My PhD research seeks to better understand the behavioural ecology of the badger, Meles meles, which is a protected species in Ireland. Badgers are of particular interest because they act as a wildlife reservoir of tuberculosis (TB), a disease that can be transmitted to cattle. As part of the management strategy for TB in cattle, the Department of Agriculture, Food and The Marine (DAFM) has conducted research into effective vaccination of badgers against the disease, and have recently announced its inclusion in the national TB eradication programme.
The success of any management strategy is dependent on understanding the behavioural ecology of the animals involved. In particular, their movements within the environment play an important role in disease transmission. However, badgers are nocturnal and live in under-ground systems known as setts. They are therefore quite difficult to study well. To this end an ambitious research project by DAFM and National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) commenced in 2010 which used satellite tracking to record the nightly movements of over 80 badgers in an agricultural area through which a major road realignment took place (MacWhite et al. 2013).
To date, the team has made important findings in relation to badger behaviour. Badgers will actively avoid pasture when cattle are present (Mullen et al. 2013), and they will also actively avoid entering farmyards, particularly cattle yards (Mullen et al. 2015).
Most recently, we have published a paper describing a previously unrecognised ranging strategy in a cohort of male badgers, that we have termed “super-rangers”.
All of our findings have implications for our understanding of TB transmission between badgers and cattle, providing evidence that it follows an indirect route, and identifying priority individuals that vaccination should target in order to be effective and efficient.
I joined the project in 2014. My PhD work involves analysing the GPS data and conducting fieldwork to investigate three broad areas:
- Territorial ranging behaviour before, during and after the road realignment - does an environmental disturbance of this magnitude have a perturbation effect on the social groups adjacent to it? Specifically, I am examining the impact of the roadworks on nightly distances moved and on extra-territorial excursions, and whether or not the size and position social group territories change in response to the road upgrade.
- The timing and patterns of dispersal in badgers - when does it happen, are there differences between the sexes, and how might these differences relate to inbreeding avoidance? This aspect of the project examines both movement and genetic data.
- Nightly foraging behaviour of badgers, specifically to investigate site preferences i.e. why a badger might prefer to forage in one pasture field, but avoid the one next to it despite no apparent differences between the pastures?
I anticipate that the improved understanding of badger movement ecology resulting from these analyses will be used to inform more efficient and effective TB management strategies, including farm biosecurity and badger vaccine delivery.
To find out more about our research and about badgers themselves, you can listen to a radio interview I gave recently here (@19:19 mins in) and watch us in the field on ‘Living The Wildlife’ by Colin-Stafford Johnson here.
Gaughran A, Kelly DJ, MacWhite T, Mullen E, Maher P, Good M, et al. (2018) Super-ranging. A new ranging strategy in European badgers. PLoS ONE 13(2): e0191818. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0191818
Mullen, E.M., MacWhite, T., Maher, P.K., Kelly, D.J., Marples, N.M. & Good, M. (2015) The avoidance of farmyards by European badgers Meles meles in a medium density population. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 171, 170–176.
Mullen, E.M., MacWhite, T., Maher, P.K., Kelly, D.J., Marples, N.M. & Good, M. (2013) Foraging Eurasian badgers Meles meles and the presence of cattle in pastures. Do badgers avoid cattle? Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 144, 130–137.
MacWhite, T., Maher, P., Mullen, E., Marples, N. & Good, M. (2013) Satellite tracking study of badgers (Meles meles) to establish normal ranging behaviour prior to a road realignment. The Irish Naturalists Journal, 32, 99–105.
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