortunately, still growing. These offences are seen, by some, as not to be taken seriously. They believe they're doing the farming community a favour and, until stiffer sentencing laws are implicated, I sadly don't see a change in that attitude. But as I've done for the past three decades and the RSPCA has done for almost 200 years, you can be sure that we'll be there standing up for the wild animals who have no voice of their own; and who need our vital protection.