A new study of badger behaviour on Northern Ireland farms found that badgers are more likely to visit farmyards in the spring and they head straight for the meal stores.
However, the study found that cats are the most likely visitor to farm yards, with 60% of the visits recorded being from them, followed by rodents at 19% and red foxes which made up 16% of farm visits.
For the first time, the activity of different wildlife species at night in farmyards in Northern Ireland has been reported by a Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) funded project in the North.
It was found that "when badgers visited farmyards they tended to repeatedly visit the same area and building types and had relatively short duration visits of less than two minutes".
"Badgers preferred to visit parts of the farmyard that were associated with feedstuff such as meal stores, and generally tended to avoid parts of the farmyards associated with cattle housing," the study states.
“In the most visited farmyard, 90% of badger visits were by the same individual badger, which corresponds to what we know about badger feeding behaviour – they tend to forage alone and not in groups” said Dr. O’Mahony.
"Badgers tended to visit farmyards more during spring and during periods of low temperature, which may be related to the availability of natural food resources," he said.
The study found that the other species frequently seen in farmyards were rats, mice, cats and foxes, all of which can carry various diseases.
“From a biosecurity standpoint these results highlight the need for increased awareness and proactive approaches to reduce wildlife intrusions into farmyards. This may reduce the potential for disease spread between wildlife species and livestock in farmyards, which can only help in terms of increasing overall cattle herd health,” Dr. O’Mahony said.
"The potential for the spread of diseases such as bovine tuberculosis between wildlife species, particularly badgers, and livestock on farmyards in Northern Ireland" was the motivation behind the project.
“Despite a very real concern about the levels of wildlife activity in farmyards and the potential that this may have in terms of the transmission of various diseases to livestock, we currently have no data on what wildlife species are entering farmyards, how often they visit and what their behaviour is in terms of contact with cattle,” Dr. Declan O’Mahony (AFBI), leader of the research project, said.
“We require basic information on the level of wildlife intrusion into farmyards so that we can assess its importance in terms of the potential for disease transmission and also to consider overall biosecurity levels,” he said.
DARD classifies farm biosecurity as "the prevention of disease causing agents entering or leaving farms where they can pose a risk to farm animals, other animals, humans, or the safety and quality of a food product".
Some 11 different farmyards from Co. Down were involved in the research and the farmyards were monitored over a year to determine badger activity primarily, but also other animal species intrusion levels, DARD says. It also says that it is the first study of its kind anywhere on the island of Ireland.
"With the support of local farmers who allowed us to place infra-red motion activated cameras at each building entrance in their farmyards we monitored wildlife activity at 83 farm buildings over the course of one year," Dr. O'Mahony said.
"They are triggered by movement and take a photograph with the date and time that it was taken, during the study over 500,000 images were taken," he said.
Dr. O'Mahony said that there was a lot of variation in terms of the number of times badgers visited farmyards. "Some farmyards were visited relatively often and others were not visited at all, which shows how it important it is to have local and site-specific knowledge on badger activity," he said.
The survey found that in four out of the 11 farmyards in the study, a badger visited on more than 10 nights throughout the 12 month study duration while two of the farmyards were not visited at all.