Photo: Somerset Badger Patrol Group via Facebook.
'You'll never walk alone': highs and lows of badger patrolling against the cull
17th February 2017
If you love wildlife and enjoy country walks, you've got the makings of a badger patroller, writes Lesley Docksey. You can walk at night if you want to, but daytime observation on country lanes and footpaths is no less important, watching out for the signs of cullers at work. And with the trust and warm friendship that builds among badger patrollers, you'll never be without congenial company.
Running on a mixture of exhaustion, relief, anger and frustration ... but I shall always remember the fantastic friendships, strangers that have become good friends, who share the same values and that you can absolutely rely on.
With the prospect of yet more areas being opened up to the cruel and unscientific badger culls this year, badger groups are wondering how they can encourage more people to come out on patrol during the culls.
The many thousands of people who support badgers, do the marches and sign petitions, does not translate into thousands of 'boots on the ground'. Why?
Perhaps people don't understand quite what patrolling to protect badgers involves. They've read the horror stories on social media, think it's all in the dark and facing threatening men with guns - scary stuff. Some of it can be, but it's mostly walking, endless walking.
People walk during the day, on lanes and public rights of way, noting any signs of preparation for night-time killing, spotting cage-traps being transported or locating bait points. These are peanuts hidden under flat stones or turf. Badgers find them and stay to eat, making a nice easy target for a gun.
Others walk in the late afternoon, locating cage-traps that have been set ready for the night and passing the information on to others who remove the traps (borderline legal) or damage them (illegal and not part of patrolling).
Or there's the very early morning walk, finding cages with badgers inside before the cullers come back to shoot them. It is quite legal to release these badgers if you believe the badger is 'distressed'.
Meeting threats and idiocy with polite reserve
And yes, patrols go out at night, being as visible as possible on rights of way, deterring any shooters, reporting shots heard to those less visible, who can go in and move the cullers on. There are times when patrols are faced with abusive behaviour, but one's never alone, as this patroller relates:
"We had all but finished a patrol and were walking, with bright torches and wearing hi-vis, back to the car. As we passed this particular farm, the owners and passengers 'happened' to arrive home in their car. They passed us then slowed the car down to almost stopped, turned hard and drove at us at some considerable speed, stopping just a few inches away from us. We ignored it and carried on walking.
"We then got the usual 'Are you lost?' routine. We said 'No' and walked on while they all fell about laughing. However, on spotting Tony's body cam they soon became apologetic and claimed they hadn't seen us!
"A few minutes later we were approached by a Land Rover. Prepared for another round of stupidity, we were really pleased to find it was Kernow (Cornwall) sabs who'd seen the whole thing from their high vantage point and had come to check we were OK.
"It was awesome to realise that whatever we may encounter, we've got a fantastic team behind us who are all watching each other's backs."
If you decide to take part, remember this: barring violence and criminal damage which are not part of badger patrols, patrollers have a legal right to go where they go and do what they do. Some police are gradually learning to support patrollers in that.
Equipment, travel and rest
Some equipment is essential. Apart from the obvious warm clothing, waterproofs, boots, high-visibility jackets, torches with spare batteries, maps, compasses, cameras and mobile phones with a GPS facility, one should add, if possible, dashboard and body cameras to record any incidents.
Night vision binoculars are helpful and thermal imagers would be a great aid, but are horrendously expensive unless you're funded by the taxpayer, which patrollers aren't.
People come from far away. Two volunteers, faithfully driving miles on several nights and trying to balance environmental concerns (carbon emissions v badgers) commented: "We saw badgers, barn and tawny owls, and an eruption of toads ... our very visible presence helped to keep alive the local and national debate around the cull, challenge the cull and look after individual badgers."
The Isle of Wight's badger group sent people to help Dorset. One young man came by ferry across the Channel and hitched down to Somerset, plannning to stay for the duration. Somerset sent him on to Cornwall, which was experiencing its first year of culling and desperately needed help.
Some people stay at the Camp Badger sites set up by local hunt saboteurs, and some lucky folk get real beds and loving care:
"When the call came out for places to accommodate people coming to help save badgers, I offered up our B&B so they could have somewhere dry and warm to stay. The people we have hosted have been lovely, kind and passionate; their stories have been amazing and given me a glimpse into the world of the front-line wildlife campaigner. Their relief, after a long night of activity, at being able to slump in a hot bath and a cosy bed was priceless."
Nature as you've never seen it before - beautiful, but marred by the horror of culling.
"Looking over a Dorset landscape by day, or under a starlight sky, is deeply moving. But when on patrol the experience is instantly marred by the thought of what is happening out there. That almost unbearable feeling, however, is partially eased by the knowledge that we are there trying to do something about it.
"We retraced our steps and saw headlights coming towards us. An open truck with three young men swaggering upright in the back wielding guns, gleefully informed us they were out culling. It was very strange to be among such beauty while being subjected to the horror and the reality of the killing fields. The beauty and the beast are alive in our woods but this is no fairy tale."
"Standing on one of the county's massive hillforts, high above the surrounding land, one can only guess at the landscape below. In the dark all that is invisible. But we are, standing high and shining our torches down onto the farms below, a message writen on the sky - badger protectors are here. From some miles away we are seen. Another patrol drives up, coming to check who's on the hill. A greeting, a chat and they are off again, racing to a farm down below, while we go on walking and shining our torches."
Walking through ancient woodland at night is a wonderland, torches playing over massive knarled trunks and branches towering against a moonlit sky - not to be missed. And regardless of the fact that the woods are full of badgers and therefore surrounded by gunmen, one person said, "I always feel safe when I'm in a wood."
The highs and the lows
While the culls last the pressure is relentless. Going out every day or night, or both, getting lost, getting stuck in mud, mile after mile of endless trudging, driving home and falling, bone-weary, into bed. Where one lies awake, worrying about how many badgers survived to live another day. It is not surprising that many people collapse after it's over, prey to whatever bugs are doing the rounds.
One patroller wrote, "Currently running on a mixture of exhaustion, relief, anger and frustration here - I expect you feel the same." But she added, "I shall always go on remembering the fantastic friendships formed, strangers that have become good friends, who share the same values and that you can absolutely rely on."
And this is true for everyone. No one walks alone. The companionship, the bonds formed and the trust built between us makes for more courage than people thought they had, for determination to keep going and to calmly face the occasional bursts of stupid nastiness from farmers and cullers.
There's laughter too: "What made me laugh? Stopping for a pee and wondering who was watching with night vision! And sitting in the pouring rain on a soggy bale of hay with friends about midnight in the middle of nowhere and thinking what a sight we must look. My sleeping-bag-suit always made people laugh!"
A high point? "My first patrol on a moonlit night, clambering over ancient styles, each one different in its form and antiquity. I felt like a dog with an extremely arthritic hip at the end."
And the low points? "Our cars blocked in by shooters in the woods, rescued by M and the police. The shock of finding a shooting tower and peanuts illegally planted right next to a badger sett.
"Being horrified at the threatening behaviour of two farming women. One tried to stop us on the public footpath, demanding to know which walking group we were with. The other shone the lights of her 4x4 in our faces, till we told her we were legally on a public footpath, when she replied 'Oh, I was just worried about you, my cows are in that field and might frighten you'."
Because guns are involved, police are always in the area. Some policing is poor, some good and helpful. Not everyone trusts them, but they have a duty to protect and, as seen above, can and will intervene when necessary.
Nowt so queer as folk ...
It is amazing how little imagination pro-cull farmers display - swear words spat out of vehicle windows as they drive past, or stopping and asking "Are you lost?", "Are you happy?", "Do you enjoy walking in the dark?", or "I don't want my cows to frighten you." That last is sometimes "I don't want you to frighten my cows", when the cows are in the next field or may not be there at all...
One farmer drove up to a patrol walking across a field. "Don't want you to go in that field, I have cows there", indicating the next field. Patrollers said they weren't going there. "Because a day or two ago I found a dead calf there", implying it was the patrollers what done it. A pause. "I found it last week." Pause, mumble, mumble, "Well, maybe two weeks ago."
Whatever challenges patrollers might face, it won't be pro-culler intelligence. Whatever footpaths patrollers are using, they often go by or through farmyards and walkers see at firsthand the dirty disease-ridden state of many farms. This patroller reported all he had seen the authorities:
"One farmyard was completely covered in slurry (which can support bovine TB bacilli for many months). This farm is currently locked down with bTB. The farmer in question took part in the badger cull.
"On a neighbouring farm I found two newly dead roe deer, each left to rot in a field supporting dairy cattle. This farmer also took part in the badger cull. I could go on about dead sheep left to rot, dead stock thrown over a fence into scrub, or piles of farm bio-hazard waste dumped on a public footpath ...
"If farmers want to be taken seriously when they profess to be fighting bTB, they have a mountain of work to do to get their own house in order before they blame the humble badger."
And finally ... the absolute high that keeps people going
"Having stopped the shooting and made the guns leave, we drive back home tired out and longing for bed, when we see the best thing of all - badgers setting out on their own night-time patrols."
Will you join the badger patrols this year? Why not contact your local badger group and find out if they run training days. Many badger patrol groups have their own pages on Facebook.
Lesley Docksey is a freelance writer who writes for The Ecologist and other media on the badger cull and other environmental topics, and on political issues for UK and international websites.
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