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Badger Wars: The badgers strike back

The first attempt to assess the badger population in England and Wales in a quarter of a century found a sharp increase in badger setts.

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Badgers. Just how many are out there? (Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)

Depending on which side of the badger wars you are on, the following news will either warm your heart or fuel your determination to hunt down the snub-nosed, perky-eared animal.

The results of a scientific survey published on Thursday show the number of badger setts — the underground tunnel networks where the shy, nocturnal animals live — has increased by a whopping 88 percent across England and Wales over the past 25 years.

The investigation, which was conducted over the past two years by dozens of specially trained badger surveyors, found the number of setts in England had more than doubled, while in Wales the number was more or less unchanged. 

The total number of setts, or colonies, is estimated to be 71,600.

"It's very good news and suggests that badger habitat is in good order," Jack Reedy, of the badger conservation group Badger Trust, told the Guardian.

"It's quite a relief given all the inroads there have been into the countryside."

More from GlobalPost: Badger Wars: A GlobalPost investigation (VIDEO)

But for supporters of the controversial badger cull that began in 2013, the figures only reinforce the need to reduce the numbers of the black and white furry creatures, which they blame for spreading bovine tuberculosis to cattle.

"Farmers have been telling us for a long time that they have been seeing a growth in the number and size of badger setts on their farms and the results of this survey back up what they have said," Adam Quinney, vice president of the National Farmers Union, was quoted by the Farmers Weekly as saying. 

“Badgers have been proven to be infectious to cattle when they have TB.

“Research has shown that in hotspot areas up to one-third of badgers could be infected, which is why controlling the reservoir of disease in wildlife has to be a crucial part of any strategy to control and eradicate TB in this country.”

Last year, GlobalPost went behind the front lines of England's badger wars:

More from GlobalPost: Britain begins massive badger cull amid bovine TB fears

The survey marked the first attempt to assess the badger population in England and Wales in a quarter of a century — not an easy task given the animal’s reluctance to show its face during daylight hours.

Dozens of surveyors employed by the National Wildlife Management Centre fanned out across the countryside and visited more than 1,600 randomly chosen areas, each measuring one square kilometer.

Between November 2011 and March 2013 they diligently recorded the number of “active” badger setts. But despite their hard work — and patience — the exact number of badgers out there remains unknown. 

While the research certainly suggests the badger population has increased, the “magnitude of that increase cannot be determined,” the researchers said.

"The characteristics of setts is a very poor predictor of the number of badgers in social groups," said Johanna Judge of the UK government’s Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency, which led the research published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Nor can the researchers say for sure why the number of badger setts increased so dramatically, although they speculate that it is probably — at least in part — the result of greater protection of badgers and changes in land use.

As for the connection between badgers numbers and bovine tuberculosis, Judge said there was not “a straightforward linear relationship.”

 

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/united-kingdom/140123/badger-setts-england-wales-survey