We heard the animal before we saw it: crashing through the undergrowth at the edge of a dirt road in Shropshire in the deepening glow of a late summer’s evening nearly thirty years ago. Bulldozing its way out of the copse, distinctive long black and white striped snout to the fore, appeared the bulk of a full-grown badger, less than fifteen feet from where we stood.
Badgers come out in the evening when worms – their staple food – rise to the surface. This one was up early for some reason, lumbering across the path in front of us, before disappearing into the foliage on the other side. We stood, entranced, for a moment, as the sound of the beast crashing through the undergrowth faded from our ears. Since badgers are shy creatures and largely nocturnal, most people never see a badger unless on TV. We were very privileged, and that moment remains vivid, a precious memory of a golden summer.
It was August 1983; the previous summer we had gone our separate ways, the result of an action taken in haste and error, and a failure of understanding on my part. But a year later our paths had entwined once more, and we had found a cottage up a country lane near Clun, standing on its own in a fold of the hill on a bend in the road. Windows with diamond leads looked out over golden fields of ripening grain and the gentle wooded hills of the Shropshire landscape.
These memories came back to me as I listened last week to Ruth Padel on Radio 3 talk about the badger in her series of essays, Wild Things, in which, drawing on a range of literary and historical examples, she considered how attitudes to five different creatures in the British landscape have changed and developed through the centuries and what each means to us now. Her assertion was that the badger holds a very special place in British culture, both greatly loved for their character, but also ruthlessly harried and butchered – illegally for sport, and more recently, for reasons claimed to be justified by science.
Padel’s examples of badgers in literature included my own introduction to the beast – in Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Mr Tod. As Padel pointed out, this is an uncharacteristic representation of the animal, since Potter says at the outset that hers is a tale ‘ about two disagreeable people, called Tommy Brock and Mr Tod:
Tommy Brock was a short bristly fat waddling person with a grin; he grinned all over his face. He was not nice in his habits. He ate wasp nests and frogs and worms; and he waddled about by moonlight, digging things up. His clothes were very dirty; and as he slept in the day-time, he always went to bed in his boots.
As a child, I chuckled at Potter’s illustrations, especially the ones where Tommy Brock was shown lying in bed, grinning from ear to ear, with big teeth:
By degrees he ventured further in—right into the bedroom. When he was outside the house, he scratched up the earth with fury. But when he was inside—he did not like the look of Tommy Brock’s teeth. He was lying on his back with his mouth open, grinning from ear to ear. He snored peacefully and regularly; but one eye was not perfectly shut.
‘At a very deep level’, argued Ruth Padel, ‘the British love and identify with old Brock’. Like humans, she argued, they live communally, are omnivorous, and deeply territorial, inheriting their burrows from parents and grandparents and extending them down the generations. They are very fussy over hygiene, demarcating separate areas for latrines, frequently renewing their bedding, and burying their dead. A more typical example of a book that has embedded the badger in the national conciousness is Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In The Willows:
They waited patiently for what seemed a very long time, stamping in the snow to keep their feet warm. At last they heard the sound of slow shuffling footsteps approaching the door from the inside. It seemed, as the Mole remarked to the Rat, like some one walking in carpet slippers that were too large for him and down at heel; which was intelligent of Mole, because that was exactly what it was.
There was the noise of a bolt shot back, and the door opened a few inches, enough to show a long snout and a pair of sleepy blinking eyes.
`Now, the very next time this happens,’ said a gruff and suspicious voice, `I shall be exceedingly angry. Who is it this time, disturbing people on such a night? Speak up!’
`Oh, Badger,’ cried the Rat, `let us in, please. It’s me, Rat, and my friend Mole, and we’ve lost our way in the snow.’
`What, Ratty, my dear little man!’ exclaimed the Badger, in quite a different voice. `Come along in, both of you, at once. Why, you must be perished. Well I never! Lost in the snow! And in the Wild Wood, too, and at this time of night! But come in with you.’
The two animals tumbled over each other in their eagerness to get inside, and heard the door shut behind them with great joy and relief.
The Badger, who wore a long dressing-gown, and whose slippers were indeed very down at heel, carried a flat candlestick in his paw and had probably been on his way to bed when their summons sounded. He looked kindly down on them and patted both their heads. `This is not the sort of night for small animals to be out,’ he said paternally. `I’m afraid you’ve been up to some of your pranks again, Ratty. But come along; come into the kitchen. There’s a first-rate fire there, and supper and everything.’ […]
When at last they were thoroughly toasted, the Badger summoned them to the table, where he had been busy laying a repast. They had felt pretty hungry before, but when they actually saw at last the supper that was spread for them, really it seemed only a question of what they should attack first where all was so attractive, and whether the other things would obligingly wait for them till they had time to give them attention. Conversation was impossible for a long time; and when it was slowly resumed, it was that regrettable sort of conversation that results from talking with your mouth full. The Badger did not mind that sort of thing at all, nor did he take any notice of elbows on the table, or everybody speaking at once. As he did not go into Society himself, he had got an idea that these things belonged to the things that didn’t really matter. (We know of course that he was wrong, and took too narrow a view; because they do matter very much, though it would take too long to explain why.) He sat in his arm-chair at the head of the table, and nodded gravely at intervals as the animals told their story; and he did not seem surprised or shocked at anything, and he never said, `I told you so,’ or, `Just what I always said,’ or remarked that they ought to have done so-and-so, or ought not to have done something else. The Mole began to feel very friendly towards him.
When supper was really finished at last, and each animal felt that his skin was now as tight as was decently safe, and that by this time he didn’t care a hang for anybody or anything, they gathered round the glowing embers of the great wood fire, and thought how jolly it was to be sitting up so late, and so independent, and so full; and after they had chatted for a time about things in general, the Badger said heartily, `Now then! tell us the news from your part of the world’….
Badgers may be shy, but they are fierce fighters when provoked. Their tough skin and hide, and thick layers of subcutaneous fat make them hard to kill. As a consequence, badger-baiting has a long history on these islands. John Clare wrote about it in his poem, ‘Badger’:
When midnight comes a host of dogs and men
Go out and track the badger to his den,
And put a sack within the hole, and lie
Till the old grunting badger passes by.
He comes an hears – they let the strongest loose.
The old fox gears the noise and drops the goose.
The poacher shoots and hurries from the cry,
And the old hare half wounded buzzes by.
They get a forked stick to bear him down
And clap the dogs and take him to the town,
And bait him all the day with many dogs,
And laugh and shout and fright the scampering hogs.
He runs along and bites at all he meets:
They shout and hollo down the noisy streets.
He turns about to face the loud uproar
And drives the rebels to their very door.
The frequent stone is hurled where’er they go;
When badgers fight, then everyone’s a foe.
The dogs are clapped and urged to join the fray’
The badger turns and drives them all away.
Though scarcely half as big, demure and small,
He fights with dogs for hours and beats them all.
The heavy mastiff, savage in the fray,
Lies down and licks his feet and turns away.
The bulldog knows his match and waxes cold,
The badger grins and never leaves his hold.
He drives the crowd and follows at their heels
And bites them through – the drunkard swears and reels
The frighted women take the boys away,
The blackguard laughs and hurries on the fray.
He tries to reach the woods, and awkward race,
But sticks and cudgels quickly stop the chase.
He turns again and drives the noisy crowd
And beats the many dogs in noises loud.
He drives away and beats them every one,
And then they loose them all and set them on.
He falls as dead and kicked by boys and men,
Then starts and grins and drives the crowd again;
Till kicked and torn and beaten out he lies
And leaves his hold and crackles, groans, and dies.
Although British legal protection of animals began in 1835 with the Cruelty to Animals Act, and continued with further legislation that outlawed ‘unnecessary suffering’, wild animals had no protection. By the 1960s, with badger-digging increasingly popular, badgers were in decline. In the 1970s protection was extended to badgers in the wild. But now, they are threatened more than ever – both by illegal badger-digging, and by plans to cull the badger population.
Today there are around 400,000 badgers in the UK. 50,000 are killed every year on the roads, while illegal badger-diggers account for 15,000 more.
The prospect of culling the badger population is a result of their association with bovine tuberculosis, one of the most difficult and costly animal health diseases facing the farming industry. The association between bovine tuberculosis in cattle and badgers is a complex and contentious issue. In 2007 the Independent Science Group published its final report , concluding that culling badgers was not an effective method of controlling the disease, and that increased cattle measures, including vaccination, would be more efficacious.
The badger was established in these islands two millenia before the arrival of humans. They are, as Edward Thomas observed in ‘The Combe’, the ‘most ancient Briton of English beasts’:
The Combe was ever dark, ancient and dark.
Its mouth is stopped with brambles, thorn, and briar;
And no one scrambles over the sliding chalk
By beech and yew and perishing juniper
Down the half precipices of its sides, with roots
And rabbit holes for steps. The sun of Winter,
The moon of Summer, and all the singing birds
Except the missel-thrush that loves juniper,
Are quite shut out. But far more ancient and dark
The Combe looks since they killed the badger there,
Dug him out and gave him to the hounds,
That most ancient Briton of English beasts.
Kenneth Grahame, in The Wind In The Willows, has Badger say:
People come – they stay for a while, they flourish, they build – and they go. It is their way. But we remain. There were badgers here, I’ve been told, long before that same city ever came to be. And now there are badgers here again. We are an enduring lot, and we may move out for a time, but we wait, and are patient, and back we come. And so it will ever be.
Ruth Padel concluded her essay with this observation:
Of all our British wild animals, it is the badgers which require us to ask: why should we value the wild, and what is a landscape anyway? Is it ‘wild nature’ seen in human terms as ‘countryside’? No, it’s wider, bigger, older than us. It is not just for us, but outside us, and every wild species is part of it, including the badger. […]
These days we have to do something that sounds like a paradox: manage the wild. Which also means managing aspects of ourselves, our own sense of entitlement to kill. Blaming the wild is always the easiest option. The greatness of a nation, and its moral progress, said Gandhi, can be judged by the way it treats its animals.
WH Auden wrote ‘Address to the Beasts’ in the summer of 1973, just months before he died:
For us who, from the moment
we first are worlded
lapse into disarray,
who seldom know exactly
what we are up to,
and, as a rule, don’t want to,
what a joy to know,
even when we can’t see or hear you,
that you are around,
though very few of you
find us worth looking at,
unless we come too close.
To you all scents are sacred
except our smell and those
How promptly and ably
you execute Nature’s policies
and are never
lured into misconduct
except by some unlucky
Endowed from birth with good manners
you wag no snobbish elbows,
don’t look down your nostrils
nor poke them into another
Your own habitations
are cosy and private, not
Of course, you have to take lives
to keep your own, but never
kill for applause.
Compared with even your greediest
our hunting gentry seem.
Exempt from taxation,
you have never felt the need
to become literate,
but your oral cultures
have inspired our poets to pen
and, though unconscious of God,
your Sung Eucharists are
more hallowed than ours.
Instinct is commonly said
to rule you; I would call it
If you cannot engender
a genius like Mozart,
neither can you
plague the earth
with brilliant sillies like Hegel
or clever nasties like Hobbes.
Shall we ever become adulted
as you all soon do?
It seems unlikely.
Indeed, one balmy day,
we might well become,
not fossils, but vapour.
in the end we shall join you
(how soon all corpses look alike),
but you exhibit no signs
of knowing that you are sentenced.
Now that could be why
we upstarts are often
jealous of your innocence
but never envious?
And so, always and forever, a breeze riffles the pages of the book as the heat of the afternoon lifts from the garden, and we close the gate behind us to turn up the lane through the copse for that magical encounter, at the end of a golden summer, when we met our badger. For millenia human encounters with other animals have woven a common thread through cultures as we have found meaning in them. For us, the badger that crossed the track in Shropshire and came so close on that summer’s evening crystallizes a very special moment. Nine months, later our daughter was born. Soon, we were reading to her: the Tale of Mr Tod and Wind In The Willows.