While some farmers loathe badgers moving onto their land, a Tierworker couple have built an artificial sett to try to actually coax the mammals onto their farm.
On a secluded hillside of their 43-acre farm on the Cavan-Meath border, Donna Mullen and her partner Brian Keeley have devoted a substantial plot for their badger home.
“Badger setts are under our feet,” Donna says with a tap of her wellies on the crumbly soil, beneath which are three chambers built from plywood connected by large plastic tubes acting as access points. Another large tube leads to a dead end blocked by soil, in case the badgers go all Dermot Bannon and want to build their own extension. The chambers are stuffed with straw for bedding.
Aside from four vertical black plastic pipes prodding up shin-high from the crumbly soil, and the open black maws of a three tubes peaking out from the surface, the sett has blended in with its surrounds very well since its construction as the climax to an environmental mini-festival the couple hosted over a weekend last October. It will be even less conspicuous with the passage of time as they encourage gorse and scrub to take over, providing the cover badgers crave.
Donna's uncertain whether these man-made setts will be successful. Donna used this technique to help badgers whose sett was disturbed by construction work on Dublin's River Dodder, through her work as a director with Green Foundation Ireland.
“We've seen them being used when their sett is destroyed, whereas this is quite new, to see if they will use it even when they have the alternative of their own sett.”
The tell tale sign of badger habitation would be if any of the bedding has been bundled out the entrance and, as yet, the sett remains vacant. Given the trouble this reporter had in locating this Maio farm (pronounced Mayo), where phone reception is a thing of legend, it's no surprise the badgers have yet to find this sett. Not so says Donna.
“We've put it on a badger track, we know the badgers come through here,” she says pointing to a depression in the foliage and nearby hedgerow.
“The main thing that we look for would be to get it [the chamber] dry, because around here it's hard for badgers to get anywhere dry. We would imagine a fox would move in first, that's usually the way things would happen and then, hopefully, we'll get a badger.”
The tube-stumps rising from the ground are covered with plastic wrapping to prevent rain seeping in, and are there for future use.
“If ever badgers move in, we can drop in a Go Pro camera down for filming.”
The Celt wonders why badgers would need help in building a sett.
“Nothing we do will ever replace what they build themselves. But at the same time badgers are under threat and they are killed left right and centre, so it would be nice to have a place, which would be safe. So if they come here, they're welcome, they're safe.”
The Celt last week revealed that 1,100 badgers have been culled by the department in County Cavan in the last five years as part of their efforts to eradicate TB.
“The whole issue of TB,” says Donna, “it hasn't been shown how badgers transmit, or even if badgers transmit, TB. Certainly they pick it up with the cattle but all the data shows they don't come close enough to the cattle to breathe it into the cattle's lungs.”
She claims that for the transmission of the disease, an infected badger would need to come within a metre of a cow.
“They have done studies with the radio tag collars on the badgers and the cattle and they haven't ever come close enough, they haven't even shared water drinkers. So we just think they are getting a bad press over nothing, and they themselves are suffering, and it's a shame because it's another bit of our wildlife which is precious really – we haven't got that many large mammals in Ireland – and the badgers are one of our key animals.”
The couple are convinced that their neighbours are generally supportive of their attempts to lure badgers onto their land.
“There probably is a percentage who think we're crazy,” says Donna, “but loads of the neighbours came and helped to build the sett. One neighbour had a digger and did all the work for free.”
Donna and her partner Brian are environmentalists, who followed their dream of escaping the “concrete jungle” of Dublin and bought this patch of drumlin paradise cheaply at auction during the foot and mouth crisis.“It'll be great excitement if we ever get a badger to use it. They're all waiting to see what's next on the farm.”
The couple are in the midst of creating a rugged mini-Eden, with a wild forest meadow yet to rise from its winter slumber, acres galore under willow for bio fuel, and a wet land to attract newts. They also accept hedgehogs from the sanctuary, for reintroduction to the wild. Rescue chickens have also been rehomed here.
“When they came in the winter they were completely bald, so a friend of mine made coats for them – then her sister who lives in Scotland made tartan ones – so they looked so odd – but it was good because we could tell them apart having different coats on.”
On the way up to the sett we passed a field of kale, which won't produce seeds until next year, yet birds are flitting between leaves to gorge on the insects. It's part of the seven and a half acres of crops such as oats and linseed they are growing as part of the GLAS scheme for birds to feast on the seeds. The badger sett is just the latest in a series of projects to create a wilderness.
Donna has a lot of patience when it comes to their nature schemes. “We’re not expecting them to move in straight away, this could take years,” she says of attracting badgers.
“We put in a pond down there for the newts and that took four years for the newts to come. They are actually living in old wellies; the kids were down looking for frogs, and there was a newt there, we were so excited.”
“Every year we try a different species, so we had the newts, we had the bats, we had the badgers – I don't know what's next, maybe pine marten boxes might be next on the list.”