It is a while since I had a badger-related post, so here is a story related to me by Joe Connelly, former wildlife crime officer with Strathclyde Police, and included in my book The Thin Green Line. The photos are courtesy of the former Strathclyde Police:
In April 2005 Joe was notified of a fairly unusual variation on badger crime. Two men walking through farmland near Strathaven, a picturesque town in the heart of the Avon valley in Lanarkshire, saw a David Brown tractor in an adjacent field, with a farmer who was known to them standing beside it. A slurry tanker was attached to the tractor and leading from the slurry tanker was a grey hose, the end of which the farmer seemed to have placed into the ground. As the two men continued on their journey the saw the farmer move the tractor and slurry tanker forward a few metres and replace the hose into the ground. It became clear to the men that the farmer was pumping slurry into the ground.
The men were aghast, as they were aware that where the farmer was working was an active badger sett. What the farmer was up to was not needing spelled out to them. They then saw him remove the pipe from an entrance of the sett, having disgorged the disgusting cargo of the tanker into the sett entrance, and return with his tractor and its trailer towards the farm.
When the farmer was out of sight, one of the witnesses went to the sett and confirmed his fears. The entrances were full to the top with a green, pungent, revolting sludge. Any badgers in the sett, if they were not drowned in this awful stuff, would be unable to dig out and would eventually be suffocated. The police and badger experts were notified and as an initial response two uniformed officers arrived. They were able to confirm that two large holes were full of sludge but they had little knowledge either of badgers or their setts and left the scene, knowing that wildlife crime officers were to attend later.
Before either badger experts or wildlife crime officers arrived at the farm the farmer returned to the sett, this time with a JCB-type tractor with a large bucket on the front filled with earth. He dumped the earth on top of the sett and began to level it in an effort to disguise his earlier merciless handiwork. Not satisfied with this, next on the scene were two contract tractors and ploughs, and the area was quickly ploughed, leaving no trace of the farmer’s murderous deed. It is likely that the contract workers would be completely unwitting assistants in the cover-up of a crime; a crime that probably would have gone undetected had there not been two people conveniently passing.
Only minutes after the contract workers had left with their tractors and ploughs, two of Strathclyde Police wildlife crime officers arrived with John Derbyshire, a badger expert. Luckily John had carried out a badger survey on this land eight months earlier in the summer of 2004 and had recorded several active badger setts on the errant farmer’s land, including one on the fence line bordering the field they were now in. Now, he and the police officers could see no trace whatsoever of a badger sett along the edge of the field. There was not even a trace of slurry. The farmer had hatched an effective plan, and had executed it with his innocent helpers. Almost!
Because the sett was along the edge of the field, and the fence was the boundary between the farmer and his neighbour, there were entrances visible on the other side of the fence. These showed signs of very recent badger activity and confirmed that the sett was indeed active.
To date there had been no badger investigations in Strathclyde – or indeed any other part of Scotland – where police officers had felt the need to excavate to obtain evidence. If ever there was an investigation that would benefit from an excavation this was it. But it required a search warrant.
The evidence in the case so far was so good that a warrant was not too difficult to obtain, but there was a cost to be considered: JCBs and an operator don’t come cheap. The Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime (PAW) came to the rescue here. One of the members of PAW is North Lanarkshire Council and they were good enough to supply a JCB and a driver for the job free of charge. This is the value of having a variety of interested partners on board. Most are not able to contribute financially to the interest of the partnership but many from time to time can contribute in kind. The help in-kind this time was warmly welcomed.
On 5th May 2005, ten days after the introduction of the slurry to the sett, police wildlife crime officers called on the farmer and showed him the unusual search warrant. He admitted being the owner of the field but said that he was too busy to attend at the excavation of the sett. Under the direction of John Derbyshire, the badger expert, the digger driver began his work, filmed by the police.
Within five minutes the digger had exposed one of the sett tunnels, still filled with farm slurry. Police officers have to take samples of many substances during their service but a sample of slurry – which was taken that day – must rate as one of the more unusual. The excavation continued and slurry flowed freely from the underground cavities. Evidence became available of badger guard hairs, black and white hairs unique in that if rolled between thumb and forefinger they are very clearly oval rather than round. In addition, fresh badger bedding in the form of dried grass was found, another indicator of the recent presence of badgers.
As the excavation progressed, Ian Hutchison of Scottish Badgers mapped the progress, ascertaining that at least 75% of the chambers exposed so far had been contaminated with slurry. There was welcome surprise when the face of a badger was suddenly seen in one of the drier chambers. This needed gentle excavation by the JCB operator to gradually inch his way towards the badger, which suddenly bolted when the bucket of the machine got too close for comfort. This was a badger that would be extremely hungry and almost certainly would have died had it not been for the decision to excavate.
The following day the farmer was interviewed by the police wildlife crime officers in relation to the sorry incident. He denied any involvement in the insertion of slurry into the sett. Maybe a farmer from elsewhere had transgressed on to his field, dumped the slurry, then returned and spread earth on top! The presence of the contract tractormen ploughing the field immediately after this was probably an unfortunate coincidence!
The farmer was charged with wilfully attempting to kill, injure or take a badger, cruelly ill-treating a badger, interfering with a badger sett or alternatively destroying it, and disturbing a badger when it was occupying the sett. He appeared at Hamilton Sheriff Court and pleaded guilty to two of these charges and was fined £800 for what must have been one of the most despicable crimes of the year.
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