Laying it on the line at a badger killing ground

Who would challenge an armed gang up to no good with a pack of dogs in broad daylight? Robert Fuller, our One Pair of Eyes columnist, did. Lara Lambert reports.

Wolds wildlife artist Robert Fuller laughs at the suggestion that he is now, officially, an international wildlife hero. His photographs provided the evidence to convict a gang whose blood lust inflicted a terrible price on a family of badgers.

A judge this week thanked the artist, from Thixendale in East Yorkshire, for the “brave” and “courageous” part he paid in one of the most significant cases of badger baiting in decades.

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Judge Kristina Harrison gave the most severe penalties yet for the “barbaric” and “abhorrent” offence at Scarborough Magistrates Court. Robert was the key witness in the case which attracted the attention of the world’s press and the BBC’s World Service.

Despite his good humour, Robert Fuller concedes the experience was an ordeal which has brought months of anxiety for himself and his family.

It is now almost a year since the bright winter afternoon when he stumbled across the gang as he and a friend were out looking for otters to photograph along the River Derwent near Howsham in North Yorkshire.

“I’d heard the sounds of dogs barking from three fields away and it took me a good 10 minutes to walk across to where the noise was coming from,” says Robert. “As I got closer I heard the unmistakable high pitched ‘chittering’ squeal of a badger in great distress. I felt instinctively what I was going to find. When I was was close enough, I crept through a hedge in a ditch.

“My suspicions were confirmed. I crawled back out, unzipped my camera bag and I handed my mobile phone to my friend, telling him to call the police.”

Some 70 yards away, a gang were watching as two enormous dogs, covered in blood, violently shook a badger that was suspended between them like rag doll in a grotesque game of tug-of-war.

Terriers raced around, biting and yipping, at the terrified victim as the men laughingly encouraged them.

Robert saw the badger being so badly injured that it gave up the fight. He watched as the men shot it dead.

There were eight of them, carrying five guns, plus 13 dogs at this scene of horror.

Also, as was later established, they left behind three dead badgers and three unborn cubs.

Aghast at what he was witnessing, Robert made sure he had his pictures in the bag to provide evidence. “I watched the men for about five minutes before one of them spotted me.

“I withdrew but doubled back on myself so that I was still close to the scene, but remained out of sight. ”

Once they knew they had been spotted, the men hastily hid the evidence of the torture and began to leave the area. Thanks to Robert’s pictures, they were eventually tracked down.

The case brings home the fact that badger baiting, which was made illegal in 1835, is still alive and kicking.

Once badgers were kept in beer barrels in pub yards or baited in pits. Dogs were encouraged to draw them out and fight them to their death as bets were laid by jeering crowds.

This “sport”, damned as barbaric by the Victorians, is still rife today, although it usually happens in secret and under cover of darkness.

This gang however seemed indifferent to what others thought. Or maybe they were confident that no-one who caught them at it would dare to intervene.

“This gang were so brazen about what they were doing, it was almost as though they didn’t care,” said Robert.

“It was a lovely Sunday afternoon and this was happening next to a public footpath. My wife and daughter were walking at nearby Kirkham Abbey. My family could easily have come across them.”

Between 2009 and 2010 the police nationally logged 610 incidents of badger persecution. But only 16 successful trials followed.

It is difficult to catch badger baiters in the act and witnesses are often too intimidated to give evidence.

At Scarborough, Judge Harrison, pointed to the courage of Robert and his friend. “They saw a group of armed men with vicious dogs. Despite this they held their ground and kept them under observation. Mr Fuller even took photos. We owe him a great debt.”

“The significance of what Robert Fuller did cannot be underestimated,” says the RSPCA’s national wildlife co-ordinator, Geoff Edmond.

“It is not often a judge commends a witness and he thoroughly deserved it. I’ve been a wildlife officer for 20 years and it was the worst, most horrific and barbaric case I have seen.”

Jean Thorpe, who runs a wildlife rehabilitation centre in Norton and regularly helps the RSPCA in cruelty prosecutions, attended the killing ground shortly after.

Her inspection revealed the body of the badger Robert had seen being pulled apart by dogs lying in a hedge a short distance away.

And strewn across the field were three tiny, still pink, foetuses torn from a second badger’s stomach as well as a length of small intestine.

There was also a tail belonging to a third badger. Its body was never found. Jean found a spot freshly dug and then covered by turf. On opening this hole, she found a dead pregnant sow disembowelled inside.

She says the gang’s methods must have involved a terrier wearing a locator collar which they sent into the sett.

Here it would have cornered the badgers in a sleeping chamber. The men would then have stood over the terrier’s position and dug straight down to get at the badger family.

Robert, at six-foot two, is a rugged countryman who understands the rural mind and accepts that the blood of animals is often spilt.

“I was brought up on a farm,” he says. “Ferreting, shooting and fishing were a large part of my upbringing. I still hold a shotgun licence.

“I understand that the countryside, woodlands and moorlands that we enjoy today are shaped by field sports.

“Badgers are tough animals. They will fight when under attack, but generally they are not aggressive. They feed mainly off earthworms.

“What turns my stomach about badger baiting is that they were doing it for the sheer thrill. The men I watched were laughing.

“At first I didn’t want any attention for this, especially from the media. When I realised that my evidence was so crucial to bringing these men to trial I knew that I couldn’t walk away.

“The comments I’ve had about this so far shows that the public share my distaste for this horrible sport.”

Sentences for the baiters

Sentenced to four months prison and ordered to pay court costs and compensation were: Alan Alexander of Bramham Close, York, William Edward Anderson of Cropton Lane, Pickering, Richard Simpson of Wains Road, York, and Paul Ian Tindall, of Bramham Grove, York. Christopher Martin Holmes of Bell Farm Avenue, York and Malcolm David Warner of Princess Drive, York, received 12-week suspended sentences. A 17-year old York youth received a youth rehabilitation order and ordered to attend 10 sessions with the RSPCA.