1/7/2021

Badgers and conservation at the Game & Wildlife Scottish Demonstration Farm

Written by Dave Parish, Head of Scottish Lowland Research

5 Minute Read

2021 C12 N60 Badger At OC Nest

This year we have published two blogs (here and here) reporting unusually high levels of badger predation on early lapwing clutches at our demonstration farm, Auchnerran. Predation is always the principal cause of wader egg loss at Auchnerran, as at many sites, but this year it is higher. The blogs generated a lot of interest, and we’d like to thank all those who took the time to comment. Some of the comments suggested a misunderstanding of what we are trying to achieve with the blogs and at Auchnerran (there is lots of background information about the farm in our annual reports).

Auchnerran is not a nature reserve but we take great pride in being working conservationists. Auchnerran is first and foremost a sheep farm, operating just as many other similar farms, with a typical small sustainable shoot. We use an ‘adaptive management’ approach, monitoring our biodiversity and ecosystem services to see how they respond to our activities (e.g., farming, habitat management, predator control). We then adapt to minimise negative impacts and maximise the positives, whilst maintaining the farm’s productivity. Our aim is to produce a net biodiversity gain.

What does this mean in practice? We lime and fertilise some of our grass so it is the best it can be whilst operating diligently at all times, minimising our impacts via sensitive vehicle use and late rolling and cutting of silage fields, for example, which allows time for our hare and nationally important wader populations to breed. We also embrace those areas of the farm that cannot be agriculturally improved and maximise their natural capital value. The incentive of a small, sustainable shoot of wild game motivates us to plant pollen and nectar rich cover crops, ensure farmland birds are fed from winter into spring and carry out the legal control of crows, rats, foxes and stoats, especially during the spring and summer, ensuring the ground breeding animals do so really well.

An alternative, wilder, approach to conservation often advocated today is not to intervene at all. Some species at Auchnerran may benefit in the short term, but equally certain would be the demise of others – including our waders. In our view, the adaptive management approach is the best way to tackle conservation challenges at Auchnerran. Studying what is or isn’t effective allows us to have a balance between species, something especially important for those which are nationally vulnerable and those which are highly successful.

OC Nest & Chick

Our attention to ‘best practice and proof’ means Auchnerran is ideal for research and demonstration. We explore new approaches to conservation, and share those findings whatever they may be, so that all land managers might implement effective conservation practices, producing landscape-scale benefits. The recent results regarding badger predation on lapwing eggs is a case in point. For Auchnerran, the level of badger predation recorded earlier this year was unprecedented and so warrants further investigation. It is true that assigning predator identity to predation events is hard, but even if we have overestimated by a factor of two, the level of badger predation would still be unprecedented. Our findings are of real conservation importance to the farm, the region and possibly nationally. The total level of clutch predation (somewhere around 50% at present) is unsustainable and if it became the norm in future years would probably lead to Auchnerran becoming a population sink for lapwing rather than a source as it is at present.

Clearly we aren’t saying that all the sad declines in Britain and Scotland’s wading birds are due to badgers. Intensifying agricultural practices were at the heart of the historical population declines of waders and so far, the badgers’ contribution, if any, has hardly been studied in many settings. But it is incorrect to suggest that this means the predation rate we have found is of no consequence. Research by many conservation bodies shows that predation of eggs and young, by a suite of predators, is increasing and is now the main factor causing wader population declines or preventing recovery over most of their range.

This brings us back to what we are doing at Auchnerran and why. Our recent findings raise two interesting and important questions: 1) why has predation changed this year and, 2) how can we reduce it in future to sustainable levels?

Badger predation on eggs may have risen this year because the prolonged cold and dry spring weather may have made the badgers’ staple prey of earthworms, or other food such as rabbits, less available. We will explore this by comparing data on badger predation rates this year with colleagues elsewhere and looking back through our historical records. Or there may simply be more badgers this year than previously – our data from annual monitoring will clarify this. We also plan to improve our monitoring of badger movements across the farm to understand how and when they use different areas, including – subject to funding – genetic analyses to determine accurately how many individuals are present and, if possible, how many individuals might be responsible for the clutch predation we’ve found.

This knowledge will help us reduce badger predation in future, something we must consider if the farm’s net conservation value is to be protected. We are exploring the practicalities of deterring badgers from key areas, whilst maintaining access to the rest of the farm. Our data suggest that the wire-netting protecting forage and game crops from our burdensome rabbit population does deter badgers. This requires more study to confirm and is not a perfect solution as the badgers periodically break through. It may also be possible to use temporary electric fencing in some areas when waders are breeding, if there are no sheep in the area, or perhaps olfactory deterrents (i.e., nasty smells). Perhaps emerging technology will provide a solution - preliminary data from other researchers suggest that badgers avoid some colours of laser light projected on the ground near them. Or we may be able to make less sensitive areas of the farm more attractive to badgers by providing diversionary feeding.

As always, we will share our findings in full. Indeed, we would welcome the opportunity to show anyone interested what we’re doing, so if you would like to visit Auchnerran, please get in touch.

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Comments

predation by badgers

at 10:35 on 17/07/2021 by mark yorke

The general public and media need to know that badgers predate both the eggs and bird itself, of a range of red-listed birds I guess that they will predate a leveret. The population has increased dramatically in this part of north west Wales over the last 30 years. They are seen in daylight on occasions and on the high ground below Cadair Idris ( 2nd highest mountain in Wales ) for example. I have trapped and removed them from gardens in local villages. I urge GWCT to engage in research of many aspects of the badger, in order to inform policy makers, the media and general public, of their negative impact on biodiversity in both upland and lowland habitats. Research should include: a method of assessing population density within a specific geographic scale; the badgers diet over 12 months; practical methods of deterrence within a specific habitat or location; if ( a big if ) a licence to cull is given, what is the most cost effective and humane method (gas ?) and a number of additional questions. The badger is only one of a number of uncontrolled predators that are havng a significant negative impact, if we are to enhance biodiversity within the UK. The public need to be aware of this, although politically acceptaple and practical means of overcoming the problem is an open question I may be incorrect, but the only current research is on foxes diet and territorial movements.Dont we already have enough information concerning this predator ?

Badgers and conservation

at 14:53 on 07/07/2021 by Stephen Phillips

Just to add to the various comments in the Midlands we are seeing an increase in ground nesting birds i.e. lapwings, skylarks, curlews, goldenplover and redshanks, also an increase in hedgehog numbers. These are noticeable in areas where there is good predator control and control methods on badgers.

Badgers

at 21:40 on 06/07/2021 by Nick Muir

The comments above, along with the GWCT research are all singing the same song correctly. Badgers are are in many respects omnivorous opportunists. This means that there are areas where their predation habits may have little effect on threatened species, or farm livestock. In other areas they can be a serious menace to both. I know of sheep farming areas where badgers are common, and never a problem, and other areas where there are cases of habitual lamb killing. It is a question of balance and common sense. Those who are unaffected by problem wildlife are hardly in a position to make rational judgements. Thousands of rats carrying fatal ( to humans) diseases in and around the extreme ‘bunny hugger’ brigade’s accommodations might produce a more realistic perspective, when it is their own well being, being threatened.

Scientific evidence will be ignored by those who see it as inconvenient

at 20:18 on 06/07/2021 by Gavin Meerwald

The real scientific research by the GWCT will never be accepted by those who cannot stomach the truth. The would rather claim that it is all driven by "mindless killers with guns". The fact that those of us who enjoy fieldsports seem to be the only ones who actually understand conservation in this country depends on management and balance is something they would rather ignore.

Badger predation

at 17:41 on 06/07/2021 by Kit Taylor

I must confess to an annoyance with the conservationist that takes the time to put a camera on a subject then watches predation occur with dispassion and a shrug that this is what nature does. As a "working conservationist" (got to love a label) I find a low impact protection can encourage guarding of a species without too much impact on another .A simple electric fence around the field with some low wires will discourage Brock and keep the sheep off the pasture and will have an protecting effect on ground nesting bird protection. Worked for my local larks.

Nature - What is it?

at 14:14 on 06/07/2021 by Nick van zwanenberg

I'm really delighted to see such an interest in this story. The next question is how do we get the law makers to understand and to listen? To actually do somethng that works? To understand the 3 legged stool. To start building food chains from the bottom up. Not to keep overloading the top! Can you imagine SpringWatch reporting this? I'm afraid I can't. Somehow we have to pursuade the lawmakers that removing excess members of top end generalist predators may ber the only way to rebuild the simplified chains that we have created. It staggers me how wilfully blind some of the other wildlife organisations are! and indeed how ignaorant of the science that we already have. The evidence from the various experiments done by the GWCT over the past 40 years or so. To unpolarise the polarised!

Badgers

at 12:42 on 06/07/2021 by John Bright

I have a large garden at the edge of a village and before badgers were protected we never saw a sign of them. I also put in a pond in 2003. The pond immediately attracted all 3 types of newts , frogs and toads. The garden is now criss crossed with badger paths and over the last 10 years I have found a number of wasp and bumble bees nests dug up, I have had no toads sporn for the last 3 years, a great reduction in the number of newts this year and less frog spawn. I will also mention the badgers lavatories I find from time to time around the garden and the lawn regularly tootled in. When can we do something to keep them permanently under control. I love badgers but there are just too many of them.

Managing Our Environment via Conservation.

at 12:34 on 06/07/2021 by Alec Swan

Nick van Zwanenberg (NvZ) raises and underlines valid points, even if they are perhaps a little difficult for some to digest! Few will be surprised that the efforts and well expressed writings of the G&WCT have been misunderstood ~ those who have no wish to understand or listen, will twist any point made, and attempt to turn it to their own advantage …….. it's the MO of the rabid, I'm afraid to say. Again, what NvZ said is correct - there can only be a balance of nature in the Amazon jungle - elsewhere, any natural balance is upset, by the presence of man ~ and so, as conservationists, we 'manage' our environment for our current benefit, and for those who come after. A part of our management is that when any organism impacts on the well being of our environment ~ be that Birds of Prey, Butterflies or Badgers, so by carefully and with well thought through operations, we restore, or at least attempt, a sustainable balance. We support and preserve what is in decline and to the point where that 'balance', perhaps of metronome appearance is at least attempted. When Buzzards, Badgers or Black Backed Gulls are working against our efforts, when they are in disproportionate numbers, so we should take the necessary steps to support those aspects which struggle. …….. Is it really that difficult for others to grasp - the real intent behind Conservation?

PREY SELECTION BY PREDATORS

at 10:34 on 06/07/2021 by Hugh Rose

You write: "Badger predation on eggs may have risen this year because the prolonged cold and dry spring weather may have made the badgers’ staple prey of earthworms, or other food such as rabbits, less available. " I think this is a false theory. The best place to find worms is in damp fields/pastures and so these are prime badger foraging areas. No predator which happens upon a nest of eggs will ignore them in preference to their staple prey. Everyone is reporting a growth in badger densities and their spread into areas where they were formally absent. Much more likely is that the reported increase in ground-nest predation in all habitats is a function of greater badger numbers and thus their more intensive foraging in nesting habitats.

Badgers and Predation and habitat damage

at 8:43 on 02/07/2021 by Oliver-Bellasis

I suggest the impact on Waders you have identified has been happening for some time, but not necessarily identified as Badgers [though Keepers knew]. There is no surprise in your observation vide Avon Valley Lapwings - this effect is not only what you are seeing, they will be doing other damage, which has gone unseen. In certain weather they will eat newly born lambs. Their impact on, for example hedgehogs, bumble bees, is well known and one high level cause of hedgehog decline [nobody wants to admit it] SCT signalled this effect in 1992 when the library act protection for badgers came in, arguing a need for control at some point, as they have no predators - but Defra are not keen to issue the available licences for any biodiversity or habitat damage - and it seems NE will not support their control. UK is one of only 2 countries in Europe that do not control Badgers [outside the breeding season]. They are not endangered and their increase since protection is exponential. When will we get real and control them properly to balance their population with their surroundings? GWCT should do the work and soon?

Badger predation on Lapwing

at 8:42 on 02/07/2021 by Felix Appelbe

Good article. I’m sure that more farmers would welcome similar GWCT research on their farms . We have experienced similar problems which is disheartening after all the hard work preparing and ploughing areas for lapwing

Nature - What is it?

at 8:28 on 02/07/2021 by Nick van Zwanenberg

I fully appreciate this blog and its nuances. However even this blog seems to misunderstand 2 fundamental words. NATURE and WILD. Both these words are human constructs. Nature just follows the laws of physics and chemistry (both inorganic and organic.) and nothhing else. Nature does not think, care or have any purpose in the human senses of these words. Nature does not understand wild or living versus non living. There is no such thing as a "BALANCE OF NATURE" it does not exist. Naure is just as happy to wirpe out all living thngs as it is to have them continue to live and die. All balances in so called nature are ones that appeal to the human eye. None of them are Natural as there is no such thing as a natural balance. Any such balance is at best dynamic and very temporary.

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