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Foxes, not badgers, to blame for most lamb deaths on Scottish farms and crofts

By John Davidson

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The study shows that foxes were to blame for predation on lambs on Scottish farms, not badgers. Picture: Adobe Stock
The study shows that foxes were to blame for predation on lambs on Scottish farms, not badgers. Picture: Adobe Stock

Foxes are being blamed for killing lambs on Scottish farms and crofts where badgers were suspected to be responsible.

Research was carried out on 27 farms where farmers suspected they had previously lost lambs to badger predation.

But the study, carried out by Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) in partnership with NatureScot, National Farmers Union Scotland (NFUS) and Scottish Land & Estates (SLE), shows that the likely culprits were farmers’ old adversary, the fox.

In spring 2022 and 2023, post-mortems were carried out on 29 carcasses from the participating farms to determine whether lambs had been killed and eaten (predated) or were fed on after death (scavenged).

Predation was confirmed in 48 per cent of lambs, 31 per cent were scavenged after death and predation could not be ruled out for the remaining 21 per cent.

DNA evidence from these 29 carcasses, plus 10 additional dead or injured lambs that were swabbed by farmers, was used to identify the species involved.

Fox DNA was present on 34 of the 39 lambs sampled (87 per cent), including all the lambs that showed evidence of predation.

Meanwhile, badger DNA was only detected on the partial remains of two lambs (5 per cent), but not on any of the carcasses submitted for post-mortem, or where predation was confirmed.

Dog DNA was also present on 12 lambs (31 per cent); however, the study suggested this was likely because of direct or indirect contact with farm dogs.

The results therefore suggest that foxes remain the most likely culprit for lamb predation where it occurs on Scottish farms, NatureScot said, and farmers facing lamb losses should examine their fox control measures.

Sheila George, wildlife biologist at SASA, 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.”

Donald Fraser, NatureScot’s head of wildlife management, said: “These findings begin to fill an important gap in our knowledge on lamb predation on Scottish farms and demonstrate the value of high-quality science and evidence in improving our understanding of interactions between wildlife and livestock.”

Peter Douglas from NFU Scotland said: “Losing lambs to predators and having adequate control measures in place to deal with predation is important to Scottish sheep farmers and crofters to minimise losses.

“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.”

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