Fox hunt supporters 'routinely' blocking badger setts, leaving animals to suffocate or starve to death

Exclusive: Experts suggest crime is widespread and provides 'strong circumstantial evidence' that banned hunts continue to take place

How terrier men block the entrances to badger setts to enable fox-hunting

Fox hunt supporters are systematically blocking badger setts, leaving the legally protected mammals to slowly suffocate, campaigners said.

Volunteers said they filmed, photographed or noted nearly 150 cases of setts being blocked in and around the Cotswolds in the 2017-18 hunting season, and have sent a dossier to police.

But they believe such illegal activity is commonplace across the British countryside.

Hunt supporters are suspected of blocking setts to prevent foxes “going to ground” – escaping – while being chased by packs of hounds trained to target and savage them.

However, the 1992 Protection of Badgers Act made it an offence to kill a badger or damage, destroy, obstruct or disturb a badger’s home.

Observers say the alleged blocking of setts also offers circumstantial proof of widespread illegal fox hunting.

Since the 2004 Hunting Act was passed, hunts are permitted only to “trail hunt” – using a prelaid fox scent trail for hounds to follow. Badger setts do not need to be blocked for trail hunting.

Hunt monitors from Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Cirencester say they recorded 148 instances when the entrances to setts were covered over.

In many cases, they said they saw terriermen openly associated with hunts, unidentified men or masked men carrying out the blocking, either the evening before a hunt meet or on the morning of the hunt.

Terriermen traditionally accompany hunts. According to the League Against Cruel Sports, they normally following riders on quadbikes with terrier dogs in cages, which are used to flush out foxes that have gone underground.

There is no suggestion that representatives from the hunts were themselves involved in the alleged activity.

Photographs show that sometimes sett entrances are covered with just earth, leaves and twigs, but some have been seen blocked with compacted soil, heavy clay, building rubble, rocks, plastic drums, fence posts and other heavy objects that would be impossible for badgers underneath to move. The animals then become trapped and suffocate or starve to death.

Denise Ward, an anti-fox hunting volunteer, told The Independent: “We recorded over 140 blocked setts but we think our recordings could be the tip of the iceberg across Britain. We covered a small minority of hunt days and only covered a limited area, but it does give a clear picture of the incidence of badger sett blocking.

“Trail hunts do not necessitate blocking badger setts so this really exposes the myth that fox hunting no longer goes on.

“It means double cruelty to our native wildlife – to foxes and badgers.

“This strong circumstantial evidence of illegal hunting is not widely known among the public.”

Many of the sett blockings were in the official badger cull zone, increasing the threat to biosecurity, according to campaigners. It is well known that when badger families are disrupted through deaths, others move into the area.

Until hunting was outlawed in 2005, it was legal to temporarily block badger setts with soft soil or straw but the practice is still believed to be widespread across the UK.

Steve Harris, head of enforcement at the League Against Cruel Sports, said badgers would suffocate when entrances are blocked by heavy duty items if there were no other sett exits.

“Tunnels are no wider than a badger and one trying to dig its way out would have nowhere to put the soil. It would need to excavate around itself first,” he said.

“Sett interference is very widespread. It takes up more than half of reported incidents of badger persecution to the National Wildlife Crime Unit.

“Data shows a clear correlation between sett blocking and the hunting season – it peaks in the winter and drops in the summer, taking off again in autumn.”

The Independent asked the hunting group that the campaigners claim had the most evidence against it for comment.

One senior member said: “I have no evidence of what you are talking about. You should speak to the Masters of Foxhounds Association. I have no idea who you are – you could be anyone,” before terminating the call.

One of the joint honorary secretaries said: “We have a lot of these types of allegations, which are completely unfounded. The police are carrying out enquiries and no response has been made to us.”

A spokesperson for the Masters of Foxhounds Association said: “All of the hunts referred to regarding these allegations are members of the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA). The MFHA promotes hunting within the law and in accordance with the Hunting Act 2004.

"If a member of the public has evidence of offences being committed in relation to our membership, they should inform the police, who will conduct a proper investigation if they think there is sufficient evidence to do so.

“As an association, we are aware that allegations are regularly made or suggested online by anti-hunt groups and activists. They are generally without justification.

“If any of these allegations are investigated by the appropriate authorities, we anticipate that the hunts will deal with them. Certainly it would not be appropriate for them or us to respond to allegations through the medium of a news story.”

Gloucestershire Police, which received a copy of the monitors’ report, has also been contacted to establish whether it plans to act on the dossier.

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