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What do whales, dolphins and porpoises have in common with badgers?

For those of you not familiar with the humble badger – do you remember the Harry Potter books and the school house of Hufflepuff? Well … the badger is the emblem of the Hufflepuff house in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There are eight different species of badger found in a variety of places around the world including Europe and the USA, yet none are quite as striking as the European badger with their distinctive black and white striped faces.

The badger is considered an iconic species of the British countryside and has been in the news a lot of late, given the UK Government’s controversial decision to trial a cull of badgers in the belief that this will have an impact on the spread of bovine TB (bTB). Opponents of the cull claim the cull has been and will be not only costly to the UK tax-payer but also completely ineffective in controlling bTB and instead of blaming badgers for the spread of bTB cite poor cattle management, inadequate disease-prevention measures on farms, and massive movements of cattle from farm to farm as the real culprit. If we’ve learnt one thing about badgers in the past months, it’s that the science isn’t there to support a cull and the British public feel very strongly about protecting the little furry black and white mammals that scurry about at night.

So, back to the point of the blog … what do whales, dolphins and porpoises have in common with these terrestrial dwelling mammals? Answer: They’re all being affected by wind-farms.

Humans living in the vicinity of wind farms have over the years reported ill health including headaches and nausea yet despite the first onshore wind-farm having been constructed in the UK back in 1951 minimal research has been undertaken on the effects of these turbines on humans and/or terrestrial animals. Researchers recently decided to investigate by trying to find out if animals living near wind turbines were exhibiting any kind of stress and decided that by measuring the levels of cortisol (a hormone released in times of stress) in badgers (it could have been any species but badgers were the chosen species) they would get a valid picture of their stress levels over time.

Although the paper has not yet been published initial results were presented at the recent Mammal Society student conference in Birmingham. In brief, researchers tested the amount of cortisol in the badgers hair (as hair maintains a record of cortisol levels over a prolonged period of time allowing researchers to ascertain an average cortisol level as opposed to spikes that may have happened after a particular stressful event) and their findings were alarming.

Badgers living within 1km of a wind turbine suffered a staggering 264% increase in their cortisol level compared to control badgers who lived nowhere near a wind-turbine.To add to this, evidence was found suggesting that no matter how long the turbines have been within their territory, badgers never got used to them implying long-term stress reactions. Proof if ever there was some that badgers are not living in harmony with the wind-turbines erected in and around their setts.

Given these initial findings on the effect on badgers from on-shore wind-turbines, we have to wonder about the effect of off-shore wind-turbines on marine mammals. Although we are able to monitor the visible disturbance of whales, dolphins and porpoises around turbines, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t being physiologically impacted by the turbines as are the badgers. 

Worryingly, increased cortisol levels have been linked to reduced reproductive rates and compromised immune systems making further investigation of the physiological impacts of wind-turbines on terrestrial and marine species absolutely necessary – and sooner rather than later as more and more wind-farms (both on and off-shore) are being planned and built every day. Everyone wants clean energy but at what cost?

More information on the impact on whales and dolphins can be found in WDC’s report on Marine Renewable Energy and our Climate Change section.