This is the classic blood sport activity that we all thought had been brought under some sort of control – this is showing clearly it hasn’t.
A secretive network of badger baiters in Wales has been exposed by a BBC Wales undercover investigation.
The BBC Wales Investigates programme infiltrated two gangs as part of a six-month investigation into a violent and brutal blood sport which, the programme found, is as popular as ever.
Watch it now: BBC Wales Investigates The Secret World of Badger Baiting.
It is the first time badger baiting gangs have been infiltrated in this way since the Protection of Badgers Act came into effect in 1992.
Illegal hunting hotspots
And BBC Wales Investigates also discovered that Wales and parts of the English borders are illegal hunting hotspots. In the programme Ian Briggs, who heads up the RSPCA’s special operations unit, tells reporter Wyre Davies: “I think certainly Wales has a particular problem because of its remoteness and the ease of which they can carry out their activities.
“It is hugely prevalent across the whole of the UK. We know there are dozens, hundreds, of individuals – men - going out, every week, just to target badgers, foxes and whatever. They live and breathe taking their dogs out into the countryside to kill wildlife.”
The programme uncovers a dedicated network of illegal hunters from around South Wales and reveals the brutal reality of how wild animals – and the dogs used to kill them – are treated.
One of the network’s ringleaders is a convicted badger baiter who was banned for life from keeping dogs in 2011. He is secretly filmed digging a badger sett in Pembrokeshire with dogs he says are his.
On the day, the badger escapes and the gang of four men leave empty-handed. But on a second dig, that was also secretly filmed, two men dig a badger cub out of the ground and set their dogs on it, before finally killing it with a spade.
The programme also reveals the horrific injuries inflicted on the dogs used by hunters to attack animals like badgers, boar and deer and what their fate can be when they refuse to work. One gang member is recorded claiming he has shot dogs he owned when they didn’t perform as he wanted.
Reporter Wyre Davies shows the undercover footage to vet Mike Jessop, who has been an expert witness for dozens of animal welfare prosecutions.
He said: “The dog is just another working tool. They’re just thrown down holes, they’ve got to do their job. If they’re not doing their job they become a useless commodity.
"They’re only useful to these people if they’re being pushed to the limit. This is the classic blood sport activity that we all thought had been brought under some sort of control – this is showing clearly it hasn’t.”
Social media networks
UK law prohibits killing or injuring badgers, or disturbing the setts in which they live and hunting most wild mammals with dogs is also illegal.
Digging foxes can be legal under strict conditions, including that the fox must only be flushed out of its earth, but not attacked, by dogs.
This kind of legal hunting is called ‘terrierwork’ – and the people who do it around the world call themselves ‘terriermen’.
As part of their investigation, the programme team found dozens of sites on social media networks dedicated to this type of legal hunting.
On one closed Facebook group dedicated to Patterdale Terriers - a popular dog breed used for terrierwork - the team find the convicted badger baiter boasting about the digs he has recently been on and about puppies he is breeding – despite his ban.
The discovery raises questions about the effectiveness of sentencing and how easily bans on owning dogs can be flouted.
A wildlife crime priority
Badger baiting is one of six wildlife crime priorities in the UK. But police forces don’t have to report incidents and their outcomes to the Home Office. This means the true scale of the crime is unknown – something Labour also wants to change.
In 2016 13 people across England and Wales were convicted in the courts with offences under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, according to the Ministry of Justice. In Wales, that figure was four.
But reporting of badger offences also appears to be low. Police aren’t required to record figures, but information compiled by charities suggests there were 18 reports of badger baiting in Wales over a 17-month period ending in 2017, and just four reports of dug badger setts.
In the programme Ian Briggs urges members of the public to report sightings of possible badger baiters to the RSPCA. He says: “They’re hidden away from public view, so it relies on us getting that information from friends, family, neighbours, who are aware of what these people are doing.”
The convicted badger baiter denied all the allegations, including that he owns dogs and that he hunts for badgers in the UK.
Catherine Harte is a contributing editor to The Ecologist. This story is based on a news release from BBC Wales.