British badgers are more terrified of the BBC than they are of bears and wolves

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 July, 2016, 2:08pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 July, 2016, 2:08pm

Armed with a speaker system and a bucket full of peanuts, wildlife ecologist Lianna Zanette hiked into the Wytham Woods with just one mission: to terrorise some woodland creatures with recordings of the BBC.

For five nights, she broadcast snippets of BBC documentaries and news programs - as well as clips from the Canadian radio show Quirks and Quarks and the audiobook of The Wind in the Willows - to a forest full of unsuspecting English badgers. She and her colleagues then monitored the animals’ response to the sounds in order to measure how much they feared humans.

“Oh, I don’t want to be dissing public radio and television,” Zanette hurriedly insisted when asked whether she thought the BBC was frightening. She laughed, “I had all these clips on hand because it’s what I love to listen to.”

These animals live amongst us for heaven’s sakes,. And to find they’re really terrified of us is really incredible
Lianna Zanette

Zanette, a professor at Western University in Ontario, has spent much of her career studying “the landscape of fear,” how animals’ anxiety about getting eaten by predators shapes their behaviour and in turn, shapes the ecosystem in which they live. She’s used a similar methodology - playing predator sounds through a speaker system, then watching to see how animals respond - at least a dozen times before. Then, last year, she read a study in Science claiming that humans had become a “superpredator,” killing mesocarnivores (mostly meat eaters) like badgers four times as much as non-human predators do.

“So badgers should be really afraid of us,” Zanette said.

Based on the results of her experiment in the Wytham Woods, a forest near the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, they certainly are. When confronted with two hours of BBC footage, the majority of badgers stayed hidden inside their burrows, waiting for the human sounds to vanish. Those that did venture out to a food patch - a bucket full of peanuts prepared by the scientists - were watchful and hesitant, spending as much time with their heads in the air listening for predators as they did looking down at their meal.

By comparison, the animals showed no response to audio of howling wolves, which once preyed on badgers but were driven to extinction in the UK about five centuries ago. They reacted slightly to the sounds of bears, which disappeared from England 1,000 years agoand to dogs, which still harass badgers in British forests. And when subjected to sounds of a control group, sheep, the badgers quite sensibly ignored the braying .

“It’s really quite extraordinary,” Zanette said of the results, which were published in Behavioral Ecology this week. “We weren’t expecting this massive response.”

Technically speaking, badgers should have nothing to fear from people. They are a protected species in Britain - a 1992 act made it illegal to willfully kill, injure, take or cruelly ill-treat one of the mustelids. But it’s estimated that 10,000 British badgers are killed every year for “sports” like badger baiting and digging. And a 2013 survey found that one in eight British farmers kill badgers each year.

“These animals live amongst us for heaven’s sakes,” Zanette continued. “And to find they’re really terrified of us is really incredible.”