When you think of iconic British mammal species, you may well think of the badger. Distinctive, social animals with awesome digging capability, only the wild boar trumps them as Britain’s current largest land predator. Persecuted by some, beloved by many, badgers hold huge cultural significance in the UK. Their setts can be huge and extend for long distances underground and some setts can be more than 100 years old.
Badgers and their setts are protected by law under the Badger Protection Act 1992, which makes it a criminal offence to knowingly disturb badgers in their setts, or to destroy or damage a sett. Natural England does issue licences to close (temporarily or permanently) badger setts, but in order to obtain a licence any developer needs to be sure they have up to date and accurate information about badger setts on or around their site, and clear plans to avoid or mitigate harm to badgers. If not then they run the risk of prosecution by the police under the Act.
It won’t surprise anyone who knows this area to discover that there is extensive evidence of badger activity, and visible badger setts, throughout the woodland surrounding Merrow Downs, including close to, and on, the Urnfield site. Tormead’s ecologists identified 2 setts in their original survey. One of these was incorrectly mapped in their drawings, however, placing it much further away from the construction zone than it actually was. We pointed this out back in March and it was finally corrected, meaning that this sett will now be included in Tormead’s applications for a licence to close the setts during construction.
Over the summer we noticed a number of newly dug spoil heaps and badger holes that seemed not to have been logged by Tormead’s ecologists. We put some temporary wildlife camera traps up over several of the badger setts and got some great images…
The exact location of setts is not supposed to be made public knowledge, so we won’t put any details here. Suffice to say the number of setts, and evidence of activity throughout the woodland bordering the Urnfield, was significantly more than Tormead’s ecologists suggested.
We pulled together all of our evidence during August and submitted it to GBC’s planning department. Within the day, Tormead’s ecologists (who happened to be in the area, apparently) did a walk through the woodland, confirming our findings of several additional setts. All of these need to be included in the plans submitted as part of the licence application. They all need to be closed to ensure badgers are not injured, trapped in their setts or killed during construction at the Urnfield.
So what we are wondering is….why did it take a group of interested amateurs to point this out? If we hadn’t taken the photos and mapped the additional setts, how many badgers might have been at risk once construction starts? And Tormead’s badger survey was questioned by Surrey Wildlife Trust back in March when it asked Guildford Borough Council, “…are there other setts present in the area…?” and advised GBC that it needed to be confident badger territory would not be negatively impacted by the temporary closure of one of the setts.
Following their recent visit, Tormead’s ecologists have accepted that all of the extra setts are there, throughout the woodland on and off the Urnfield site, but that they are minor ones (“outliers”, in badger sett terminology). That means they can all be closed without interfering with the badgers, because they can use a main sett somewhere else. Exactly where that somewhere else is, no one knows. Not us, not Tormead’s ecologists, it seems. Yet a reliance on this main sett (wherever it is) is a core plank of their application to close all the setts we DO know about.
Yet again, we are simply asking our local authority, the developer and its agents, to do their jobs properly. We are not convinced that all of the setts we know about are outliers. A full badger activity survey of the entire area needs to be done, and the main sett, if these are not it, needs to be located. That would enable a proper mitigation plan to be developed, minimising the risk of construction activity contravening the Badger Protection Act and ensuring the safety of Merrow’s badgers.