Badgers cleared of lamb attacks after DNA tests show foxes to blame

Lambs have suffered especially serious injuries in recent attacks thought to have been carried out by badgers
Lambs have suffered especially serious injuries in recent attacks thought to have been carried out by badgers - Lee Hudson/Alamy

Badgers blamed by farmers for a spate of gruesome lamb attacks have been cleared after DNA evidence showed foxes were responsible.

An investigation was launched after badgers were blamed for a rising number of attacks on livestock, with especially serious injuries inflicted on lambs supposedly linked to the animals.

However, a study that examined DNA of 39 dead or injured lambs on Scottish farms where badger attacks had been suspected, pinned the blame on foxes.

Fox DNA was discovered on 34 of the 39 lambs examined, which also showed they had been killed by a predator rather than scavenged after death.

Traces of genetic material from badgers was found on only two of the lambs, but in neither case was it proven that they were responsible for the killing.

The results suggested that foxes were by far the “most likely culprit” for lamb deaths, the Government agency NatureScot said, as it urged farmers to focus their efforts on them rather than badgers.

A video of a badger attacking a lamb went viral in 2022, and surveys have shown farmers are becoming increasingly concerned about the problem.

Badger attacks ‘remain scarce’

But the study said that evidence to support claims that badger attacks on lambs were a major problem “remains scarce”.

Sheila George, wildlife biologist at Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA), which carried out the study, said: “Livestock predation can be particularly distressing for farmers but identifying the predator from field signs can be challenging.

“Combining post-mortem and DNA evidence, we found that puncture wounds around the head, neck and throat, and associated bleeding, were a good indicator that fox predation had occurred.

“Despite the abundance of badgers on the study farms, we did not find DNA evidence that they killed lambs or regularly scavenged carcasses.

“The findings should help inform livestock managers and their predator control plans.”

The study involved 27 farms in Aberdeenshire, Dumfries and Galloway, Lothian and the Scottish Borders, during lambing season in 2022 and 2023.

Almost 60 per cent of the farmers who took part in a survey said they believed they had lost lambs to badgers in the past year.

However, none had actually witnessed a badger attack. They believed the extent of the injuries implicated badgers, citing stripped carcasses and organs being removed from their lambs.

For those who had been killed, carcasses were examined for DNA and vets carried out post-mortems to find out which animal had attacked them, or whether they had been scavenged after dying from another cause.

In cases where lambs had suffered extensive injuries, which farmers blamed on badgers, fox DNA was discovered.

Dog DNA was discovered in nearly a third of cases, though this was put down to contact with farm animals.

The study concluded: “The findings strongly suggest that even in situations where badgers are suspected of lamb predation, foxes are the primary culprit.

“For farmers and shepherds, this means that a thorough review of their fox control regime should be a key response to prevent such losses.”

The National Farmers Union (NFU) in Scotland, which had previously raised concerns about badger attacks, said it would brief members about the findings.

Peter Douglas, an NFU official, said: “We thank NatureScot and SASA for undertaking this small-scale study and for the farmers and crofters who helped out.

“The rising number of badgers means we need to continue to explore their impact on farming and wildlife.

“The impact of fox predation is well known and, as we head into lambing, this study highlights the importance of identifying the cause of losses and what control options for foxes are available.”

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