Badger baiting: cruel blood sport still rife

10 Mar 2023 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 10 Mar 2023

Pic: Vincent van Zalinge, Unsplash

The levels of animal cruelty we are prepared to tolerate tell us a lot about the levels of civilisation our society has reached.

Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK where fox hunting is legal. An attempt to ban it in December 2021 was narrowly defeated in the Stormont Assembly. Sinn Fein came out against the Bill, the DUP gave members a free vote and the bill was lost by 45 to 38 votes.

Sinn Fein’s stance on this seems particularly strange, given that it portrays itself as a party of the left.

In his wonderful expose of social inequality, The Book of Trespass,  Nick Hayes explains fox hunting in the context of a public exhibition of power expressed through ownership of land. He quotes from John Sprankling’s The International Law of Property: “The right to destroy is an inherent component of the right to property. It has traditionally been called the jus abutendi: the right to consume, transform and abuse. An owner is entitled to consume or transform the thing that is the object of property rights, and the same theme is evident in international law.”

Hayes goes on to explain: “ this vision clarifies the mysterious rite of fox hunting…it is the liveries the hunters wear that speak more directly to the source of this ritual: the jackets and boots are relics from the uniforms worn by the duke’s yeomen, the private army that each lord kept to underscore his rule of the land.

“The hunt is a reassertion of the right to go anywhere the fox takes them, over hedges, fences, farmed fields and public highways. …(it is) a fetishisation of the moment of possession, the moment that dogs encircle the fox, the moment the land is seized.”

The fact that Sinn Fein chooses to defend hunting is a curious and embarrassing anomaly that defies logical explanation.

But it is not just fox hunting that goes on in Northern Ireland. Dog fighting has been banned for 185 years but it still goes on here. The Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (USPCA) had seven reports of it in 2020 and 2021.

Badger baiting is also rife, as a report published by the USPCA this week demonstrates.

Badgers and badger setts are protected in law. Badger baiting involves the digging out and killing of badgers by dogs. A small terrier dog wearing a radio collar is sent below ground into a sett. Once the dog has located a badger, the offenders dig down until they reach the dog and badger. The badger is then pulled from the sett, often disabled, and thrown to larger dogs which are allowed to kill it.

It is every bit as brutal as it sounds.

The types of dog used depends on their intended role. Small terriers such as Patterdales, Lakelands and sometimes Jack Russells are sent underground to locate a badger and hold it at bay. Other larger dogs, including Lurchers and Bull Lurchers are often used to fight with and kill the badger.

The dogs are often also injured, sometimes badly. The USPCA explains: “Typically, we see severe injuries to the lower jaw and the loss of teeth. These dogs are unlikely to receive the veterinary care needed as the perpetrators fear that their involvement in this activity will be discovered and reported to police or animal welfare. The badger baiters may attempt to treat the dogs themselves. This will likely mean the dog is more likely to die from its wounds or the suffering and scarring of the animal will be much worse.”

The organisation has a collection of horrifying pictures showing just how extensive these injuries can be.

The full scale of badger baiting is not known. Statistics for the years 2019-21 record 32 suspected badger baiting offences. But the USPCA says this vastly understates the scale of badger baiting in Northern Ireland as it only references reported crime.

And there have been just eleven prosecutions relating to killing or injuring wild animals in Northern Ireland since 2011, with “less than three” people convicted of offences as a result. Figures below three are not revealed dues to disclosure rules.

To put both prevalence of offending and the conviction rate into sharp perspective the USPCA’s own Special Investigations Unit indicates there are more than 150 active badger baiters in Northern Ireland, and on that basis estimates that if each individual killed one badger every two weeks during the 30 week baiting season,  2250 badgers are killed each year purely for sport or fun.

Under-reporting is to some extent inevitable but even given that the conviction rates seem incredibly low. 

Badger habitats are usually in woodland or hedgerows which means that offences occur in locations that are infrequently visited by humans. Even the landowner may be unaware that a badger sett has been disturbed. In some cases baiters are welcomed or even invited onto the land. In addition many members of the public don’t know what a badger sett looks like, so won’t be able to recognise a disturbed one.

Finally badger baiters often hunt in groups. This can be intimidating for landowners or members of the public.

The USPCA says it knows of a number of cases where landowners have been threatened with violence after disturbing baiters in the process of digging a sett.

Of those 150 they know to be persistent offenders they say 32% live in either Belfast/Newtownabbey or Derry, travelling from there into the countryside to bait animals. For these people at least the prime motivation seems to be bloodlust rather than the protection of livestock and rural management.

There is evidence that both owners and their dogs are also involved in fox hunting, digging underground for their quarry using the same techniques deployed for badgers.

The USPCA is now recommending that PSNI either adds investigative capability to their Wildlife Crime Unit or establishes a time limited taskforce to investigate suspected offenders.

In addition it wants vets from Great Britain with experience in diagnosing and dealing with injuries from badger baiting to be used as expert witnesses to strengthen the criminal case against suspects.

The failed attempt to ban fox hunting in 2021 was introduced by Alliance MLA John Blair. He carried out a consultation exercise which showed 78% support for banning the “hunting, searching, coursing, capturing or killing wild mammals with dogs” in Northern Ireland.

We must wait for the return of the Assembly for progress on fox hunting. But in the meantime badger baiting, though illegal, appears to be thriving. It needs to be taken more seriously by the authorities. Rigorous enforcement needs to match public revulsion at this barbaric and cruel “sport”.

It has no place in modern society and its continued toleration demeans us all.



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