IT was the best story – the most shocking story – that Dúlra never wrote. It was decades ago, but even back then this nature story would have made the front page of every national paper in Ireland. 

It was so incredible that even today, it’s hard to believe it was true. But the evidence was there before Dúlra’s eyes as he was enjoying a drink – in fact he held the evidence in his hands: the programme for the Irish National Badger Baiting Championships.

A guy had arrived in the club just before closing time and joined our company. And when asked why he was so late, he spat out the story as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

“I was in the Wicklow Mountains,” he said, “at the Irish Badger Baiting Championships.” As spoofs go, it certainly was unique.

It was obvious no-one believed him, so layer upon layer of detail was added. “It was hard to find in the rain and the mist and at one point on top of the mountain the Guards even directed us to it,” he said.

“Yeah, right,” was as much as Dúlra could muster to this tall tale. “So tell me how the Irish Badger Baiting Championships work then,” Dúlra said, not expecting an answer. And so the whole story was coughed up. 

“There were chutes dug into the ground and you’d put your dog down to fight the badger. And if your dog made a sound, if it barked or growled, it lost marks.”

Dúlra used the tactic beloved of talk show hosts – the pregnant pause – and the guy filled the silence with even more detail.

“You’re asked to bring your own badger,” he said. “We dug ours out of a sett outside Larne and had it in a cage in the boot of the car. And you’re also meant to bring it back to the same sett and release it. But I threw ours out at Colin Glen before I came in here.”

As wind-ups go, it certainly was unique. But then came the coup de grâce, the thing that would indeed have ensured this story made the front page of every newspaper in Ireland: The evidence. “Here’s the programme,” he said, taking a small, folded four-page pink leaflet from his pocket, the cover reading: ‘The Irish National Badger Baiting Championships’. 

“There’s my dog,” the guy told us with pride, pointing to number 76. And there was the name of his Staffordshire bull terrier – and we all knew that was indeed the name of his dog. Evidence presented, the guy slipped the programme back into his pocket, never to be seen or even mentioned again. 

Dúlra remembers feeling sick even thinking about it. A couple of days later, he came across a dead badger on the Glen Road at Colin Glen bend, and he just knew it was that Larne badger taken so cruelly from its sett. These beautiful animals won’t just let any stranger into their intricate underground sett. An animal forcibly taken from its home and dumped in a strange land is doomed. This poor creature – lost and terrified – had been put out of its misery by a car.

What an horrendous ordeal this badger must have endured. People certainly are the most cruel of all animals. But some cruelties are so beyond the Pale that they have long been banned – badger baiting was outlawed almost 200 years ago. Incredibly, it still takes place.

That horrific story came to mind this week as a ban on all hunting with dogs moved closer to becoming law in the North. Dúlra and his mates used to hunt all over Black Mountain and beyond, but that motley bunch of street mongrels only ever presented a danger to the mountain rabbits. And any that were caught always ended up in the pot. And hunting for us was really dandering in the countryside with our dogs.

Sometimes our dogs would put up a hare on the mountaintop, but they'd soon return panting and exhausted, the hare looking at us from a grassy knoll in the distance. Over many decades walking the hills, we never killed a single hare. Our wee terrier Shep once tackled a fox and by the time the young Dúlra got there to free the animal, it was too late. Shep was a skinny slip of a dog that should have presented no real threat to a fox. This fox must have already been vulnerable.

Another day the dogs pounced on a badger in a ditch beside Glencolin in the middle of the day, but this time we were able to use our walking sticks to free the animal. We put our dogs on the leads and the animal simply shook itself before going on its way.

And once near Colin Glen, Dúlra saw that ‘chute’ that our bar visitor had talked about. We were on our way to a fishing spot one Sunday and happened upon two lads with their wheaten terriers tethered to a tree. They obviously didn't want to talk to us, but we had to walk right past them. They had dug chutes into the soil and covered them with old rusted sheets of corrugated iron from the nearby disused quarry. Their badger was at the bottom of one. These were shifty lads, the shiftiest. 

We were disgusted over what we had just come across. We discussed our options as we fished, but there was nothing we could do. We passed the spot on the way home and the guys, the dogs and the badger were gone. The chutes are still there today, like scars of evil cut into the hillside.

Hunting with dogs should of course be banned, North and South. Wildlife is on the brink in this country and there is no place for cruelty.  Even as youngsters walking the Belfast Hills, we knew right from wrong. Today, decades later, that line has never been clearer.

•If you’ve seen or photographed anything interesting, or have any nature questions, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804.