Celebrating the Wild Side of Yorkshire’s Coast & Country: Life’s ups and downs for the badger
As the football pundit once famously stated ‘it’s a funny old world…….’, and that sentiment surely applies to the world of the badger. On the one hand, through the huge efforts of Badger Groups nationally, this most iconic of our large native mammals has made a remarkable comeback. On the other hand, for many in the dairy farming industry, the badger remains public enemy number one. This last situation is peculiar since all the rigorous scientific evidence is that badgers are not the primary cause of the spread of Bovine TB and the undoubted suffering caused to cattle and to the farmers too. Indeed, where control trials have been carried out the evidence is that removal of badgers will cause rapid dispersal of remaining animals, and potentially of disease too, across the landscape. In fact, common sense also would lead to the observation that such interference will have the wrong effect. Furthermore, even if a cull of badgers were in part effective, it would have to carry on from now into the foreseeable future. Are we really prepared to countenance that? In a democracy, are the public willing to sanction such as long-term persecution of what is probably their favourite mammal?
Interviewed on Countryfile by John Craven on 15th January 2012, David Cameron tried to explain and to justify his stance on Bovine TB and the Badger cull, which the coalition government means to carry out. Some £4 million was to be spent on the two trials beginning in 2012, but delayed to 2013. This cost and the delay were in part because of the number of activists who were and still are expected to try to frustrate the shooting of the badgers. In fact, Cameron displayed his profound ignorance of the issues and demonstrated that the decision is not scientifically sound rather it is inherently political. David Cameron acknowledged that badger cull trials would not end the difficulties, and that there were concerns over policing. However, the Prime Minister insisted the two pilot schemes which are intended to control the spread of bovine TB were, despite the concerns of wildlife campaigners, the ‘…..right thing to do’. He claimed that the protesters against the decision to cull Badgers were forgetting that the species also suffers from this ‘terrible’ disease. Two six-week trials were to take place later in 2012 and were potentially to lead to wider culls countrywide. In the BBC One’s Countryfile interview, Cameron said the situation was ‘very difficult’ but ‘what we want is healthy cattle but we also want healthy badgers and I think sometimes the critics of the culling trials forget that in the end it’s the badgers who are also suffering from this terrible disease as well’. He went on: ‘I think it is right to take this difficult step to have these pilots – we are going to have to watch very closely about how they are put in place, how they are carried out, but in the end the aim is healthy cattle, healthy badgers.’ Mr Cameron accepted the trials could be difficult to police, but insisted ‘ …….the question we faced as a Government is when you have got all this evidence that culling should be part of – only part of – a balanced package of measures, do you just sweep it under the carpet and announce another review or do you say OK, we need to get on and see if we can make this work?’
The essence of his argument, if we can call it that was that the time for prevarication was over and now was the time for ‘action’. This of course is typical politico rhetoric which loosely translated means ‘we don’t actually know what we are doing or why, but by thunder we are going to do it anyway’. Well, sometimes in life things are difficult and there are no easy solutions, no silver bullet; but for a politician that is not acceptable. With badgers, the reality is complicated and there are clearly issues that are deeply embedded in parts of the British countryside and within elements of our hugely important farming industry. These problems need to be resolved. Any solution will not be quick and it will be expensive. The quick-fix scenario favoured by Cameron is really a non-starter.
From a conservation viewpoint, I believe that there is a need to work more closely with the dairy farming industry and to develop a long-term, viable, sustainable solution. This should be a strategic approach to working with badgers and with Dairy Farming. At present, the badger is in many ways the victim of Bovine TB but is being turned into the villain, because in our blame-culture society, someone or something ultimately has to be held to be at fault. Observation and plain common sense, suggest that badgers contract Bovine TB through feeding on insects, worms and other invertebrates in and around dung-pats from infected cattle. Clearly too, the badger numbers in some areas such as south-west England, are causing concerns for some (though by no means all) farmers. Management of farm hygiene and sensitive management of badger populations seem to be the approach to take in order to resolve the problem long-term. However, such as strategy would not be a one-off, but a long-term on-going commitment. Taxpayers’ money is being spent and the present approach may satiate a few appetites for action but it will not solve the problem. Funding needs to be made available to help farmers improve farm hygiene, to restrict badger access to parts of farms with dairy cattle, to remove cowpats from fields where badger activity is a problem, and perhaps controversially, to arrange for problem setts to be closed. The intention of the latter would be to restrict and reduce badger encroachment into sensitive Dairy Farm areas. Badgers are territorial animals with sometimes long-term clan colonies. The resources within their patch will lead to long-term population stabilisation and pressure to move out and into new areas. Sometimes this means conflict with dairy farmers as setts move more and more into the working farm. If such access is effectively restrained, then classical ecology tells us that the population will to a large extent, control itself; Nature an effective if cruel arbiter of populations and survival.
Professionals who understand badger behaviour and needs could then undertake sett management. The requirement to shoot or gas would be averted. The strategic approach would seek to reduce lines of tension between badger colonies and Dairy Herds. Finally, programmes of Bovine TB vaccination, for both cattle and badgers, would be implemented as a rolling programme to manage infection levels down. The added bonus of this approach to badger populations, to farm hygiene and badger-proof boundaries, would be the creation of long-term employment opportunities in rural areas with high unemployment; a ‘win-win’ situation.
Here in my own South Yorkshire we are unlikely to be affected directly by the early phases at least of these culls. However, there is a spill over into issues nationally. These measures potentially take us a step (no, a huge leap) back into a Dark Ages of badger persecution. Having spent several decades campaigning and supporting local and regional Badger Groups to get our badger populations back, this is a desperate plight to be in. How on Earth can you explain to badger diggers and baiters across the region, that it is illegal for them to persecute badgers, and that they may be fined and / or imprisoned, but it is perfectly acceptable and legal for a bunch of posh farmers in Devon to shoot badgers? I still recall talking to local gardeners and labourers in the 1970s, about how they would ‘go out that weekend to do ‘a job’ (badger digging) for local farmers. That was their recreation and they might even be paid for doing it. They could comprehend why we wanted to make what they did illegal. Now, this latest bizarre example of political expediency takes us on a giant leap back into a pre-conservation era.
Furthermore, for farming as an industry, this could amount to one of the biggest PR disasters in living memory. In a world where it is already hard to get an increasingly urban population to understand farming and food production, this is a bad business. Especially where these urban people are the ones who decide on grants, subsidies and support for an industry that is subsidy led, this is not a good idea. Believe me, the wider public are not with the cullers on this and they will not understand. A strange old world………but for now, the Government’s culling (killing) fields are about to open for business.
Professor Ian D. Rotherham, Writer, Broadcaster, and Professor of Environmental Geography, Reader in Tourism & Environmental Change