Claims that badgers are being killed and tortured in Gloucestershire are being investigated by police.
The recent furore surrounding the badger cull and its subsequent postponement has sparked new fears the animals – protected by law – are again facing an upsurge in incidences of the illegal practice of baiting. The most recent figures show 28 incidents in Gloucestershire in 2010.
A national police chief at the head of a countrywide crackdown on persecution of the animals, blamed by farmers' groups for a rising tide of TB in cattle, has confirmed they are investigating "a couple" of county people who made comments online encouraging inhumane killings.
Ian Hutchison, who heads UK crime prevention for Operation Meles, a joint project by police and animal welfare organisations, said: "There is a lot of this going on and there will have been cruelty in Gloucestershire. There are gangs travelling through the county who think it is a macho thing to do.
"Some have even pumped slurry into setts effectively drowning the badgers in excrement. It is the most cruel and sick activity.
"There have been some people inciting this sort of behaviour online, suggesting ways in which to kill them and we are monitoring them."
Mr Hutchison stressed he wasn't pointing the finger at farmers.
Police have not ruled out a snare trap discovered at Robinswood Hill on October 8 as being the most recent example of badger cruelty in the county.
A Gloucestershire Police spokesperson said: "We do not believe the incident was an attempt to harm badgers but we cannot rule it out. We are aware of this issue and that there have been incidents in the past.
"The force has specially trained wildlife officers with expertise in these type of offences and wherever reported they will be thoroughly investigated."
A cull of badgers planned for trial sites in Gloucestershire adn Somerset was last month abandoned for the year after estimates of animal numbers in the area – and therefore the payments to be made for each one shot – proved to be wildly inaccurate.
The NFU and many farmers are keen to see the trial begin again next autumn.