The Great British Badger Debate

I have a confession to make. For all my pride in living in London, I’m really a countryside kid.

I don’t mean that I grew up grouse-shooting or fox-hunting — my background is nowhere near as privileged as that — but I’m countryside enough to have grown up in East Anglia, to have experienced getting stuck behind a tractor on pretty much every family drive we ever went on; to have seen muntjacs scampering through the woods on a regular basis in my childhood (usually dashing away from the dog that my nan and I would walk in Thetford Forest most weekends) and at least one of my brothers had a friend whose family ran a farm and would invite him to shoot birds of some description at one time or another.

There are plenty of fields full of cows and pigs where I grew up. We took school trips to a local farm and Harvest Festival was a big deal at school each Autumn.

Camping as a teenager

High school camping trip, as a teenager in Norfolk

At that level, the politics and welfare issues of it all fall away to whether or not the area you live in stinks of manure from the fields, or whether or not your school friend will let you feed polos to the horses when you go round there for tea. (Apparently that used to be a thing. I have no idea whether that’s still a thing. I’m not that countryside anymore.)

I suppose the plight of Britain’s badger has felt like a divisive one to delve into for me. Though I never announce it, and have certainly never mentioned it on this blog before, I haven’t eaten meat or dairy for a while now. Living in the City, it hasn’t been that hard to leave behind the immediate awareness of ‘school friends going without if their families weren’t making enough money from the farm’ to throwing myself entirely into supporting animal rights issues and decidedly detaching myself from the root cause of such appalling animal welfare conditions by changing my diet.

So I suppose I understood where author and anti-badger cull campaigner Dominic Dyer (whose background is in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) was coming from when he told his audience at Waterstones book store in Cambridge on Thursday that he ‘is not anti-farmer’.

“I’m angry,” Dominic explained, “I wanted people to know I was angry. I’m not anti-farmer though — I didn’t want to just attack farming. I do point out that the farmers are the victims of this; the supermarket price wars [reducing the cost of milk], the movement of cattle after the foot and mouth outbreak, the spread of TB [bovine tuberculosis], etc.”

dom-and-charlie-moores

Dominic was discussing his book ‘Badgered to Death‘ in a talk with League Against Cruel Sports’ Vice-Chairman Charlie Moores. The book offers a great beginner’s guide to understanding the long history of this delicate and politically divisive subject (culling badgers as a solution to stop the spread of tuberculosis in cattle), delivered clearly, simply and passionately.

Personally, when reading his book; an in-depth exploration of the issues surrounding the spread of bovine TB and the subsequent persecution of Britain’s badgers, I found it increasingly difficult to sympathise with a campaign to slaughter (often inhumanely) Britain’s largest surviving wild carnivore, rather than vaccinate them. Especially when the evidence shows that over 95% of bovine TB infection spreads from cattle to cattle (not from badger to cattle!), and largely due to the intensity at which they are farmed (i.e. the high numbers making up the dairy herds, the limited space they are given, and the fact that they are kept indoors for longer periods of time).

Perhaps the most astonishing piece of take away information from Dominic’s book is that an annual TB testing system for cattle was put in place in Cardiff, supported by tighter movement and biosecurity controls, and a badger vaccination trial; and the result was that the number of cattle slaughtered for TB in Wales has fallen by 45% in the past five years! Today, 94% of cattle in Wales are TB-free!

I cannot understand why; when the solution is already rolled out in Wales, England doesn’t follow the same practice and stop the cull?

kate-badgered-to-death

Badgered to Death is a great introductory insight to the people, press and politics that come into play concerning Britain’s controversial culling of badgers. It feels like a complete and well-rounded view of the motivations behind the badger cull, and — as the author pointed out at the recent talk in Cambridge — it has been written as ‘a quick-moving, easy read; not a scientific journal’. An approach he says he took so that the book could be used to help those that support the anti-cull movement explain how they feel by sharing it with others and handing it over to MPs (apparently Theresa May has already been sent a copy).

The book also explores the media coverage given to the cull; and its significance and influence, as well as the role (or sometimes lack of) that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) play in fighting against the culture of culling.

While it is clearly written from a very personal stance (capturing the last three years of Dominic’s life, so he told the audience at Waterstones), this book takes care to point out the differences of position and previous conflicts that might make the author uncomfortable, rather than simply omitting them. Including the public apology he issued to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), which was one of the points discussed with Charlie Moores.

badger-talk

For all the years I lived in East Anglia, I never saw a badger. Not even a dead one at the side of the road. I visited the Natural History Museum earlier this month, and took a walk around their mammal collection to have a look at a badger — having had my curiosity piqued after reading Badgered to Death — and I couldn’t even find a stuffed specimen there. I have no idea how a badger scales up, or what shades are present in their fur; but for some reason I feel a natural affiliation to the creature.

It seems I am not alone. I recently entered a pub in Surrey to find the bar scattered with photographs of badgers and an East Surrey Badger Protection Society newsletter on every table. I asked around and discovered that the pub’s backing of the badger was a source of pride for the regulars. How utterly refreshing, that a pub wants to support animals!

surrey-badger-pics

I have a sneaky feeling that a certain supermarket’s Christmas advert, featuring British wildlife such as badgers, foxes and hedgehogs bouncing on a trampoline will also go some way in igniting a national pride in the badger. Well done John Lewis.

 

But for all the celebration, as Chris Packham writes in the foreword of Badgered to Death: “For many reasons we had come to love the badger, to cherish and admire it, to protect and celebrate it and of course many still do. But the reputation of this essential member of the UK’s ecology has been targeted by a smear campaign which has been swallowed by the gullible and fuelled by those with vested interests. You see, in spite of all the science and all the truths that it outlines, the badger has become a scapegoat.”

waterstones-dom-dyer

At the badger talk I attended, Dominic pointed out that the badger’s story is a certainly a very British one. “Britain is quite unique. Nowhere else on earth would you get people going out into fields in the middle of the night to protect an animal you rarely see.”

I asked him how he hoped the book would contribute to the ‘great badger debate’. I want it to inspire normal people to do something was his reply. “We hear the words ‘civic society’ used a lot now. Whatever it is about, animal welfare of something completely different, I want to encourage people to speak out.”

Badgered to Death is available to buy on Amazon now, visit: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Badgered-Death-People-Politics-Badger-x/dp/0993040756

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