We are, at present, in our ninth year of protecting badgers against the government-sponsored cull. There are two methods by which they kill badgers: one by shooting 'free-running badgers', which means shooting them at bait points or as they are en route to an area they frequent e.g. a water or natural food source or a territorial latrine, etc. The second is by first trapping them, the badger being caught in a cage overnight and shot in the morning. This shooting is supposed to take place before noon, but occasionally does not.
Bait points are usually holes in the ground packed with peanuts, but peanuts be otherwise be placed under a stone or just scattered. Other things, such as maize fields, which already attract badgers can also be utilised. Such fields are often used for siting cages, with peanuts also used within the cage to attract them into it. Our role is to prevent cull operatives from killing and so this means lots of walking, checking setts and other areas such as latrines. Vast areas have been mapped and those on the ground coordinate amongst themselves to work out who is doing what and when. In the first few years of the cull when there were only two zones, one in Gloucestershire, we sometimes had 150 people out in the field and we ran two meeting points a day and operated two phone lines 24/7. The West Gloucestershire zone (officially 'zone 1') was divided up into sub-zones where autonomous groups took responsibility for given areas. With roll-out, we have fewer people out as numbers are spread more thinly, but it is now very much about locals prioritising where they live in order to save time and expenses.
In 2017 the West Glos zone (which incorporates some areas of surrounding counties Herefordshire and Worcestershire) entered its first year of supplementary culling (a 'maintenance period' where the badger population is kept low). We were originally told that the cull would be “only” four intensive years but this was added on later. No one really knows how many badgers there are in these areas, and so the target figures are not to be trusted. They did population studies using hair traps (barbed wire placed to catch tufts of badger hair) only in 2012 and early 2013 - we used known locations of these to identify areas where they would be culling. Even by their own figures (including their revised lower targets) they did not kill 70% of badgers in West Glos, even with the cull period doubling in length, in 2013. Regardless, new licences were granted the following year.
We knew that both the Gloucestershire and Somerset pilot zones began their 5th year (first year of supplementary culling) in late August / early September 2017, the time of year that killing begins in most zones. Seven weeks after they had started, however, it was very clear that they had not finished. In fact the West Glos cull did not conclude until 15th January 2018. The normal 6 - 8 week period of culling was no longer a factor when supplementary culling came into play, and this was confirmed in early July 2018 when a man with a gun was followed to a cage. Supplementary culls in Gloucestershire and beyond now commence at the beginning of June, with the first day of the month being the earliest they can legally start, and they therefore put peanuts and (tied) cages out in preparation from late May. What is heartbreaking is that cubs are still very young and inexperienced, easily caught and killed or left vulnerable if their parents are killed. Another factor is the potential heat and cages have been found set even in temperatures of 30 degrees (as well as in storms and torrential rain). They can cage trap legally until 30th November and 'free-shoot' right up until 31st January the following year.
This year 21 zones, around a third of all active zones, will be supplementary ones, potentially killing over a period of 8 months.Another aspect to consider is wider badger persecution - cull zones consist of areas hunted by various fox hunts, which often means blocked and dug-out setts, badger suffering being seen collateral damage / a bonus, as well as damage caused by badger baiters, developers and so on. Much of our time throughout the hunting season is spent on reporting setts which have been tampered with, gathering evidence and enabling badgers and foxes to get in and out of setts safely. We have seen bulldozed setts, diesel put down entrances and we even pulled a badger out of a filled-in entrance who had been shot in the head by terriermen from the Worcestershire hunt. We need boots on the ground all over the country.
The cull has meant that badgers are much more vulnerable to persecution. Coordinating with others locally, surveying for setts and figuring out how to incorporate monitoring your local badger population while out walking, taking the dogs out or spending a couple of hours a week specifically going to check on and around setts all adds up to protect them!
If you're looking to support the fight against the badger cull please do head over to the following groups: