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New Scientist - Badgers Biting Back

18 April 1998

By Stephanie Pain

A new weapon that could help win the war against the crime of badger baiting is being tested by police in Britain. By marking badgers with "Smart Water", an invisible solution with a unique chemical fingerprint, police can link suspects and their dogs to the crime. "This means we can identify anyone who has come into contact with a marked badger," says Steve Anderson, an inspector in the West Midlands Police.

The invisible marker, developed by Smartwater Europe of Telford, Shropshire, has already been successful in deterring other crimes. Shops known to be protected by Smart Water sprays triggered by intruders have reported a huge drop in attempted burglaries. The marker is also an effective way of stopping the theft of easily carried laptop computers or works of art, which are almost impossible to sell if they are marked. Now badgers will be similarly safeguarded. "We can identify which setts are vulnerable to diggers and provide them with the same sort of protection," says Anderson.

Badger baiting, in which a badger is pitted against fighting dogs, has been illegal throughout Britain since 1981. Since then the number of cases has fallen, but hardened groups of baiters still operate in some areas, often travelling a long way into the countryside from urban centres such as Merseyside. Nearby setts are practically "dug out", says Anderson. "Accessible setts are running out of badgers, so the diggers have to travel farther afield."

Police have always found it difficult to convict baiters, who are seldom caught with a badger. By the time officers reach a disturbed sett or baiting venue, the gang and their dogs are usually long gone.

So Anderson asked Smartwater if its researchers could develop a marker that would identify badgers and anyone who handled them. They came up with a polymer emulsion that glows under ultraviolet light and includes tiny amounts of chemical tracers. Each batch has a different "recipe" that can be used to identify a single sett.

The Forensic Science Service, which now makes the marker solutions under licence, can analyse marked cloth or hair and identify which batch--and thus which sett--the marker came from. The badgers are not harmed by the emulsion.

A suspect marked with a solution--particularly if it came from a sett some way off--would find it hard to explain away. "If it's apparent that the badger came from some distance and there are signs of digging there, you can make the link between the digging and the offence," says Anderson.

Badgers are not the first animals to benefit from such protection. Pheasants and pre-Christmas turkeys thought to be at risk from rustlers, exotic birds--even valuable bonsai trees--have all been marked in an attempt to foil thieves.

"We have created a deterrent in the minds of criminals. They are aware of the risks of Smart Water," says Phil Cleary, managing director of the company. "The message to baiters is: if you touch this badger we can prove it."

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