Badger baiting has been outlawed since 1835 – so why is it making a comeback?

Perpetrators are employing bull lurchers – a lethal mix of speed and aggression – to kill their prey

It was a crisp midwinter Sunday when the screaming started on Paradise Farm. Robert Fuller, a well-known wildlife artist, was looking for otters while strolling with a friend by the River Derwent, North Yorkshire, close to the historic site of the battle of Stamford Bridge. Hearing squealing and a volley of barking, he quickened his step. When he peered through the hedge where the noise was coming from, he struggled to take in what he saw.

Two scarily large dogs, "like something out of Harry Potter", were covered in blood and violently shaking a badger. The badger was emitting a distinctive chittering, the sound of a wild animal in great pain and distress. Several terriers raced around, snatching a bite as the dogs played tug-of-war with the badger. Most shockingly of all, a group of men stood in the field watching. One encouraged his dogs to attack the badger. Others laughed and joked, excited by what they were seeing.

Fuller had stumbled on a badger bait, an illegal fight in which dogs are pitched against badgers dug from their setts. This has been illegal since 1835 but this was 2011, in broad daylight, on a Sunday afternoon close to a public footpath. Despite being the kind of anachronistic barbarity most people assume went out of fashion with the Victorians, badger baiting persists, amid an apparent resurgence of cruelty in the countryside. Animal charities report a surge in poaching and lamping – using powerful lights mounted on pickups and vans to chase down hares, rabbits and deer at night – but also more exotic torture. In Blackburn, the theft of 15 cats in one neighbourhood has been attributed to the growth of "cat coursing", in which domestic cats are pitted against fighting dogs in a bloody battle that, like badger baiting, the smaller animal cannot hope to win. In Scotland, cats have been placed in wheelie bins with dogs and left to fight to their deaths. The growth of lamping and badger baiting are two priorities for the National Wildlife Crime Unit, which provides intelligence and investigative support for police forces across the UK.

There is one connection between these varying forms of illegal cruelty: dogs. Mark Randell, a police officer for 30 years, is now intelligence co-ordinator for the League Against Cruel Sports. He says those who commit such crimes are not obsessed with hunting hares or digging badgers. The prey is almost incidental. "The criminality revolves around the dog and what the dog can do – 'My dog is tougher than your dog. My dog can kill foxes and badgers and deer'," he says. "The dog is a vehicle for the individual and their criminal mind."

The "Harry Potter"-style dogs unleashed in the North Yorkshire bait were bull lurchers, a relatively new cross breed blending the speed of a lurcher with the strength and aggression of a pit bull or bull mastiff. These killing machines are now being used by poachers to attack foxes, hares and have even been spotted bringing down red deer. "The upsurge in bull cross lurchers has been phenomenal in recent times," says Geoff Edmond, the RSPCA's national wildlife co-ordinator. "We're getting a lot more lamping of deer, badgers and foxes. The old way of badger baiting was just using terriers. Now they are going out in gangs and throwing them to the bull cross lurchers. There's probably a lot more that goes on than we know about." Badger baiting was once quite a technical "sport": now it is more commonly a case of going lamping and seeing what you get – a bull lurcher can pull down pretty much anything.

There is currently little data on lamping but according to Operation Meles, a police and charity partnership to combat badger persecution launched this autumn, there were 243 reports of badger fighting in 2009 and 2010. The RSPCA recorded 355 incidents of badger persecution, including illegal snaring as well as digging and baiting, across Wales and England in 2010, compared with 255 reports in 2009.

Despite the 1835 law banning dog fights with other animals such as badgers, baiting continued for decades as an unruly village tradition, remembered by the poet John Clare, who celebrated the badger's tenacity in verse:

He falls as dead and kicked by boys and men / Then starts and grins and drives the crowd again

Villagers would go badger digging on a Sunday afternoon after church, badgers were kept in barrels in pub yards and tested against dogs and were even hunted by moonlight in Somerset in the late 1940s. In 1973, the badger became the first animal in Britain to be given specific legal protection and since then the law has been tightened: in Scotland the badger enjoys greater legal protection than anywhere else in the world with a maximum prison sentence for baiters of three years. Despite these laws, the 610 reports of badger persecution logged by the RSPCA led to just 16 convictions.

The contemporary persecution of wild animals, like other criminal activity, is increasingly planned and celebrated on the internet and social media. "The use of mobile phones in filming what is going on at badger setts and the number of images found on home computers is staggering," says Ian Hutchison, a former police officer who is the UK crime prevention lead for Operation Meles. Where once illegal cruelty was the preserve of discreet chat in country pubs, participants now boast about their dogs and their fights online – euphemistically referring to badgers as "pigs" and "pig fights" and posting graphic pictures of their trophies. Making contacts across the country, they travel widely to participate in dog fights and badger baits. Social media has "definitely made this criminal activity easier," says Randell. "The lack of regulation means people can do what they want online but that kind of openness gives us more information as well."

When Northumberland police seized Wayne Lumsden's mobile phone in an unrelated investigation last year, they found video clips of dogs fighting other dogs, cats, foxes and badgers. The 23-year-old from Lynemouth also posted footage on his Bebo page. Lumsden, and Connor Patterson, also 23 and from Northumberland, who had exchanged text messages about his enjoyment of a badger bait, were sentenced to 21 and 16 weeks imprisonment in February last year. A month earlier, Christian Latcham of Tonypandy, south Wales, was sentenced to five months' imprisonment, suspended for 12 months, after extensive photographs and videos of badger baiting were – again, by chance – found on his phone.

The men seen by Robert Fuller baiting a badger did not broadcast their activities online but they were brazen in choosing to set their 13 dogs on badgers in daylight close to a public footpath. They were also unlucky to be spotted by an unusually acute witness. Baiters caught in the act are the tip of the iceberg, say the authorities, and some witnesses are too intimidated by these gangs to give evidence. Fuller, however, had grown up on a farm and had tackled hare coursers in the past and knew "they are difficult lads to deal with". Although he was hopelessly outnumbered, he had his 400mm lens with him and the presence of mind to wriggle through the hedge and surreptitiously take photographs. Police were called and quickly arrived at Paradise Farm.

What they found shocked the most experienced of wildlife crime investigators. The body of the badger Fuller had seen being tortured was discovered shot dead. Another heavily pregnant sow with its intestines ripped out had been dumped back in the hole the men had dug to get to the badger sett. Strewn across the field were four tiny foetuses torn from the badger's stomach, still freshly pink. The tail belonging to a third badger – torn off by the dogs – was also found; its carcass was never recovered.

Jean Thorpe, a local badger expert who rescues injured wildlife, was sent to examine the scene. She saw how the men had deployed a locator collar on a terrier and encouraged it to enter the badger sett. Once the terrier had cornered a badger underground, the men could sweep a receiver box over the ground to identify exactly where it was, before digging straight down to the badger with one hole. "The sett was beautifully dug [out by the men]. They knew exactly what they were doing," says Thorpe, who appeared at the men's trial at Scarborough magistrates court. It can be surprisingly difficult to prove in law that someone intended to "wilfully" bait a badger: those who are caught usually claim their dog accidentally caught the badger or was trapped in the sett and they were digging it out, or they were digging for foxes. In this case, however, the evidence of more than one dead badger looked damning. "We needed two. One can be a mistake, two cannot," as Thorpe put it.

Six of the men protested their innocence, arguing in court it had all been a mistake and they had simply been on "a rough shoot – pigeons, crows, foxes, stoats, weasels, anything vermin", as the oldest of the men, Richard Simpson, a 37-year-old terrier lover who trained as a gamekeeper, put it. One man was found not guilty but a district judge last month found five of the six, Simpson, his half-brother Alan Alexander, 32, William Anderson, 26, Paul Tindall, 31, and a 17-year-old who cannot be named, guilty of wilfully killing a badger, hunting a mammal with dogs, digging for badgers and interfering with a badger sett. Two others, Christopher Holmes and Malcolm Warner, both 28 and from York, pleaded guilty before the trial began. The seven men, who were all friends, will be sentenced on 10 January.

W hat kind of person goes lamping or sets their dogs on wild animals? Those who bait badgers may kill foxes as well but they are rarely members of the red-jacketed hunting fraternity or the licenced shooters who go deer stalking. Louise Robertson of the League Against Cruel Sports says there is no link between the ban on fox hunting and the resurgence of underground "sports" such as badger baiting. "It's a very different kind of person who is doing your dog fighting and badger baiting. Hunters are obsessed with the sport of hunting. The badger baiting and dog fighting tends to be lower classes of people involved with criminal activity who are doing it for sick pleasure," she says. Thorpe agrees. "I know it's not politically correct but it can be a housing estate thing," she says. "Country people do it quietly. You don't tend to catch them. The housing estate people tend to be gobby and shout about it and that's how you find out."

Six of the North Yorkshire baiters came from York, and four lived close to each other on a council estate. Although Simpson trained as a gamekeeper, the men seemed more enthusiastic about their dogs and 4x4s than the countryside. One of the group, Anderson, is an entrepreneur who specialises in customising Land Rovers with dog boxes and secure compartments. Tindall is a former bouncer. While these men are not exactly a rural underclass, Randell thinks there may be an economic dimension to this pursuit of illegal thrills in the countryside. "It's a cheap way to spend the weekend," he says.

According to Ian Hutchison of Operation Meles, some of the increase in the persecution of badgers in particular is connected to their unpopularity with the farming community because of bovine TB in cattle. Until there is a cull, some people are taking the control of badgers into their own hands. But the setting of dogs on them is a different kind of killing. "It's a macho thing, to be honest," says Hutchison. "It's, 'I'm a big guy with a big dog.' There are some organised fights from time to time where the badgers are taken away from the setts and pitted against dogs and there is betting. And once you've got betting you've got organised crime involved."

"Those who commit cruelty to animals are more often than not linked to something else criminal," says Randell. Sergeant Paul Stephenson, the officer who investigated the bait at Paradise Farm, agrees, although he stresses he is not talking specifically about the men who were there: "We have a poaching problem but they tend to be what they call long dogs chasing hares. We have a problem with people taking deer but that's at night with a rifle. North Yorkshire police have become more robust with it all. We've started to go after them. One of the reasons the police are so interested in poaching, apart from trespassing, is that quite often people are suspected of going into outbuildings on farms and stealing equipment, tools, diesel and metals."

Most of those involved in wildlife crimes believe the current increase is due not to a contagion of cruelty but to the growing courage of witnesses such as Fuller to report such vicious acts. But animal charities are alarmed by the recurring presence of aggressive new breeds such as bull lurchers, which slip through the legal net in England and Wales because the dangerous dogs law bans only specific breeds such as pit bulls. To stay relevant, this law must be constantly amended to control the emergence of new cross breeds. Far better, says Randell, is the Scottish approach, where the law on fighting dogs criminalises the deed, not the breed.

When Fuller remembers that day in January, his skin still crawls with the horror. Although he makes his living from painting wild animals, Fuller is no bunny hugger. "I've got a shotgun certificate, I'm used to country life, I've seen a lot of things, but they were laughing as badgers were having their insides torn out by these dogs – and badgers are as tough as old boots, our toughest wild animal left," he says. Fuller is just glad to see that, for once, justice was done. "I cannot abide these people. You've got to stand up to it. It's unbelievably cruel."


Patrick Barkham

The GuardianTramp

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