For North Yorkshire’s wildlife crime officer, the details were depressingly familiar. In broad daylight, three men with dogs had been spotted behaving suspiciously close to a railway embankment.
An area known for its active setts, the men had already dug 9ft down when an off-duty police officer, well-versed in the signs of possible badger baiting, first raised the alarm.
Over in Bradford, last month police appealed for information after three men, dragging a terrier dog, which had a badger held in its jaw, were disturbed by two women in a wooded clearing in Allerton and in High Peak and the Derbyshire Dales residents have recently reported people going door to door asking for the location of nearby setts. Badger baiting may have been outlawed in the UK as far back as 1835, but the practice has continued unabated.
“It’s classed as a sport by people for whom dismembering animals passes for recreation,” says PC Jones. “Watching a dog rip a fox or badger’s head off is how they get their kicks and they take great pleasure in doing so. People ask, ‘Why badgers?’. The answer is simple. They are ferocious animals who are not easy to kill.
“The baiters are looking for a good long fight, they don’t want it over in seconds. One-on-one, a badger would easily get the better of a dog, which is why they tend to pit them against two or three.”
Often those responsible disappear before anyone knows a crime has even been committed, but the successful prosecution of a gang who set a pack of dogs on two badgers at Howsham, near York has been described as a landmark case in the policing of badger baiting.
It was local artist Robert Fuller who first stumbled across the scene and he who alerted police to the particularly barbaric bait. When officers arrived, one of the badgers had been shot dead after dogs had played tug of war with it, the intestines of a pregnant sow had been ripped out and her four foetuses lay nearby.
The aftermath may have been bloody, but like many baiting incidents the preparation was clinical.
More often than not small terriers, fitted with locator collars, are sent down a badger hole. When it has located an animal, the badger is effectively trapped and the signal from the radio transmitter allows the gang to pinpoint the exact location of their prey.
“Having to dig so far down may seem like a lot of effort to go to,” says PC Jones. “But the sett provides a natural amphitheatre for a fight and to make it a more even contest they will often break the badger’s jaw to give the dogs a greater chance of winning. If you find a badger baiter, more often than not you will find someone who is engaged in other criminal activity, these are people who think they are above the law.”
It’s been that way for decades, but even those who regularly monitor illegal activity have been alarmed at one recent development in badger baiting. Increasingly, bull lurchers, a relatively new breed of dog, which has the speed of a racing dog and the strength of a pit bull, are being used for fighting. The breed is not, or at least not yet, covered by the Dangerous Dogs Act, but there is little doubting their ferocity.
“These are incredibly dangerous animals,” says Jean Thorpe, who has worked in animal rescue for 20 years and, as the founder of Ryedale Rehab, has been called out to half a dozen badger baiting incidents in the last 12 months. “I wouldn’t want to have them around children, because of their unpredictability, but their owners are savvy enough to keep them hidden from the authorities.”
In an effort to tackle badger baiting, last October the UK’s Wildlife Crime Unit launched Operation Meles. Named after the Latin for badgers, its aim is to target offenders by encouraging intelligence sharing among police forces as well as building up an accurate picture of the extent of baiting across the country.
According to its figures, in 2009 and 2010 there were 243 reports of badger fighting, while the RSPCA says it recorded 355 incidents of what it calls badger persecution, which includes illegal snaring in 2010, 100 more than the previous year. However, many believe these incidents are just the tip of the iceberg and prosecutions remain rare.
“Badgers are not only cruelly baited, but also sealed in setts and buried alive, snared, shot, poisoned and tortured,” says David Williams, chairman of the Badger Trust. “The seriousness of the Howsham case starkly demonstrates the need for wildlife crime to be formally recorded in national crime statistics.”
Last week Christian Latchman from Tonypandy, Wales, was described as having carried out acts of unspeakable cruelty after admitting eight charges under animal welfare and badger protection laws. As well as a five- month suspended sentence, Latchman was given 250 hours community work, ordered to make a £1,000 donation to the RSPCA and has been prevented from keeping dogs indefinitely. However, with Wales emerging as something of a hotspot for badger baiting, animal welfare groups had hoped for a prison sentence.
Police admit tracing offenders is difficult, but what they do know is that a lot of gangs have migrated north from South Yorkshire following a decline in the number of active badger setts. While baiting goes on all year round, winter when the undergrowth has thinned and out tends to see a spike in activity.
Mary Green, a member of the animal campaign group Digging Out says there are two distinct groups of baiters – those who do it for fun and those who are linked to organised gambling, adding anonymous reports suggest in some places badgers are being caught and sold for up to £500 for the sole purpose of baiting.
“You can’t just set a bull lurcher on a badger, you need to work your dog up to it,” she says. “We know that early on owners will pitch these dogs first against cats, then foxes before moving on to setts. There have been reports of cats being placed in wheelie bins with dogs and left to fight to their death.
“It sounds far fetched, but when you get a lot of cats disappearing from a particular place, the chances are its the work of badger baiters. The problem is that missing cats don’t tend to get reported. You might get a few posters stuck on lampposts, but no one ever imagines it’s potentially part of a wider picture.”
Digging Out says that countrywide an estimated 2,000 people are involved in badger baiting, but with only a handful of prosecutions a year, most go undetected.
“Often when people are caught, the standard response is that we didn’t mean for the dog to kill a badger, we were just out looking for foxes,” says Mary. “Believe me no-one who is looking for foxes digs that far underground, but for a case to reach court there has to be evidence and it has to be persuasive.”
It was the same plea made by members of the Howsham gang in court. While one was found not guilty, earlier this week, Scarborough Magistrates sentenced four of the men to 16 weeks in prison, another two were handed 12-week custodial sentences, suspended for 12 months, after they pleaded guilty to wilfully killing a badger, digging for badgers and interfering with a sett at an earlier hearing, and a 17-year-old boy, was given a youth rehabilitation order.
The severity of the sentences was welcomed, but few hold out any hope that it will act as a deterrent to others.
“Every day dogs are getting killed underground and badgers and foxes are fighting for their lives,” says Mary.
“Badger baiting has become about bragging rights. Fights are recorded on mobile phones and the internet has become a way of passing information about the next bait.
“The only time these people show any trace of emotion is when one of their dogs suffocates underground, but even then it’s tied to money. The value of a wining dog rises, along with the price of its puppies, a dead dog has no value.”
Wildlife groups, often staffed by volunteers, are doing their best in the battle against the baiters, covering setts with mesh to make digging down more difficult, but they also rely on public vigilance.
“Thanks to renaissance in wildlife programmes like Springwatch, people are becoming more aware that badgers are a protected species, but they are often still slow to report suspicious behaviour,” adds Jean, who acted as an expert witness in the Howsham case.
“We really wish the public would be more aware, it’s no good us knowing two or three days after a sett has been dug out.
“The fight to end badger baiting is all our responsibility.”