They talk in hushed voices, boasting of the bravery of their dogs, which invariably have bits of their faces missing. Ears have been torn off, noses sliced in half and eyes gouged. The more war-torn the dogs, the tougher their owners consider themselves to be. "Trophies", or "medals", they call the facial injuries.
Once assembled, the men approach their target, tramping over fields and through hedgerows to a previously pinpointed site - a badger sett. They send in the dogs to corner the animal before digging away the roof of the chamber.
The chances are that the badger will be carted off in a sack to a nearby warehouse or barn to fight a duel with dogs in a makeshift pit, watched by the lamplit faces of betting punters. Such clandestine fights, in which neither badger nor dog stands much of a chance of escaping without serious injury, can carry a weighty purse and are worth risking the wrath of country bobbies. Books making thousands of pounds have been known.
If not removed for baiting, the badger will be attacked at the sett by the dogs, purely for the delectation of those present - with no betting involved. And just to make sure their dogs are not killed in combat (one terrier is rarely a match for the sharp claws of a furious cornered badger) such men will disable the wild animal, usually by shooting it in the leg. If a badger manages to get free of the sett it will be caught in the blinding lights and stunned into submission by the beam.
Whatever the badger's final destination, it will die; it will be killed either by a pack of terriers, or from its injuries, or from gunshot wounds.
This is the secret face of badger persecution, and it is on the increase again in fields and woodland throughout the country, according to the Federation of Badger Groups.
The exact number of illegal killings is impossible to calculate because these crimes, which contravene the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, are not among those collated by the Home Office, despite calls from wildlife police officers for them to be included.
However, according to intelligence being gathered by the Federation, which represents 85 local groups, their recent estimate of 10,000 baiting deaths a year is rising. It already accounts for a significant chunk of the adult population of about 250,000 badgers.
Despite a number of high-profile cases and increased punishments concerning baiting, the crimes continue. One reason could be publicity linking badgers to the spread of TB in cattle, a connection that is still unsubstantiated.
Elaine King, of the Federation, believes that as a result of this demonisation of badgers, their persecution has become "decriminalised" and some people even think they are doing farmers a favour by killing them. "People are under the illusion that badgers have lots of cubs and that the population is increasing all the time, but this is not true," says Dr King.
"A pair will have maybe two or three cubs at the most in a litter, and on average only one of those will survive to adulthood. Since all the media publicity about the supposed link between them and TB in cattle, they have been increasingly under threat as people have started to think of them as vermin, even though this link has never been proved," she explains.
Although the badger is one of Britain's best loved mammals, it is no stranger to cruelty. Baiting has gone on for 100 years and more, and has traditionally been most popular in mining districts. South Yorkshire, County Durham and Derbyshire are still among the counties with the highest incidence of baiting.
However, according to campaigners and police wildlife officers, the majority of today's baiters are urban men who travel out to the countryside to indulge in their pastime.
David Dunne, who has campaigned against badger persecution for many years, and jointly runs the Ryedale Badger Group in North Yorkshire, says: "It's always been a very macho thing, and I would say it is 95 per cent town and city people who come out to the country to do it.
"We know a lot of people who come out from Leeds, York and Sheffield, even Middlesbrough sometimes, and one man is very well known - he travels each weekend from Leeds to the West Country to dig badgers.
"If you can get pounds 40 or pounds 50 for selling a badger to organised baits, then that will pay for your petrol and you've had a good weekend out in the country.
"I can understand them enjoying being out there on a crisp night. They'll see all sorts of things that the public don't normally see - deer, foxes, badgers. They've got the world to themselves, and they can stand back and watch their dogs go about their business.
"But why in God's name do they want to dig out and hurt these creatures for sport? That is what I cannot understand."
Whatever the appeal of badger-baiting, it is practised by what appears to be a growing number of people who are doing much to eradicate Britain's badger population, and are testing the resources of the wildlife officers who patrol our hedgerows.Reuse content