FEARS have emerged that badgers are being baited in a south Essex nature reserve.
A keen badger watcher has raised the alarm after finding piles of burning wood covering the entrance to a badger sett.
Basil Thornton, 61, was out enjoying an evening walk when he noticed flames and smoke from a wooded area at the Mill Meadows Nature Reserve, Billericay.
He recalled: “I ran over to the flames and quickly put them out.
“There was a group of youths hanging about nearby and they seemed angry and left soon after.
“There was a pile of charred wood and the ground was covered in ash after I had put the fire out.
“The hole leads to a network of tunnels and setts so I can only imagine what the heat would have been like inside the tunnels, it would have been terrible.”
Mr Thornton of Greens Farm Road, Billericay, took pictures and posted them on a Facebook group and the information sparked outrage among nature and wildlife lovers – and social media users.
Darren Parker, 48, who lives in Ramsden Heath, is a member of the Essex Badger Protection Group, and he is concerned.
He added: “Our group patrols that nature reserve and woodland area every few weeks.
“I had found piles of wood on badger setts before.”
Mr Parker isn’t sure whether Badger baiting is going on in the woods or not, but added: “Either way, it doesn’t reduce the risk that could be caused to the badgers.
“It can be tough and difficult to check and police areas like this because they are wide open spaces and some parts are woodland.”
Ray Crainfield 68, from the Nevendon Nature Reserve, Wickford, said he knows of situations where this issue is occurring elsewhere in Essex.
He added: “There have been occasions in parts of Southend where people have dug badgers out of the ground to catch them.
“What they do is dig down to the badgers nesting burrow and then grab them and put them into traps.
“It is terrible. It seems to have come up again after the issue went for a bit.
“I have known of people sending dogs down badger holes to catch badgers.”
There have also been other incident in the Basildon area. Last September the Echo told how badgers had been dug out of holes in the Nevendon Nature Reserve.
Essex Wildlife Trust were disturbed to learn that badger setts were being set on fire.
A spokesman said: “Badgers are a protected species and their setts afford protection under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992.
“It is a criminal offence to damage, destroy or disturb a badger sett and anyone with information should report it to Essex police.”