Thursday, 6 September 2012

On Badgers and Politicians

 (Picture courtesy of James Astley: see his Blog, Twitter)

You know a Badger is close when you can hear the snuffling sound of it eating peanuts. And you know it’s really close when you can hear it but can’t see it because it’s too close to the hide. And there were four of them…

The Margaret Grimwade Badger hide is the Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s best-kept secret. I’m not really sure why. The secret bit I understand. The location is rightly guarded like a state secret: upon booking you’re given a map, instructions and a time to turn up. It feels a bit like following a treasure map, like living out some childish dream: X marks the spot. It’s rather fun actually.

You follow the map and walk up a slope by a stream. Dusk resolves through the trees as we chuck out the allotted peanuts and unlock the hide. It was dad and me, a friend and four strangers making low, awkward conversation as we waited for nearly an hour; watching the light go grey, a Barn Owl fly quickly through, and Robins tussling. A flashlight flickered on from the side of the hide, casting a warmer glow to the scene.

At just before eight the first Badger turned up. Creeping out of the undergrowth to the left the first thing you see is two disembodied pale lines: then the rest of the head. It creeps back under cover. Too soon it seems. A minute later it fully emerges for the first time. It’s small. A cub and outrageously cute.

It’s my first ever good view of a Badger. My first, and only prior Badger, was on a single-track highland road at dusk. We’d stopped to let another car past when, caught in between two sets of lights, a Badger bumbled across the road and deep into the wood. To bumble is an awfully twee verb. The problem is that it suits a Badger in a hurry perfectly. I said the cub was outrageously cute: it’s hard to resist the anthropomorphisms that must be resisted. All objections seem to melt at the sight of their humbug striped snouts.

The Badger crept further out in the open. The fur is dense: you can see that in the remains of the light, and flecked with dark and paler hairs. The black head stripes extend surprisingly far down the neck, almost as far as the start of the squat legs. Their bodies hang surprisingly low. For all its definite cuteness, the Badger is a strange animal. It’s got the fur of a cat, the head of a dog, a body as long as a fox and the feeding action of a pig. It is thus, obviously, gloriously, a Mustelid and a relative of the Stoats and Weasels. It’s a carnivore, but one that chooses peanuts with as much regularity as worms.

Which is why it was currently shuffling over the earth in front of the hide, seeking out the peanuts we threw earlier. In the end three other Badgers, all apparently also cubs turned up: one noticeably smaller, probably the female of the litter. Through the glass window of the hide you can make eye-contact with them as they shuffle, blissfully unconcerned past. For half an hour, roughly, as they sought out the peanuts, the Badgers put on a staggering display: when it ended you felt as if you’d seen every hair, twitch, snuffle as they went about their feeding.

I’m not really sure why the hide isn’t better known amongst people. I have never had a wildlife experience quite like it.


On Tuesday the self-proclaimed ‘greenest government ever’ reshuffled itself: replacing Caroline Spelman with Owen Paterson. With the exception of the forest sell-off that failed (thankfully) Spelman was quite widely liked amongst environmentalists. Paterson is an unknown quantity: although his list of interests includes ‘trees’, his ideas for economic growth – of ending energy subsidies (bye bye renewables), fast tracking shale gas fracking, and airport expansion - are as ominous as a shark’s fin to a seal. I mention this because the government, the ‘greenest government ever’ (lest we forget), will be trialling a Badger cull this autumn for six weeks in West Gloucestershire and West Somerset. The aim is to halt the spread of Bovine TB and Badgers are a reservoir of this disease. It is a laudable cause in itself: nobody wants to see cattle dead, let alone 35,000 a year at an alleged cost of millions to the taxpayer.

Spelman’s high profile U-turns shows she listens and reacts. They’re not a sign of weak governance but of listening and responding. I don’t hold out much hope for Paterson: he supports the cull despite having once kept an orphaned Badger as a pet and the rest of his environmental ideas show up previous tory party environmental rhetoric as nothing more than weak greenwashing.

We need a U-turn now. There is a better way than to cull. After all, there are just a quarter of a million Badgers to over nine million cattle, yet for a cull to be effective you would need to kill every single one of these Badgers: for the disease simply passes on to previously uninfected areas outside of the cull zone (it’s called perturbation). Even eradicating Badgers, as ethically and ecologically disgusting as that would be, wouldn’t work. See the Isle of Man: no Badgers, but with Bovine TB. Scotland: lots of Badgers, no Bovine TB.

I’m not against culling and killing per se, but I’m also not against science and evidence. The rationale behind this cull strikes me as nonsensical. As nonsensical as Badger baiting is cruel and barbaric. There is also no doubt that the Badger is a persecuted animal. We’ve all seen them lying dead in the road far from any recognisable Badger habitat or sett. That’s because they get shot and dumped on the roads to look like road kill, by cowardly, ignorant criminals. We need to stop seeking scapegoats in nature and the short-term easy answer of the gun.

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