No sett surveying & a lack of resources could spell the end for badger culls.
As culls finally get underway in North Cotswolds and Herefordshire, I’ve been down in the southern cull zones to see if there is any obvious sharing of cages amongst cull zones, I’ve also been researching the previous resources and skills of the cullers and the companies and asking people on the ground what they make of it all.
Much has been learnt by both sides of those on the ground during the last few years of the badger culls. Cage contractors have worked harder to place traps in difficult to find locations, notably the middle of corn fields in Gloucestershire last year. Whereas in 2014 nearly 50 cages needed to be set to catch a single badger, in 2015 this dropped to only 20 traps set in Glos and 28 in Somerset.
That increase in efficiency wasn’t just in cage trapping, free shooting of badgers was also far more effective in 2015, it took just 3.4 hours per to find and shoot a badger in the new Dorset area. Just the year before in Gloucestershire it took more than three times as long at an astonishing 11.6 hours to find and kill each each badger.
It’s not just an increase in skills by the cullers that leads to better results, the available population of badgers plays a huge part, so does the number of protestors and crucially the way that those protestors behave. Take an experienced activist and ask them to cover a huge expanse of a zone and their behaviour will completely change to when they had a much smaller area to cover with more activists in neighbouring fields.
The topography and the technology available to each side also makes a huge difference, Thermal Imaging & Night Vision equipment has had far greater value to anti-cull activists in Somerset as the hills allow further views. Those same hills in Somerset make road access slower for everyone, but specifically a cull contractor will take longer in Somerset purely due to topography when out free shooting. A shooter who lives on the farm they are killing on will obviously always be at an advantage wherever they are.
Lessons learnt in one area in one year, may have no relevance anywhere else and what happens in one year in one area, may not happen in that area again as methods are refined. Cages that have been found in a location one year are unlikely to be placed in the same location in following years by an experienced trapper, however farmers who aren’t particularly interested in culling have been known to put cages down in exactly the same place every year!
It certainly isn’t a simple case of some people doing better than others at either stopping the cull or killing badgers, nor is best practice ever going to be a one size fits all affair. Never the less there are some constants and one of them is the resources available to both sides.
Is there enough money for thermal imaging kit for shooters?:
Sensitive internal government documents passed onto us in 2013, which until now have never been put entirely into the public domain, (they’re quoted from in this guardian article) although from a time when cullers were very inexperienced, they do reveal some constant necessities for effective culling.
This email from Defra to Natural England on 16/10/2013 on the subject of an extension is perhaps most revealing:
In another document which analysed the realistic chances of an extension in Gloucestershire in 2013 working, Somerset improvements are referred to:
Intelligence we received from people within the cull company in Somerset that year was that shooters received thermal imaging equipment just two weeks into the cull, this was due to shooters being frequently located by activists, who, equipped with night vision kit, were frequently finding the cullers due to the reliance on infrared lamps to spot badgers.
Those infrared lamps and torches are used in conjunction with night vision scopes on rifles, switch the lamps off so that you can’t be seen by activists and badgers are harder to find. The solution, the issuing of Thermal Imaging (TI) to shooters, TI doesn’t need infra red lamps as it picks up heat not light. The shooting teams consists of a shooter and a spotter, the spotter has the TI, finds the badger then tells the shooter where to aim. The bag hanging from the spotters neck in this video, is most likely for a FLIR scout TI unit.
This letter from the West Gloucestershire cull company to Natural England on 9/10/2013 goes into some detail:
With a total of ten badger cull zones now, can the National Farmers Union afford to buy thermal imaging equipment for all those shooters? The total number of people free shooting hasn’t been confirmed yet, but if it’s inline with previous culls, there will be between 500-1000 licensed killers to free shoot badgers. Even if they could afford the millions in costs for the equipment, would they be able to source it in time for this years cull?
Cage trapping experts and the problem with maize:
What became obvious very quickly in the first year of the badger cull was that the method of free shooting badgers couldn’t deliver results and that cage trapping would have to be relied upon. Even with zero activists on the ground there are two huge problems with free shooting.
The first is that an entire sett of badgers will frequently disperse if a key member within that setts community is killed and free shooting often only kills one badger from a sett per night.
The second problem is that it is incredibly labour intensive, the best average so far is three and a half hours per badger, pay someone £15 per badger they kill and make them pay for their own fuel and it’s fairly obvious why the number of people involved in killing drops rapidly after the first few days of a cull. Fewer badgers are about, many having left their last known whereabouts.
To overcome that problem cull companies offer shooters more money towards the last ten days of the cull, something many shooters have gotten wise too and now many wait till the companies are desperate and offer a lot more per head before coming back.
So to get round the inefficiency of free shooting, the method of cage trapping has become more and more popular with cull companies, although the cages are expensive they’ve not had to previously pay for them as Defra have been happy to give them to them for nothing, Where the total number was previously in the hundreds it now has to be around two thousand traps being set every day in total across the zones.
The letter from Gloscon promises to deploy all available traps every day, something that wouldn’t allow for any losses or much in the way of transportation time from sett to sett.
Although it took them a couple of years, they eventually learnt in Gloucestershire that waiting for maize to be harvested and then free shooting meant tight man management due to harvesting times varying, instead they just deployed huge numbers of cage traps inside the maize. Sabs in 2015 found cages 40 rows into a maize field, the only way of effectively checking a maize field is with a large number of people stood in a line and sweeping it, protection is needed when doing this as bits can lash into your eyes.
This is a theory some people believe explains the increase in effectiveness in cage trapping in Gloucestershire from 2014 onto 2015. Finding cages in maize is hard work, how well other cull companies manage to deploy cages in maize remains to be seen.
Interestingly some of the cull companies have put tags on their cages this year. Within the zones that have name tagged cages, there are also cages that aren’t tagged. An assumption is that these untagged cages are on loan from Defra and may have to be returned, although how many actually make it through this cull is not going to be very high as reports are already pushing the number destroyed way into the hundreds.
If there are enough professional cage trappers to cover 7 new zones is doubtful, whats also in doubt is the availability of traps, it’s also unlikely that enough farmers within cull zones have had enough spare time to become sufficiently skilled to undertake it themselves with much success, they’ve all been on a one day course, but skilled cage trapping takes experience, and they definitely don’t have that.
The government only sett surveyed in Somerset, Gloucestershire & Dorset.
One of the biggest difficulties faced whichever side you are on, is that you need to know where badgers live. You can’t stop badgers from being killed if you have no idea where they are, this was the problem for activists in Dorset in 2015, it took two hectic weeks for them to get on top of having the majority of setts mapped.
The cull company in Dorset had the upper hand by not only having been prepared for years, which included getting farmers to sett survey, but it also vitally had all the data from sett surveys by APHA which took place in 2013, 2014 and again in 2015.
You just can’t lay traps randomly throughout the countryside. Of course many of the dairy and beef small holders in roll out areas will know of a number of setts, but many won’t have a clue, as was pointed out by APHA in their assessment of Dorset farmers attempts:
So we have seven new culls with targets that are based on estimates from a national population study, with no sett surveying at all done by professionals, this is completely new territory for badger cull companies, Who have to now rely totally on sett survey information done by the farmers that were be bothered enough to do it in their spare time.
Cattle farmers who have paid for the culls and who are the keenest to kill, if they are small enough, may well know where a number of the active setts are on their land, many farmers will go by memory on where setts are and that info could easily be way out of date, given that badgers frequently aren’t just in field boundary hedgerows and many of their setts will be in places that cattle never go to, is it likely that dairy farmers who already work long hours, will have had the time to do a proper job?
And what about arable farmers? and large estates? are they likely to have done a thorough job of sett surveying? because if they haven’t, the employed contractors that come onto the farms (where farmers aren’t doing it themselves) whether cage trapping or free shooting, may well be wasting a lot of time.
My experience this week with “Southern” activists:
Having recently spent a week with activists in Cornwall, Devon and Dorset, a couple of things spring to mind, firstly the variation in the land and how “badgery” it is. I’ve been thoroughly impressed by people pointing out to me where they expected to find a lot or a little badger activity and how that consistently matched up with what they actually found, huge grins as they point and whisper conspiratorially
“there are bloody hundreds of badgers down there and we’ve found traps everywhere”
and the like are common.
Maybe I shouldn’t be impressed, after all most of the activists in the fields, now in their fourth year, are experts in badger behaviour and territory, they can effectively sabotage over huge areas during night or day due to their knowledge of the land, and new people, surrounded by activists who know what they are doing, seem to pick it all up incredibly quickly. Was it only three years ago that we all started?
It’s not the expertise of these activists that truly staggers me though, what I just can’t get over is the morale. Where I expected to find people struggling with a lack of manpower and deflated as the enormity of their task sinks in, instead I found, time and again, in every southern zone, activists who although were sleep deprived, still had mischievous smiles, nods and winks.
Several people in one of those areas thinks there aren’t enough badgers for the cull teams to hit the minimum targets, even if they did manage to kill a lot in the denser badger populated areas. Perhaps they were being optimistic, but they know the land and I had no reason to doubt them.
I’d often ask people if they felt they were having much of an impact, one person summed it up:
“I watched a cage trapper through a telescopic lens from nearly a mile away driving around a field and checking his traps, each place he checked, they’d gone, by the time he got to the third spot he was slamming the car door and punching it. He must hate us and I think if we’re grinding them down like that, we must be doing something right.”
I’ve found the enthusiasm in those zones highly infectious, a week before the cull started if you’d asked me if it was feasible could any of the new areas not hit their targets, I’d have been honest and said
“Not a chance, but maybe we can make it so expensive for them that they can’t roll out more next year”
My view now has totally changed, I genuinely believe they do have resource problems, with a lack of cages, thermal imaging kit for the free shooters, cage trapping skills and most importantly, they don’t seem to know where all the badgers are.
We on the other hand do know where setts are, so no matter how many cages they’ve got it will be difficult to kill the required amount.
The pixies I’ve been talking to are already trashing hundreds of them!
Direct action against badger culls has never been more vital or effective than now. With our enemy seriously over stretched, every blow we deliver now, could, with enough of us, put an end to badger culling permanently.
See you in the fields
Freeda Brocks x
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