As a study of badger behaviour gets under way. Professor Ian Rotherham examines the creatures’ growing taste for urban living.
One of the most exciting changes in urban and garden wildlife has been happening in Yorkshire – as badgers, that most evocative of mammals, has come to the county’s towns and gardens.
The creature’s dramatic colonisation of the towns and cities has gone largely unnoticed. In central Sheffield for example, as the nightclubs and bars close in the early hours of the morning, badgers wander the streets.
Ironically, this urbanisation of badger behaviour is now taking place against a backdrop of hugely expensive and controversial badger cull proposals by the government.
Whilst not affecting this region directly, these proposals threaten to polarise opinions and to raise public awareness of badgers more than for decades.
Urban and garden badgers will likely strengthen public attachment to badgers and concerns over any cull.
Indeed, the cull threatens to take us back to the dark ages of 1970s and 80s – of persecution, of violence, and even of a criminal underworld.
Researchers consequently need to know what is happening as the badgers colonise, and what people in Yorkshire think of this.
Elsewhere, in areas affected by Bovine TB it is important to work with the farming community to address the issues, and organisations such as the National Trust already do this.
In areas such as South Yorkshire, pioneering politician and conservationist, the late Peter Hardy (Lord Hardy of Wath), played a key role in introducing effective protection for badgers and their setts.
By the 1980s, virtually all the setts in the lowland parts of South Yorkshire had gone, and badger digging and baiting were rife.
As local authority ecologist in Sheffield at that time, I even had gangs of armed thugs digging up a back garden in the early hours – pursuing their “hobby”.
Now, decades on, badgers are thriving in towns and gardens.
While typically associated with the countryside, the last 50 years have seen badgers become more urban, adapting quickly to forage for food in towns and cities.
The transition has brought problems too as badgers come into conflict with humans.
Foraging and sett building can quickly be a serious nuisance and damage domestic property and gardens.
Losing urban green space to development can make this worse.
Feeling squeezed, badgers try to cross busy main roads, so road-kill rates have been increasing significantly.
While better road and green space planning together with underpasses or overpasses can reduce deaths and car damage, more still needs to be known about badgers, especially because the colonisation has – surprisingly – been overlooked.
Sheffield Hallam University has now started an in-depth scientific study into the distribution, behaviour and impacts of badgers throughout urban Yorkshire.
Research student Ben Devine wants to know what people think.
He is especially keen to hear from gardeners who have badgers in their gardens.
A simple questionnaire has been posted on the South Yorkshire Econet – www.ukeconet.co.uk – website which can be completed online or printed off and posted in.
The study will examine the nature and extent of Yorkshire’s urban badger population.
In addition, the research will cover how city residents perceive badgers living in urban areas – in other words, exactly how do people feel about sharing town and garden with these large mammals?
The findings will help inform future urban badger conservation and management strategies.
Of course, all the responses regarding the locations of badger setts will remain confidential.
The researchers are also interested in responses from further afield.
Anyone who has seen garden or urban badgers is encouraged to help.
The key questions may appear basic – but they are important.
1) Have you seen or experienced badger activity on your street or in your garden?
2) Have you experienced any physical damage or non-physical nuisance from badgers around your home or garden?
3) Do you feed urban badgers in your garden or close by?
4) What are your opinions of badgers living in urban areas or visiting your garden?
All these factors raise issues and present challenges for farmers, gardeners, nature conservationists, badger trusts and badger groups.
However, more badger “champions” are needed as are active campaigners and visionaries like Lord Hardy.
Ian Rotherham is Professor of Environmental Geography and Reader in Tourism and Environmental Change at Sheffield Hallam University.
A picture appeal
Award-winning wildlife photographer, Paul Hobson is looking for volunteers to let him film badgers and foxes in a Yorkshire garden.
He can be contacted via the Sheffield Hallam University research project.
They say Paul is a great photographer, and wildlife enthusiast, and is fully house-trained!
He just needs to share your garden for a few evenings to get some fantastic photographs of the creatures.