Criminal gangs are ­flocking to Scotland to ­illegally hunt badgers as a controversial cull looks set to continue in England, it emerged yesterday.

The claim was made by animal welfare chiefs, who believe badger baiting is on the rise - particularly in rural parts of Aberdeenshire.

The gangs use dogs - usually bull ­lurchers bred for blood sports - to chase down and savage the creatures in the wild.

The suspected rise in the number of cases in Scotland comes as the badger ­population in Somerset and Gloucestershire are subject to a cull to stop the spread of TB in cattle.

Scottish Badgers trustee Andy Riches said gangs often travelled from outside Scotland because they were less likely to get caught in an area where nobody knew them.

Mr Riches said: "Some of these gangs are very, very organised and they target specific areas in the north-east.

"A lot of these people travel long distances - they travel from England to bait badgers in Scotland.

"It's basically to try to bait in an area where they are not known."

Scotland has an estimated 25,000 badgers spread over a wide area from the borders to the tip of the mainland.

They are protected under the Protection of Badgers Act and animal welfare legislation.

But this does not stop ­baiters, who will set trained dogs on them to tear them apart in a cruel blood sport.

Dog owners will often target badgers while they have young offspring as they will be more aggressive and give a better fight.

The wild animals sometimes suffer horrific injuries after being set upon by several dogs at once.

Mr Riches said the offenders were often dangerous criminals. He urged people to contact the police, Scottish Badgers or the SSPCA.