Badgers like to steer clear of cattle, satellite tracking shows

TCD zoologists place collars carrying devices on 50 nocturnal foragers in Wicklow

Badger culls have been used to try to stop the spread of TB, but this method of disease control has been criticised by animal welfare groups, particularly in the UK. File photograph: Getty Images

Badger culls have been used to try to stop the spread of TB, but this method of disease control has been criticised by animal welfare groups, particularly in the UK. File photograph: Getty Images

 

Not even badgers are safe from the prying eyes of Big Brother.

Zoologists from Trinity College Dublin are using GPS tracking technology in Co Wicklow to follow the animals’ night time activities.

The monitoring has discovered they travel long distances and appear to avoid contact with cattle where possible.

Badgers carry tuberculosis (TB) and can spread it to cattle, which must then be disposed of, so the researchers are hoping to use the information they glean to help devise a more effective TB vaccination programme.

Badger culls have been used to try to stop the spread of TB, but this method of disease control has been criticised by animal welfare groups, particularly in the UK.

Associate professor in zoology Dr Nicola Marples said the team had put collars carrying satellite tracking devices on 50 badgers and were getting information from more than 40 of these.

Nocturnal creatures

Badgers are nocturnal creatures, mostly coming out of their setts only at night to forage, patrol their territories and meet the opposite sex.

These collars automatically send a text to the research team at least four times a night, pinpointing their locations. They show how far badgers roam each night, how often they enter farmyards and to what extent they avoid fields when cattle are grazing in them.

She said the study had found badgers clearly avoided fields if cattle were present. “If it’s a field they like, they will return when the cows are not there,” she said.

“We’ve found that they travel a long way at night. One badger had gone 9km in three hours, so they can go a hell of a long way if they decide they want to.

“A couple of females have travelled far away from the research area, way down south. They can run quite fast, as you’ll see if you are driving and they cross the road.”

She said the research had found badgers actively avoided all kinds of farmyard, but seemed to be less averse to yards with horses. “It looks like they really evolved to avoid cattle,” she said.

TB transmissible

TB is transmissible between the two species.

How is the disease transmitted? Dr Marples said it was certain TB was transmitted by badgers as TB rates fell after badger culls, “but it’s not clear how exactly the disease transmission between badgers and cattle takes place – whether the badgers have to be very close to the cattle, or inside a building, or whether the cattle can catch it from badger bedding, faeces or urine left in the pasture.

“This is one of the questions the badger tracking may help to answer.”

Dominant males

She said the ideal solution would be to transfer a vaccine to badgers in their food, “but that is harder than it sounds, given that dominant male badgers would be likely to eat the lot if it was placed indiscriminately. The data we have will hopefully let us devise a plan to achieve maximum coverage in our badgers.”

The study, involving participation by the Department of Agriculture and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, is expected to continue for another two years.

“The study has been running for four years now and we have built up one of the largest data sets of badger movements ever collected,” Dr Marples said.