Sunday 26 October 2014

Hungry badgers willing to 'do time' for tasty morsels

Published 27/07/2014 | 02:30

Badger

IRISH badgers taken into custody by wildlife researchers who wanted to track them using satellite technology became so "trap happy" that they were caught again and again, and sometimes discovered fast asleep in the cages after gorging on tasty bait.

Three male badgers in particular became regular visitors to the traps and were caught seven, eight and nine times.

And even after they were captured, the badgers remained in the area despite, on their first capture, undergoing an anaesthetic, being weighed, measured and assessed, vaccinated by injection against TB, having a GPS collar fitted and a small identification tattoo inked on the inside of their right hind leg. They were then micro-chipped and released.

The special collars sent text messages four times a night giving the badgers' locations to satellites overhead.

The study was carried out to find out what impact the construction of a new major road has on the resident badger population and if their subsequent behaviour has a role in the spread of TB - endemic in the Irish badger population - to cattle.

What researchers discovered is that Irish badgers are not only genetically distinct from their kindred across the Irish Sea but also have a completely different diet and temperament.

Irish badgers tend to get on with the inhabitants in neighbouring setts, with fewer of the vicious territorial disputes that wildlife researchers uncovered in Britain, where there is a higher population density of the mammals.

Scars and wounds evident on British male badgers were generally not as common among their Irish brethren - though they regularly explored neighbouring territory.

And Irish badgers like to wander. Some individuals travelled nearly six kilometres on their nightly patrols.

The study involved three agencies: the Department of Agriculture, National Parks and Wildlife and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. It's part of continuing scientific studies to learn more about the role of badgers in the spread of bovine TB.

The study found that major roads do act as boundaries for badgers, and they treat them as hazards.

While they will cross minor roads regularly, they do not like crossing motorways or dual-carriageways.

In fact, the study found that being run over by a vehicle is a major cause of death. There is evidence from more recent research that the annual death rate of badgers on Irish roads is equal to what would be considered by naturalists as a viable "starter" population of the species.

The re-trapping of the same badgers on multiple occasions suggests that they did not find the experience particularly distressing.

Researchers considered whether the anaesthetic used, ketamine hydrochloride, induced amnesia.

However, there is evidence that even those badgers that became "trap happy" eventually learned to avoid the cage traps.

The role of badgers in the spread of TB and the culling of them to help control the disease is a controversial issue.

A decision by the Department of Agriculture to continue a culling programme angered wildlife groups.

Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney believes culling is cost effective and has reduced the level of TB in cattle. The disease causes significant problems for farm families around the country.

The number of cattle tested positive for TB, known as "reactors," has declined almost 50pc, from about 30,000 in 2008 to 15,600 in 2013.

The prevalence of TB in the Republic is roughly half that found in Northern Ireland, where culling is not practised.

Taxpayer savings have been significant. In 2008, the TB Eradication Scheme cost €55m but that had fallen to €30m by last year.

Mr Coveney said the ultimate aim is to incorporate badger vaccination into the Irish TB eradication programme.

The hunt is on for a vaccine that can be successfully administered orally. Field trials are continuing.

Sunday Independent

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