Residents have told of their anger after one of Northern Ireland's largest badger setts is believed to have been wiped out.
Around 50 badgers were living in the field between the Carnreagh Road and Downshire Crescent in Hillsbourgh where the sett has been located for almost 30 years.
Yesterday machinery moved on to the site to remove a hedgerow and to start digging work. The work is believed to have destroyed any setts in the field and it is feared that some of the badgers are now buried underground.
Landowner Bill Porter has denied that he or any of his employees were aware of any risk whatsoever to wildlife when undertaking the excavation work.
The PSNI launched an investigation yesterday as it is against the law to intentionally kill, injure or take a badger.
The law also states that the sett cannot be destroyed, damaged or have the access by badgers obstructed. It is also an offence to damage or destroy anything which conceals or protects a badger or to disturb a badger whilst it is occupying one.
Yesterday the PSNI, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and several other agencies visited the site to assess if any damage had been done to the sett.
Andrew Mawhinney, from the USPCA, explained: "The sett is not as it was. In my opinion, it has been devastated and destroyed.
"When I went there, I told the police that a badger sett had been interfered with. As a result of that, there is a good possibility that there are badgers under the ground and that is a cruelty issue."
Local residents said yesterday that they had watched the badgers for many years and they tried to stop the work on the site on Wednesday when they realised the danger to the sett.
In recent months, they have been taking photographs and videos of the badgers to show that the sett continued to be inhabited and active.
Residents Ken and Anne Baird and Brian and Ida Ross said: "We are all deeply concerned and saddened to see this long-established badger sett destroyed in this way."
"The sett has been in existence for at least 28 years since we became residents. Ten years ago, it was assessed by the Wildlife Trust and recognised as being a substantial and developing sett."
Mr Porter has now employed environmental experts to establish how active the badgers are in the area.
He said: "I would never knowingly have authorised work that had the potential to upset local wildlife. I will co-operate fully with the authorities and I have already commissioned a team of environmental experts to conduct a survey this weekend to determine if there were any badger setts or badgers in the vicinity."
A PSNI spokesperson said: "Police, with the assistance of partner agencies, are investigating a report that a badger sett has been damaged or perhaps destroyed on land in the Downshire Crescent area of Hillsborough.
"The Police Service of Northern Ireland take wildlife crime very seriously and will investigate if there is a breach in the legislation."
Ulster Unionist Councillor Alexander Redpath said: "I was contacted by constituents raising concerns about an alleged demolition of a badger sett in Hillsborough. Badgers and their setts are protected under environmental legislation. I immediately contacted the NI Environment Agency who are responsible for enforcing the legislation and the matter is with them.
"Hillsborough is blessed with a picturesque and biodiverse countryside. It is important that local people take personal responsibility for protecting our environment and if I can offer any help and support I will always be glad to do so."
Aaron McIntyre, Alliance councillor for the area, said: "The destruction of badger setts is a form of animal cruelty which is under-reported in Northern Ireland. I have to applaud the individual who brought this incident to my attention.
"I have since contacted the PSNI Wildlife Crime team who are currently looking into this incident and I would appeal for anyone who has any information to contact the PSNI directly."
Police are appealing to anyone with information to contact them in Lisburn on 101 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.