Badgers are being persecuted out of existence in areas of the North-East by “lowlife” blood sport enthusiasts, wildlife campaigners fear.

The region has been labelled as a badger baiting hotspot after a sickening spate of attacks on the elusive animals.

In the latest incident, three men used a mini-digger in broad daylight to excavate earth around a badger sett near Bishop Auckland, County Durham.

Durham County Badger Group has this year been called to seven incidents of suspicious deaths or activity at badger setts already.

The group, which covers the area stretching from the Rivers Tyne and Derwent to the Tees across to the Cumbrian border, would usually expect to learn of 15 to 20 in an entire year.

Lesley Johnson, from the group which works to protect the species, said: “We cannot be sure but the probable motive was to put them with dogs or retrieve dogs that went after them.

“There is a generally healthy population but in pockets they are being persecuted out by lowlifes.”

PC Alex Riley, of Bishop Auckland police, said a countryside ranger from Durham County Council discovered the sett had been tampered with last Tuesday.

During police enquiries, a cyclist recalled seeing three men using a yellow mini-digger to excavate earth from the site at around 4.40pm on Saturday, February 18.

The men were aged 30 to 40 and were wearing woollen hats and dark clothing.

PC Riley said: “Because the three were so bold witnesses may have assumed it was legal activity, but if anyone remembers anything I’d ask them to report it.”

The spate of incidents in County Durham included sett digs on farmland near West Auckland, two at Binchester, near Spennymoor, and at Horden.

A sett entrance was sealed with concrete at Easington Lane, and a badger was killed by a snare at Witton Park, near Bishop Auckland.

Ian Hutchison is the crime prevention lead for Operation Meles, a national crackdown on badger persecution by police and nature organisations.

He said: “There are several badger baiting hotspots across the country and the North-East is one.

“Any sett damaged or destroyed is a concern but these numbers are alarming.

“We’d ask the public to be aware and if they see anything to report suspect and vehicle descriptions to police immediately but never to get involved with these kind of people or put their personal safety at risk.”

Last month, Scarborough Court jailed four men for digging out a sett and dragging out badgers to use in fights.

Anyone with information is asked to contact Durham police on 101 or Durham County Badger Group on 0191-5842293.