Celebrating the Wild Side of Yorkshire’s Coast & Country:
Don’t badger the badgers
Bovine TB and the expanding population of badgers have been on-going issues for farmers, land managers and conservationists for many years. Furthermore, in some parts of Britain, especially in the south-west dairy farmers are very worried. I understand their concerns and I sympathise with their plea to do something, indeed anything, to ease their problem. However, there is a real danger of taking action but without scientific or management justification. This is an even more acute difficulty for an industry that in recent years has struggled to win the hearts and minds of its community. Gassing or shooting badgers will be a waste of time and money for the public purse and a spectacular PR own goal for farming.
Yet, whilst the constant re-opening of the ‘to cull or not to cull’ debate is understandable, it is at the same time is damaging for both conservation and for farming. I believe the issues are at two levels, firstly that of the scientific evidence, and then secondly one of an emotional reaction to the deliberate gassing of what is arguably Britain’s most evocative and iconic conservation emblem. Badgers first gained a degree of genuine protective in the 1970s, through the work of one of my local MPs Peter Hardy, representing Rother Valley. By this time, the badger was virtually extinct across lowland South Yorkshire and hung on by its claws in remote upland crags and even anciently disused mine adits along the sandstone and gritstone edges. Nationally it was a symbol of campaigns such as National Nature Week and other initiatives intended to raise public awareness and sympathy for wildlife on the brink of extinction. In my own region, the issues were especially problematic. The deep-rooted enthusiasms in some parts of the farming community to ‘control’ badgers, and by rather nasty groups within the mining community to both dig and bait badgers, took many years to counter. Now, decades on, the animal is back and doing well. We go to great lengths to work with developers and with landowners to protect and nurture this beast whilst avoiding undue disruption to their activities.
Some farmers are now desperate to solve this most intractable problem. They will grasp at any straw, but gassing or now shooting running badgers is not the answer. The scientific evidence is that disturbance to established badger colonies and their territories, causes massive movement across the countryside and hence spread of any disease. This kind of break-up of distribution patterns is the last thing you want to do to a population based on long-term and robustly defended territorial units unless you wish to cause a further spread of infection. No, the aim must be to minimise disruption and to keep long distance dispersal to a minimum. Any solution, if it is to be workable, must operate within such a framework.
However, the situation gets worse, much worse. The act of legalised control muddies the waters with regard to illegal digging and baiting. It blurs the boundaries between what is legal and what is illegal, and importantly it removes any ethical or moral high ground between authorities and diggers. How could what they consider to be necessary ‘control’ of Badgers be so illegal, if the authorities themselves are now doing it? The result will be a carte blanche for resurgence in the activities of diggers and baiters justified by governmental blessing of a gassing programme. Badger groups have already reported a widespread increase in badger persecution and abuse.
This will create a weakness in the conservation armour that many will be keen to exploit and I know because I have talked to these people. In Sheffield in the 1980s, we had van-loads of diggers travelling from as far afield as Tyneside to dig badgers in the city’s woods. I have had local people, disrupted in the early hours of the morning by groups of swarthy men, armed with pickaxes and guns, digging up their back garden in pursuit of a Badger to extract and then to bait for money. We do not want a return to the legitimacy of such barbarism, or any spurious excuse to make such activities acceptable.
This idea of gassing or shooting badgers will not solve the long-term issues but will cost a lot of money and make the situation worse. All the evidence seems to be that it does not work and in the medium term will make the situation much worse. Even more alarming for farmers is the fact that the association in the pubic eye of farming with this ‘control’ will be incredibly bad PR for the industry and further alienate them from our urbanised community. The action would make farmers out, yet again, to be the ‘bad boys’ of the countryside and reduce public sympathy in terms of the support and grant aid that the industry needs and on which many farmers depend. Town dwelling people will not understand the farmers’ arguments but will just be witnesses to the killing. Perhaps a desperate farmer will ask whether public support or understanding is necessary; though in a democracy I would argue that yes it is. However, there are direct effects too, and how many people will wish to go on farm-based holidays, or be tourists in farming areas associated with the slaughter? I wonder if the economists have taken this negative impact of diversified farm incomes into account.
The answer is a combination of improved hygiene and farm livestock management and programmes of vaccination to control the spread of disease; funded from the public purse as necessary steps to support the farmers. In our urbanised society, we need the city dwellers to be better informed about the problems that face the farming industry. They must understand how important this sector is in terms of future sustainability and food security. Above all, we cannot afford to allow farming, however desperate the situation seems, to make such a colossal and expensive misjudgement on behalf of us all. The major culprits in all this are the politicians such as David Cameron, who are determined to take strong and decisive action at our expense, and in the absence of any popular mandate, whether or not it works. This seems to be an exercise in political sabre rattling and expediency. This is worthy of an episode of Yes Minister; if only it wasn’t for real!
Ian Rotherham, Writer, Broadcaster, Professor of Environmental Geography, Reader in Tourism & Environmental Change