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MAFF Ministry at centre of badger bodge

Isle of Wight News - January 1998

Note:- For the preceding article, click this link.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has come under fire for its role in the eviction of a family of badgers - a protected species - from a massive sett under the tracks of one of Britain's most popular steam railways.

A badger protection group which had been monitoring the sett has accused the Ministry of advising on the destruction of the sett in a totally insensitive fashion - including lighting fires at the entrances, and methods which drove the creatures out under terror.

Now the badger protection group - based on the Isle of Wight - wants the Ministry to review its policy over the way it handles badger sett evictions. Minister Dr Jack Cunningham has been asked to intervene.

They say they were shocked over the way the Ministry failed to consult them, even though they had very detailed knowledge of the sett and its inhabitants.

It has been revealed it cost the Isle of Wight Steam Railway around 13,000 to have the badgers relocated from sett beneath the tracks of its five-mile line. The sett was causing sinking and instability on the line, which winds through picturesque countryside.

The sett was discovered in a section of embankment over which trains carrying tens of thousands of tourists chug each year.

Commercial director of the railway at Havenstreet, Jim Loe, said: "The erosion of the embankment was getting so bad we had to investigate. When we saw the size of the holes we knew it was badgers underneath. "We called in the Ministry of Agriculture, who advised us to carry out repair work under their supervision so the badgers could move out to a new site about half-a-mile down the line." But badger protection group spokesman, Brian Masterton said they were amazed over the way the work was carried out under the advice of the Ministry, which licensed the work.

"The steam railway was aware of the badger sett more than two years ago when the then chief civil engineer announced that he intended to fill it in. He was advised that such an act would be illegal under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 and that such an act could render the steam railway liable to prosecution. "He was also advised to contact the badger group, and in due course the track supervisor contacted our field officer and together they visited the sett. It was agreed that the main sett posed no problems to the steam railway."

But Mr Masterton revealed that much to their surprise they later learnt the sett was to be destroyed - under licence approved by the Ministry.

"The initial stages of destroying the badger sett comprised removal of the trees and foliage and excessive trampling of the spoil outside each of the entrances, the dumping of debris in the entrances and the lighting of fires near to two entrances - all of which was not necessary, particularly as the badgers still had fairly young cubs with them.

"The family was still in the sett while the destruction was being carried out and the badgers were forced out under terror. Under such conditions of obvious stress, badgers have been known to remain in a sett for up to one month, too frightened to venture out." Mr Masterton also said there was no replacement sett.

"There are a number of entrances which are known as outliers and sub-setts in the vicinity, but there is no proof that these are occupied by the same group of badgers from the displaced sett. "Having forced the badgers out of their home, crude wooden and wire one-way gates were placed in each of the six entrances in the sett."

Mr Masterton described the style of removal of the badgers as "a lack of consideration to an animal protected by law". He said the badger group had questioned MAFF as to the manner of the exclusion, and the stress it placed on the family of badgers. "MAFF has failed to answer specific questions posed to them by the badger group as it appears to have a policy of not disclosing details of licences to third parties, which unfortunately they consider badger protection groups to be.

"More often than not the badger groups have more local knowledge and expertise than MAFF. MAFF's lack of co-operation and lengthy delay in responding to queries has led the badger group to write the Minister, Jack Cunningham, asking him to alter the manner in which MAFF deals with the exclusion of badgers.

"The provision for proper surveys of badger activity prior to, during and after exclusion, and the provision of a receptor sett are highly desirable to prevent a repeat of the questionable manner in which this exclusion was carried out. "It should be noted that such problems are not just confined to the Isle of Wight, but are of concern to badger groups on a national scale."

The railway's commercial director, Mr Jim Loe, defended the need for the work to be carried out. "The repair work had to be carried out for the safety of our passengers, the damage was too severe to ignore. When we started work on stabilising the section of track, we found there was a honeycomb of tunnels which went on for about 50ft."

"There have since been no sightings of the badgers near the old sett, and we believe they have gradually moved to a bank in a cutting further down the line.

"All the work was carried out to the letter of the law protecting badgers. A representative of the Ministry of Agriculture was present whenever we undertook any work at all.

"Since discovering the sett we were forced to bring in up to 40 tonne loads of ballast to stabilise the track, which had been sinking as a result of the activities of the badgers. "We were granted a Ministry of Agriculture licence for the work. We were concerned over the welfare of the animals so the Ministry gave us the idea of special one-way trapdoors to ensure the creatures were not trapped - after all one of the reasons why people ride on the trains is the vast array of wildlife we have in the area."

The badger is commonplace on the Isle of Wight, with the badger protection group estimating the resident population at 1,500 of the nocturnal mammals.

The Island's badgers were given special extra protection after the local council introduced an English Nature-backed scheme earlier this year which ensured the location of all known setts were kept secret.

A MAFF spokesman said its recommended procedures were designed to ensure no badgers were in a sett when work was carried out.

"The Environment Information Regulations of 1992 mean that MAFF may only disclose details relating to the environment as part of an application for a licence to interfere with a sett, if the applicant consents to this disclosure."

"Under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 it is an offence to kill or take a badger or interfere with a sett, but the act does allow for licenses to be issued to interfere with a sett for the purpose of preventing serious damage to property."

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