Many of the intelligence logs that I deal with as part of my work with the National Wildlife Crime Unit relate to offences against badgers. These can take the form of deliberately snaring or shooting badgers, interference with their setts, badger digging and badger baiting. Many of those involved in these despicable crimes are also involved in crimes of violence towards humans, drug dealing and dishonesty. In many cases their families and dogs are treated with the same violence and cruelty as that meted out to badgers.
My book, The Thin Green Line, consists in part of cases from some of my former colleagues. These are cases in this blog were dealt with by Andy McWilliam when he was wildlife crime officer in Merseyside. Thankfully Andy’s experience is not lost in retirement and he is now working with National Wildlife Crime Unit as an investigation support officer covering the north of England.
Merseyside has a limited number of badger setts compared with some areas, but unfortunately it does have plenty of badger diggers and baiters, many of whom travel to other parts of the country to carry out the crimes. Merseyside’s badgers are mainly on the WirralPeninsula; setts on the Liverpool side of the Mersey have more or less disappeared mainly because of development, but also through human persecution.
Wirral has a very active Badger Group and the location of most setts is well known to the members and to and local residents, who take a great pride in their badgers. As a result, attacks on these setts rarely go unnoticed, but nevertheless attacks on badgers and their setts do still occur.
One morning in October 2003 a school teacher and his assistant were taking a science class when they looked out over farmland next to the school to see three men with a couple of dogs acting suspiciously in a hedgerow. A white van was parked on a main road about 100 yards from the men. The witnesses innovatively dismantled a microscope in the classroom and used it as a pair of binoculars to get a better look. They were then able to see the men more clearly and observed the fact that they were digging. Initially they thought the men were hiding stolen property and called the police, who arrived a short time later.
When the police approached them the men said they were just out ratting. They admitted they didn’t have permission to be on the land and having given the officers their details, they were asked to leave. Importantly the officers, despite their lack knowledge of wildlife or the appropriate legislation, established from the men that there were no dogs still underground.
The men, who I will call the three Daves, left the scene in the white van followed by the police and all under the watchful gaze of our two teacher witnesses and 28 intrigued boys who had by now abandoned their studies.
Twenty minutes later the men returned to the same location, but from a different direction. They started digging frantically. The police were phoned again but this time one of the Daves was acting as a lookout and they ran off before the police could get to them.
During the dinner break curiosity got the better of one on our witnesses and he went to have a look for himself at where the men had been digging. He found several holes and heard a snuffling sound from one and further investigation revealed a black and tan Jack Russell terrier, which was fitted with a locator collar. Locator collars are commonly used on dogs that are put underground and the handler can keep track of the animal with a small receiver. The witness managed to pull the dog out of the hole and called the local dog warden. The terrier was taken to the local dog pound and I was informed of this highly suspicious development. Even after the dog had been removed the witnesses saw the three Daves return on several occasions, obviously in search of their abandoned terrier.
I decided to attend the scene with the badger expert, Mal Ingham, and we met up with one of the witnesses, who showed us exactly where he had recovered the Jack Russell and the spot where he had seen the men digging. Though he had previously been unaware of this sett, Mal was able to identify it as currently being used by badgers. It was a small, outlying sett approximately half a mile from a well-established and much larger sett. The dog had been down inside the sett and we found that the Daves had actually dug directly into an underground chamber.
While we were carrying out our examination of the scene, I was phoned by the dog wardens, who told me that a heavily pregnant woman turned up at the dog pound and tried to claim the Jack Russell. She had claimed that she was walking the dog across farmland and the dog had run off. I later established she had been eight and a half months pregnant and the likelihood of her walking her dog across that terrain was remote. They sensibly had refused to release the dog.
Based on the fact that this was an active badger sett, and they had dug into it and apparently put a dog underground, I decided to arrest the three men and interview them. All three claimed that they had been hunting foxes, at that time legal, (now illegal under the Hunting Act 2004) although they may have been guilty of trespassing. The three Daves claimed that the dog had been sent into a fox earth and not a badger sett. In law the onus was on them to show that this was not an active badger sett. I was totally confident with Mal Ingham’s assessment and this was later borne out by the opinion of another expert.
The men had all shown they had something to hide by denying the presence of a dog underground. One of the Daves had also given the police a false name, although he denied this and claimed the officer had simply misheard him. We were able to prove he had used the same false details when police in Warwickshire stopped him a few months earlier. Perhaps the Warwickshire police officer had also misheard.
All three Daves were charged with offences against the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 for damaging a sett and causing a dog to enter a sett. After a 4-day trial before a district judge they were all found guilty and each sentenced to 4 weeks imprisonment.
I was pleased with the conviction and thought the sentence was a reasonable one, given that the maximum sentence was 6 months and there was no indication that a badger had been harmed or injured.
A year or so after the case I was assisting uniformed officers to search the home address of the cousin of Dave One, I will call him Ken. We knew he was also involved in hunting with dogs and we found all the paraphernalia that you would expect. At his house he had a bitch Staffordshire bull terrier called Bella. She was a lovely looking animal and very distinctive – tan, with a white collar and facial markings. Bella was very submissive and had several old scars around the face and chest. She had obviously fought a round or two.
During the search we found several still photographs hidden behind a television, showing Bella and another dog pulling at a badger. Ken claimed the badger was dead and that the dogs were playing with the carcass. Looking at the features of the badger such as hair and tail, it was quite apparent that the badger had been alive when the photos were taken. We also came across a video tape labelled “KEN’S TAPE. DO NOT TAPE OVER”. We seized this and arrested Ken.
I later viewed this tape and found it to contain around a dozen clips showing dogs attacking animals. Bella featured heavily in all the clips. Four of the clips featured badgers being attacked by dogs and they remain some of the most savage attacks I have seen. In his interview Ken admitted that he had been present, but that the attacks on the badgers had all been accidents and not intentional. He claimed he had been trying to get the dogs off.
I later viewed and transcribed every second of these tapes and there is no way that these incidents could have been accidental. The men present, which included Ken, could clearly be heard shouting encouragement to the dogs and in some clips can be seen kicking the badgers. At times as many as five dogs are savaging a single badger. The problem was proving when and where the crimes had taken place.
As luck would have it, whoever had filmed the badger incidents had left the date displayed on the video recorder, putting the offences within the six month time limit for prosecutions, which thanks to legislative changes has now been extended to two years.
My second piece of luck was the fact that Ken did not think my police powers extended outside England and was happy to admit that these incidents had taken place in Caerwys in North Wales. So we had an accurate date and a location; without these it may not have been possible to pursue the case. Ken was charged with eight offences against the Protection of Badgers Act 1992. I anticipated that Ken would plead guilty as the evidence was overwhelming.
Unlike a lot of colleagues across the country I was lucky that I could deal with a dedicated Crown Prosecution Service lawyer, who had a great deal of expertise in prosecuting wildlife offences and dealt with all the cases I submitted. I spoke to her about the importance of showing the Magistrates the video footage as a verbal description would not do the events justice. She agreed.
Ken did plead guilty and Magistrates agreed that they would view the footage before sentencing, however Ken’s defence solicitor requested that Ken could be excused from the courtroom during the viewing, “because he finds this type of thing revolting.” Rather bizarrely the Magistrates excused Ken and he waited outside the court while they watched the tape.
Ken was sentenced to 4 months imprisonment for the offences, which were without doubt at the upper end of the scale of animal cruelty.
In another badger-related case an RSPCA inspector was called to an address within sight of Liverpool’s football ground. He attended and in the backyard at the address he saw a black Patterdale terrier that had a seriously infected injury to its lower jaw. The injury seemed recent and clearly required urgent veterinary treatment. Unfortunately he could not actually get access to the address.
The inspector recognised the dog, which was called Brick, because he had been to the address previously and knew the owner was someone he would have difficulty dealing with. He phoned me at home for advice and I suggested he photograph the dog and I would try and get him some police assistance.
He managed to photograph the dog, but while I was trying to get assistance to him a group of local youths distracted him, whilst others climbed into the yard and removed the dog. The inspector had been powerless to stop them.
Although the evidence had been lost for now, at least he had some photographs. Luckily for the case – and for the dog as well – it was found abandoned a couple of days later. I visited the dog with the RSPCA inspector at a local vet’s, who was of the opinion that the dog had been caused unnecessary suffering and required treatment.
Once again we knew that Brick’s owner was also involved in hunting with dogs and I thought the nature of his injury had all the hallmarks of a badger bite: basically his lower lip and the flesh on his lower jaw had been ripped away. It was agreed that Brick should be taken to a specialist vet, who could give expert opinion as to whether this injury had been caused by a badger.
The examination confirmed our suspicions that Brick had been in conflict with a badger. I arrested the owner, who denied Brick was his dog and claimed to have no knowledge of his injury. I must say that the interview was extremely heated and I could understand the RSPCA inspector’s concerns about dealing with him. It was obvious we could not prove where or when Brick had been pitted against a badger so we were unable to prefer any charges under the Protection of Badgers Act. He was charged with causing the dog unnecessary suffering under the Protection of Animals Act 1911, which has since been updated by the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
Brick’s owner was later sentenced to four months imprisonment, and although he was never charged directly with an offence under the Badgers Act, I am sure the court took into the account the nature of his injuries when passing sentence.
See The Thin Green Line and other books on this blog. If you would like a signed copy contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org