A survey of badger setts by more than 300 members of the two Welsh farming unions has indicated a very significant increase in numbers.

The joint FUW and NFU Cymru, initiative covered more than 25,500ha of Welsh land. Participating farmers provided information on changes in the number of large and small setts over the last 30 years.

Results showed a massive jump in the number of both, with an average of 2.46 large setts/square kilometre in 2006 compared with 1.49 in 1996 and just 1.19  in 1986.

The survey also found that the number of smaller setts had risen by 133% during the last 20 years.

Nine out of 10 respondents believed that the badger population had increased during the last ten years, while more than 70% of these believed that numbers had increased greatly. Just 9% had experienced static or declining numbers.

Respondents were also given the opportunity to comment on positive and negative effects of badgers on their businesses and some highlighted the personal pleasure they enjoyed from seeing the animals.

However, 92% admitted experiencing problems, with 64% claiming damage to fields and 30% reported that badgers were killing lambs. Some 23% cited damage to hedgerows and field boundaries and 18% linked increased badger numbers to bovine tuberculosis on their farms.

Almost 20% were concerned about the danger that badger setts represented to livestock and vehicles, and some sent photographs of serious accidents caused by vehicles falling into collapsed setts.

The degree of concern expressed by farmers in different counties reflected local TB problems. In disease hot spots 16% of FUW members and 23% of NFU Cymru members expressed concern that infected badgers spread TB to cattle.

Dai Davies, NFU Cymru President said: “This exercise shows that farmers have witnessed a significant increase in the badger population, particularly in recent years. Whilst farmers wanted to see a countryside rich in wildlife, unfortunately badgers did give rise to a number of problems as reflected in the response by survey participants.”

Farmers were required to abide by statutory management requirements and to maintain their farms in good agricultural and environmental condition, but this was becoming increasingly difficult in some areas where badgers are digging up fields, damaging hedgerows and destroying crops.

Gareth Vaughan, FUW president said that farmers had enjoyed sharing the land with badgers for thousands of years, but over the last three decades their numbers had risen dramatically to the extent that they were now causing a wide range of problems. 

“Many respondents had witnessed damage to bio-diversity caused by rising badger numbers, which mirrors evidence gathered by scientists regarding the current impact of badgers on other wildlife.”

He too pointed out that farmers were required to abide by strict human safety and animal health and welfare rules – yet the survey highlighted many ways in which badgers could compromise these rules.

The survey results are to be presented to the Welsh Assembly.

But the Badger Trust was quick to criticise the survey, labelling it “silly” and without any scientific validation.

“This silly survey has no scientific validity at all and is just another sorry attempt to put the boot into badgers.

“The survey is fatally flawed for two key reasons.  First, it has no proper baseline: farmers were asked to remember details about setts from up to 20 years ago and distant memories are notoriously unreliable sources of evidence.

“Second, the survey has not been ground-truthed: a random sample of returns should have been checked on the ground to confirm that they are accurate.  With so much hatred towards badgers stirred up by the farming unions, there is a significant risk that some respondents maliciously exaggerated their feedback.”

“The final nail in the coffin of this silly survey is that it completely contradicts the findings of the last national badger survey, which was undertaken using robust field survey methods.   That survey in Wales found 0.316 main setts per square kilometre in 1988 and 0.358 per square kilometre in 1997.  In contrast, farmers responding to the farming unions’ survey remembered up to four times more large setts from the same periods.  That’s just not realistic and strongly suggests that this latest survey is a gross exaggeration.”

The Badger Trust also dismissed claims that 30 per cent of farmers claimed to have had lambs killed by badgers.  “It’s vindictive nonsense,” commented Trevor Lawson.  “Britain’s leading authority on badgers reports that lamb killing is ‘extremely rare’.  Exposure and disease are far more significant risk factors for lambs.   Badgers might then scavenge the carcasses and be wrongly accused as the culprits.”