BADGERS are being ripped from setts in Teesdale and shipped to other parts of the UK where they are forced to fight with dogs, according to a local wildlife trust.
Graham Temby, from the County Durham Badger Trust, said gangs travel to Teesdale and Weardale from places as far afield as Sheffield and Liverpool to steal the protected animals. They are then are subjected to “horrendous cruelty”.
Badger baiting has been a problem throughout the UK for many years but the practice – which the Badger Trust describes as “one of the most abhorrent wildlife crimes”– is on the rise.
Boar badgers are often taken from setts but, instead of using the animals in fights themselves, the thieves sell them on to the highest bidder for up to £1,000 an animal.
Terrier dogs wearing collars fitted with radio transmitters are sent down the entrance to the setts to detect the badgers.
Mr Temby said: “The dogs will have the radio collars on and as soon as they find the badger, they will stay still to corner it.
“The gangs will then pick up the signal above ground, dig down and they’ve got a badger.”
Once the badger has been removed it is driven miles before being thrown into an arena to fight with dogs.
“Arenas are set up often in deserted buildings and the badger is put in with either one dog at a time, to see whose dog is the best, or with a gang of dogs to see how long a badger can last,” said Mr Temby. The Badger Trust says that the badger will often have its front teeth knocked out so it cannot bite the dog.
It may also be hit with a shovel to damage neck muscles that hold up its head.
In a bid to end the crime, licensed wildlife officers and volunteers are using a number of deterrents that are proving successful and one solution is reinforcing more vulnerable setts.
The top layer of soil from above the sett is removed and a wire mesh is laid down, followed by a cover of cement. The soil is then replaced. “The wire mesh scrambles the radio transmissions so even if the dog does find a badger, the gangs can’t get a signal,” said Mr Temby.
Another security measure is to use SmartWater, which is a colourless liquid solution used to trap criminals.
The County Durham Badger Trust is working alongside police officers to install water bottles, such as those used to feed rabbits, into the roofs of badger setts.
When the badger walks under the bottle, liquid will rub off onto its fur via a sponge attached to the mouthpiece.
If these animals are then stolen for baiting purposes, the Smartwater residue will be found on criminal’s skin, clothes, vehicles and other property.
Mr Temby said: “If these people are suspected of badger baiting they will be investigated.
“Their property and themselves tested for traces of Smartwater.”
“Unfortunately this happen all over the country but the North East of England is the capital of animal cruelty and that’s very sad.”
While Northern badgers have escaped the Government’s authorised cull, they are at risk of another killer – the road.
Mr Temby said 50,000 badgers are killed on Britain’s roads every year and he is urging anyone who sees them dead on roadsides to contact the Durham Wildlife Trust.
And anyone who knows of a sett near them and are concerned about activity nearby should also contact the trust on 0191 5843 112.