CF Tunnicliffe, Badgers

CF Tunnicliffe, Badgers

The badger is one of our best-loved animals – and yet, despite the fact there are more badgers per square mile in Britain than any other country, few of us have seen one (our one, magical encounter is described here).  I have just finished reading Badgerlands in which Patrick Barkham sets out to trace the strange history of our relationship with badgers and find out why it is so vexed: why some people devote their lives to feeding or rescuing badgers while others risk jail by torturing and killing them for their own pleasure.

Patrick Barkham is a Guardian journalist and Badgerlands has the feel of a series of disparate reports stitched together to form a book. That’s not to belittle it, but to draw attention to its scope. For Barkham examines every aspect of the British badger, from the place the animal occupies in our imaginations to the culture clash between countryside and city represented by the ferocious debate over the badger’s contribution to TB in cattle and whether it merits the cull of badgers that has now begun in Gloucestershire and Somerset. In addition to an informative, even-handed survey of those issues (some might say: a little too even-handed), Barkham also enters the badger’s nocturnal world, spending initially fruitless evenings trying to catch his first glimpse of a badger.  Eventually, his persistence pays dividends and we get delightful accounts of his observations of badger families foraging around their setts.

Every aspect of the badger is explored by Barkham.  He spends time on either side of the barricades in the badger wars dividing town and country – talking to dairy farmers and government officials in favour of the cull, out in the dead of night with activists attempting to disrupt it, exploring the shady underworld of badger-baiting populated by tough working-class men with tough working dogs. He visits people who care for wounded badgers, and people who watch and feed them. He talks to Brian May, the Queen guitarist, who now devotes much of his time to issues of animal welfare, especially the question of the badger cull. In one chapter (nauseating for this vegetarian) he finds a man who lives on road-kill badger and together they butcher a large boar and eat a plateful of stir-fry badger ham.

Detail of Sodoma’s ‘Life of St Benedict’ (1505), showing an unusual example of badgers as pets

Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (Sodoma), ‘Life of St Benedict’ (detail), 1505: a rare depiction of badgers as pets

Barkham begins with the badger’s considerable impact on the British landscape. He writes:

Our country has not only been named after badgers; it has been shaped by them. spectacular earthworks of their setts higher density of badgers here than anywhere else in the world.

The places named after badgers include anywhere with a variant of brock, pate, gray, bawson, billy in the place-name: ‘all the old badgery place names’, such as Brocklebank, Broxbourne, Grayswood, and Pately Bridge.

Despite their presence all around us, as Barkham makes clear, we still don’t actually know that much about them: not even how many of them there are. It might be 200,000, but then again it could be 600,000, of which a staggering 50,000 end up as road-kill every year. And who knew that a badger’s living quarters were so sumptuous?

When the government dispatched seven men to measure a badger sett in the Seventies, they took eight days to get to the bottom of it, unearthing a ‘typical’ sett featuring 16 entrances, 57 chambers and a maze of tunnels nearly a third of a kilometre in length. The badgers had excavated 25 tonnes of soil to create it.

Barkham describes the badger’s cleanliness (those setts are maintained in immaculate condition), their catholic tastes in food (they are omnivores who will scoff anything they are offered – as he observes when visiting those who feed badgers on their lawn or patio nightly.  They’ll happily munch grapes as much as meat, sandwiches or sausages. He informs us, too, about the latest scientific observations of their social behaviour which have overturned some long-established myths. Because they tend to forage alone, they have been regarded as ‘primitive’ animals with basic social instincts. Yet the truth is that they live harmoniously in complex groups, groom each other, care for each other (Barkham tells of one badger, born blind, which was shepherded by family members), and they bury their dead.  He concludes that their successful, largely harmonious social structures present a striking alternative to our world – and it baffles us.

Sketch of five badger cubs at play by Eileen Soper

Sketch of five badger cubs at play by Eileen Soper

One night, as part of his exploration of whether vaccination offers an alternative to a cull, Barkham joins a vaccination project. He sees how the badgers trapped for vaccination all react differently. Some were naturally very stressed, attempting to dig their way out of the cage in which they were trapped; but others were calm, even laid back. When found, one was so deeply asleep it only woke up when being vaccinated. Another had managed to pull an old plastic feed sack into its cage as a bed, while a third badger had pulled grass into its cage, made a nest and gone to sleep.  Having been vaccinated, it didn’t want to leave its cage.

In his exploration of the cultural landscape of Badgerland, Barkham traces the history of badger-baiting through the centuries. At one time, pursuit of the badger was an aristocratic pastime:

To do battle with a badger, a 16th century treatise advised, a man must find the following: a dozen strong men to dig; a dozen good dogs to work underground and, for each, a collar with a bell attached; broad and narrow picks; a large spade; wood and iron shovels; a stout pair of long-handled tongs; sacks to stow the captured animals; a water bowl for the dogs; half a dozen rugs to lie on and listen, ear to the ground, for barking; Indian game fowls, hams and beef tongue to eat; copious flagons of alcoholic refreshment; and a little pavilion to light a fire for warmth in winter. ‘Further, to do the thing properly,’ wrote our badger hunter, ‘the Seigneur must have his little carriage in which he will ride, with a young girl of sixteen to seventeen years of age, who will stroke his head while he is on the road’.

But, badger-baiting was mostly a hidden, peasant activity.  Barkham quotes Richard Jeffries, writing in 1879 of the Wiltshire village of his childhood as ‘a republic without even the semblance of a Government’, venerating the ideals of liberty, equality and swearing. ‘Betting, card-playing, ferret-breeding and dog-fancying, poaching and politics, are the occupations of the populace.  A little illicit badger-baiting is varied by a little vicar-baiting.’  Obviously, Barkham can’t fail to note that the most vivid account of baiting occurs in John Clare’s poem, ‘Badger‘, written in the 1830s, which ends thus:

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.

Barkham also cites Mary Wollstonecraft who, writing in 1792, claimed that blood sports such as badger baiting were a natural result of social oppression, the oppressed taking their frustrations out on the only outlet they had available:

It may be unspeakably cruel, it may be an expression of our basest instincts – man as bully and coward and thrill-seeker – but it is an expression of autonomy and freedom, and of one class’s contempt for the laws made by another.

CF Tunnicliffe, A Badger with Three Dachsunds

CF Tunnicliffe, A Badger with Three Dachsunds

In 1835 the Cruelty to Wild Animals Act made it illegal to bait badgers with dogs, though badger digging continued. In 1833, four years before she became queen, Victoria wrote in her diary: ‘I dressed dear, sweet, little Dash for the second time after dinner in a scarlet jacket and trousers’, Dash being her beloved dachsund, the short-legged dog bred by German and Austrian aristocrats to go underground in pursuit of the badger.

Barkham pursues the history of badger-digging and nocturnal badger hunting into the 20th century.  He finds that badger-digging, unlike baiting, ‘was sufficiently respectable to be enjoyed by members of the ruling classes for much of the twentieth century.  It was a Sunday activity, carried out after church’. The tradition persisted, the result of widespread ignorance of the animal (regarded as foe, vermin,sheep-killer) and of its continued persecution by men from the lower classes. Today it remains a white working-class male pastime (few, if any, females are present at a badger dig).

But in the first half of the 20th century, the badger’s relationship with the human population of Britain was ‘turned on its head’; Barkham writes:

The badger was transformed from an object of fear, superstition and rural torture into a cuddly hero for children and a revered symbol of conservation for adults.

Badger, Toad, Rat and Mole from Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. Illustrations by E. H. Shepard.

Badger, Toad, Ratty and Mole from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Illustration by EH Shepard

One man, and one badger, largely responsible: far more people have encountered Mr Badger in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows and EH Shepard’s illustrations than have ever seen a badger living in the wild:

In 1908, Mole caught sight of Badger peering from a hedge.  Badger trotted forward, grunted, ‘H’m! Company’, and disappeared again. ‘Simply hates Society!’ explained the Water Rat.

Barkham devotes a whole chapter of Badgerlands to an exploration of the background to the book. He discusses the passage – ‘the very heart of Grahame’s Arcadian dream’ – in which we are introduced to Badger’s kitchen, ‘a child’s fantasy of warmth and safety’.Toad is terrorising the neighbourhood with his new obsession for motor vehicles, and Badger decides he must be ‘taken in hand’. Without Badger, Grahame seems to suggest, his bucolic idyll of the English countryside would be lost for ever.

The floor was well-worn red brick, and on the wide hearth burnt a fire of logs, between two attractive chimney-corners tucked away in the wall, well out of any suspicion of draught. A couple of high-backed settles, facing each other on either side of the fire, gave further sitting accommodations for the sociably disposed. In the middle of the room stood a long table of plain boards placed on trestles, with benches down each side. At one end of it, where an arm-chair stood pushed back, were spread the remains of the Badger’s plain but ample supper. Rows of spotless plates winked from the shelves of the dresser at the far end of the room, and from the rafters overhead hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions, and baskets of eggs. It seemed a place where heroes could fitly feast after victory, where weary harvesters could line up in scores along the table and keep their Harvest Home with mirth and song, or where two or three friends of simple tastes could sit about as they pleased and eat and smoke and talk in comfort and contentment. The ruddy brick floor smiled up at the smoky ceiling; the oaken settles, shiny with long wear, exchanged cheerful glances with each other; plates on the dresser grinned at pots on the shelf, and the merry firelight flickered and played over everything without distinction.

Badger cubs by Eileen Soper

 Badger cubs by Eileen Soper

In another chapter Barkham tells of the women – including his maternal grandmother – who have been compelled by badgers to write about them, draw and paint them, observe them or protect them.  One such was Eileen Soper, dedicated badger-watcher who illustrated Enid Blyton’s adventure stories – and whose drawings of badgers illustrate this post.

When Badgers Wake

The cover of Eileen Soper’s ‘When Badgers Wake’

When Eileen Soper died in March 1990, executors found a profusion of watercolours and a large number of her drawings at her home in Hertfordshire. She had been hailed as a child prodigy when she had two etchings hung by the Royal Academy at the age of fifteen. Later she had a successful  career as a book-illustrator, enjoying a long partnership with Enid Blyton. Yet it was as an observer and painter of wildlife that she really came into her own. Hundreds of hours of patient study went into her book When Badgers Wake, much of her work done in the half-wild garden which surrounded her home near Welwyn.

Soper When Badgers Wake

A double page spread from Eileen Soper’s ‘When Badgers Wake’

In the same chapter Barkham writes of his maternal grandmother, Jane Ratcliffe, and wonders what she would have made of his initially fumbled and futile attempts to watch badgers.  She wrote a book, Through the Badger Gate, that Barkham describes as ‘a love letter to Bodger, her first badger’ (you can read Barkham’s Guardian obituary of his grandmother here). Ratcliffe was a vocal supporter of badgers, nursing them back to health and releasing them into the wild.  She and her husband volunteered for the local Wildlife Trust on the Wirral and recorded badgers at 27 setts in Cheshire, 15 of which were destroyed between 1969 and 1971 by badger diggers who travelled from the Potteries with their terriers.  By 1973 only one of the setts was still occupied.

In 1970, Jane took in her first badger, an orphaned and desperately-ill cub she called Bodger. The previous day she had been in London at the Women’s Institute AGM where she had spoken in support of a resolution she had submitted to her local WI branch calling for legislation to prohibit any killing of badgers other than under licence.  It was supported overwhelmingly, and after a successful lobbying campaign, resulted in the Badgers Act of 1973 being passed, for the first time in British history giving a land mammal specific protection from persecution by making it an offence to ‘cruelly ill-treat’ any badger.

But even as the legislation reached the statute book, a new threat to Britain’s badgers had emerged: bovine TB. Badgers were now in direct conflict with the interests of farmers and consumers. Barkham points up the ironies: that it happened to be cows that first passed the disease to badgers, and that the disease materialised in badgers just months before they finally gained full legal protection.

Soper When Badgers Wake The Lean Days

An illustration from Eileen Soper’s ‘When Badgers Wake’: ‘The Lean Days’

This leads Barkham into an even-handed examination of the bovine TB question.  He records the anxieties and despair of people on both sides of the culling debate, and picks apart the confused mess of government policy. Those in favour of culling say that badgers spread contagion, that it’s impossible to fence them out of farms, and that they’ve been legislatively overprotected for years. Those against say culling only promotes the wider distribution of TB and that it’s not just badgers that are responsible for the disease. He notes the confusion over the actual numbers of badgers in the cull areas –  a matter that is crucial because to be successful a cull must achieve the target of killing 70% of the badger population.  It was that confusion over the actual size of the badger population in Gloucestershire and Somerset that led to the initial postponement of the cull.

Barkham discusses the evidence that culling can actually make things worse by pushing surviving badgers out to surrounding areas – a process labelled ‘perturbation’ – and compares the costs of culling with the costs of vaccination (now being implemented by some landowners, including the National Trust). The cost of the proposed cull seems likely to outstrip the putative benefits, at the same time as driving badgers from their current territories and spreading the incidence of bovine TB.

The 2013 cull singularly failed the test of being able to kill sufficient badgers to meet criteria set by the government. The cull failed to kill at least 70% of the local badgers within a six-week period, and even though the culling period was extended, the total number of badgers slaughtered rose only marginally.  The government was also forced to admit that only 24 % of the badgers killed were by controlled shooting, which was precisely the method that the pilots were supposed to be testing. The rest were cage trapped, which is much more expensive.

The 2013 culls were branded an ‘epic failure’ by Professor David Macdonald – the chief scientific adviser to Natural England, the organisation that had authorised them. He said: ‘It is hard to see how continuing this approach could be justified’.  Yet this year, the government announced a repeat. Barkham points out how misleading is the term ‘cull’, since the vast majority of badgers killed will be healthy and free of the disease. (On the subject of this Orwellian use of language – and how it spreads to the way governments talk about human beings, do read today’s Guardian piece, ‘‘Cleansing the stock’ and other ways governments talk about human beings‘, by George Monbiot, in which he argues that those in power don’t speak of ‘people’ or ‘killing’, but employ dehumanising euphemisms that help them pursue policies that we might otherwise consider unpalatable.)

As Barkham notes, there are less than 300,000 badgers in Britain. Although protected by laws to prevent badger baiting, licences can be granted by the Government for ‘disease control’ and ‘research’ reasons. It is believed that only between 11-15% of the national population of badgers has bovine TB.  Some argue that bovine TB in badgers has been accelerated by the increased movement of cattle around the country by the farming industry. Barkham represents both sides of the argument, but signs off with the case presented by a group of vets, as reported in the Veterinary Times. Their view is that the spread of bovine TB is more a symptom of unhealthy, overbred cattle herds with low immunity than it is of any wild animal acting as a carrier. The authors argue that bovine TB has become more prevalent in the UK because of increasingly intensive cattle breeding and farming. In particular, artificial insemination (AI), widely used in the dairy industry since the 1950s, has selectively bred ‘mutant cows’ that produce large quantities of milk but have little resistance to diseases such as bovine TB and BSE. ‘Dairy cows stopped co-evolving with TB more than 50 years ago, due to AI’, they say. They continue:

TB is often a disease of poverty, in humans as well as animals, and many of our dairy cattle live in poverty equivalent to that of a workhouse during the industrial revolution.  Most importantly, there is poverty in the lack of any normal relationships around breeding and calf rearing. The only long-term solution is a paradigm shift in favour of cattle welfare, small farmers and wildlife – not mega-dairies and money.  We need to start looking, right now, at the economic and genetic background to the dairy industry, and fix it, before it’s too late.  We support the long-term restructuring and de-intensification of the dairy industry to better support the health and welfare of cattle, as well as small farmers and consumers.

At the end of his journey through Britain’s Badgerlands, Patrick Barkham visits Judy Salisbury, a woman in her eighties, who has been feeding badgers on the patio of her lonely house on the edge of the Camel estuary for years.  On her patio, the badgers’ absorption, their utter contentment in the fine dining they found nightly in Judy Salisbury’s garden reminds him of a scientist’s comment he had recorded earlier that foraging badgers were like shoppers in a supermarket: different family groups foraging and eating together, tolerantly stepping around ‘shoppers’ from other social groups.  He has an awful thought:

My admiration for this feeding fraternity was suddenly halted by a thought so vivid it was as if I had seen it.  At some point soon, this exact scene would be played out at apparently generous and benign badger supermarkets built conveniently close to setts in Gloucestershire and Somerset.  Having taken all the usual precautions, a dozen badgers would be browsing the aisles together and then a barrage of shots would ring out.  Most, hopefully all, would perceive a flash of light, a punch in the guts like nothing they had ever experienced, before darkness descended for ever.  A few unlucky animals would stagger off, nursing horrendous injuries, if they were not wiped out by the second, or third, volley of shots.

During the months he spent exploring Badgerlands, Barkham came to understand how we view the badger as quintessentially British because of its long presence on our lands – and yet we do not take it for granted because most of us rarely see it.  The badger manages to be both native and exotic.  No matter how hard farmers try to persuade us, Meles meles will never be viewed as a pest like the rabbit, magpie or rat. The badger’s visual qualities should not be underestimated either.  No jury, he writes, would ever find such an appealing criminal guilty.

See also

2 thoughts on “Badgerlands: perturbation in the nation

  1. The head of ‘Natural England’ is one Andrew Sells, appointed to the post last year by Tory ministers. He is a chartered accountant with no relevant qualifications or previous experience in ecological or environmental matters. (NB: In 2011 he donated the sum of £111,250 to Tory party funds!) Sells is one of the founders of Linden Homes, which is a property development company.
    Curiously, a recent development by ‘Natural England’ was the removal of protection (under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981) of the eggs and nests of certain nesting birds – ie: Robins, Starlings, and Wagtails. This move will doubtlessly save property developers a lot of time and money, as they are the very species that would be most likely to construct their nests in sites where building work is taking place.
    Then during the summer (and despite a hard-fought high Court Appeal by the RSPB) ‘Natural England’ sanctioned the destruction of 552 breeding pairs of Lesser Black-Backed Gulls from the seabird colonies between Southport and Lytham St Annes. Ironically the survival of this species had already been deemed (by Defra) to be “under significant pressure” – and largely because of the Gulls’ presence, the Alt and Ribble Estuaries had been designated the status of ‘Special Protection Area’ (SPA).
    ‘Natural England’ staff are very keen on culls!

  2. Wow, I had no idea your badgers were so beset.
    The TB issue sounds very adhoc in the government approach and even the inoculation approach also sounds rather hit and miss. Exterminating 70% of badger populations over large areas could also have serious long term effects from creating a genetic ‘bottleneck’ reducing their ability to meet future challenges such as disease and climate change.
    Here in NZ we have an Animal Health Board that controls wild animals (introduced pest species) in known TB areas. More importantly within TB areas all cattle and farmed deer are routinely tested for TB and under strict movement controls. Herds with a reactor (the test is for the TB anti-body) are effectively locked down with movement restricted to other infected herds and slaughter.
    The main wild reservoir for TB is considered to be the Australian brush-tailed possum, but it wasn’t that long ago that it was discovered ferrets (pole cats) were responsible for long distance dispersal into TB free areas. Pigs are also carriers in some parts of the country. Curiously, though domestic red deer herds are notoriously vulnerable to infection, the wild population does not seem to be implicated as either a reservoir or vector for infection.
    As an aside, the area in which I live has just been declared TB free which will open it up for dairy and free the farmers from movement control, although testing will continue. It also means we will have to do our own possum control if we want pip and stone fruit this year.
    Anyway, my point is that TB will not be controlled by villifying a popular kicking boy, but by a systematic approach and concerted effort across all sectors. It seems badgers are the victim here, complete extermination of badgers wouldn’t end TB for the farming community.

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