The USPCA has told BBC Spotlight its intelligence indicates there are 150 people actively involved in animal baiting in Northern Ireland.

Baiting involves deliberately setting up fights between hunting dogs and wild animals like foxes and badgers.

Baiting badgers is illegal because badgers are a protected species while foxes have no legal protection.

The charity believes there could be up to 14,000 cases of badger baiting in Northern Ireland each year.

For Exposed: Hunting With Dogs, BBC Spotlight joined USPCA (Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) investigators in September as they monitored alleged animal baiters.

The programme also revealed a shadowy online world where people involved in baiting share photos and videos of both brutally-injured dogs and their savaged prey.

USPCA chief executive Brendan Mullan said he believed 99% of the people involved in baiting in Northern Ireland were targeting both foxes and badgers.

“While fox hunting is legal the chances of a badger baiting conviction are undermined, because there is the defence, the cloak of ‘well, I was just out hunting foxes’, whereas in fact it was badgers that they were hunting,” he added.

In 2021, a Stormont private member’s bill put forward by an Alliance MLA would have closed that loophole by banning all hunting with dogs in Northern Ireland, in line with the existing law in the rest of the UK.

But the bill was defeated and with Stormont absent, there is no prospect of a change in the law at the moment.

‘Special task force’

The USPCA said it would like to see greater enforcement of the existing law protecting, specifically, badgers.

Mr Mullan said: “We would like to see, even on a time-limited basis, a special task force set up by the police to proactively investigate this network of over 150 badger baiters in Northern Ireland and to hold them to account in the criminal court.”

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said it took reports of animal-related crime seriously and it was an important part of policing.

It said it had a wildlife and rural crime team ensuring all police officers and staff could receive the expert support and guidance necessary to respond to reports of wildlife crime.

BBC Spotlight, Exposed: Hunting With Dogs was broadcast on Tuesday and is available to watch on the BBC iPlayer.