Front cover of Badgerlands by Patrick Barkham.
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The beguiling magic of badgers at dusk
25th July 2014
To live sustainably we must learn to live with wildlife, Patrick Barkham argues in his book Badgerlands. To do this we have much to learn from our ancestors - but we must also discard their barbaric practices and outrageous myths that, even today, some are so keen to perpetuate.
This book should inspire readers to get acquainted with the dusk and dark - and the magic - of the badger's world.
Patrick Barkham was born lucky. He grew up in Norfolk among probably the last generation of young children who could roam free in the countryside, with a father who taught environmental science and who, on country walks, taught and generated within him a passion for nature.
And he had a much-loved grandmother that many children would wish for - Jane Ratcliffe , a dedicated badger-watcher who also mended and rehabilitated injured badgers, owls and many other wild creatures.
He was lucky too in that he had always wanted to be a writer and following university he got a job as a junior writer and researcher in his chosen newspaper The Guardian - a childhood dream realised.
As one of their feature writers he has tackled many subjects, but nature and all that encompasses is now dominating his work.
Badgers and butterflies
Having lived a city life for 10 years and wanting to reconnect with the natural world of his youth, he set himself a project - to find all the butterflies that live in Britain, which resulted in his book The Butterfly Isles.
This was followed by Badgerlands , published last year to great acclaim. The New Statesman, the Times, the Sunday Times and the Guardian all chose it as a 'Book of the Year' - rightly so. It is not just well written and informative - it is also an easy and enjoyable read, carrying you effortlessly from chapter to chapter.
For someone whose grandmother played a major part in gaining legal protection for badgers, he had only ever had a few fleeting glimpses of a live badger.
And badgers, with all the arguments about the government's proposed culling plans, were on everyone's minds. Remembering his grandmother and her passion for badgers, he said she would have been "utterly dismayed" at the prospect of the cull.
Knowing Mr Brock the badger
He wanted to explore the history of the relationship between humans and badgers, and how attitudes might have changed. Very few people, even those in rural areas, know much about badgers and their lives.
Reading some of the records and sporting manuals going back centuries, he found great deal of ignorance and misinformed views about this enigmatic animal, an ignorance which, while laughable in the present day, still sadly persists.
The badger has a long history. Living here for 500,000 years it has managed to survive even the most determined persecution by man to become the icon of British Wildlife Trusts.
As Badgerlands explains, the change in the public perception of the badger is mostly down to Kenneth Grahame's portrayal of Badger in Wind in the Willows. Mr Badger became someone to trust and look up to rather than feared.
From being almost extinct in parts of Britain to gaining a level of much needed protection in 1973, badgers have recovered in numbers. Yet many people, including those who support the protests against badger culling, have never seen a living badger.
Giving a talk to a packed audience in West Dorset, very much 'badger country', Patrick said he was not alone in not seeing badgers. He has often asked audiences if any of them have seen live badgers. Only a few say "yes". In Dorset he asked who had not seen a badger in the wild. No hands went up.
Each one is an individual
Reading Badgerlands, you learn a lot about badgers, their sett building, their cleanliness (they are immaculate housekeepers), their catholic tastes in food (as omnivores they love grapes as much as meat, and spiced food proved popular) and the wide range of social behaviour within their groups.
Because they tend to forage alone, they can be seen as 'primitive' animals with basic social instincts. Yet they choose to live in groups, groom each other, care for each other (one badger, born blind, was shepherded by family members) and they inter their dead.
And not being that primitive, they also display great individuality. When Patrick joined a vaccination project one night, all the badgers that had been trapped for vaccination reacted differently. Some were understandably very stressed; others were calm, not to say laid back.
One was so fast asleep it only woke up when being vaccinated. One had managed to pull an old plastic feed sack into its cage as a bed. Another had pulled grass into its cage, made a nest and gone to sleep - and having been vaccinated, didn't want to leave its cage.
But you will learn far, far more about the humans who, one way or another, interact with badgers, the people who inhabit Badgerlands. You meet the scientists who study them; people who welcome them into their gardens; those who rescue and rehabilitate them; the anti-cull activists patrolling the lanes; farmers who loathe, and farmers who like the badgers on their land.
And those who still, despite the law, persecute and torture badgers. You also meet a host of conflicting opinions.
A long history of persecution
For genuine lovers of animals, the chapter on badger digging and baiting is the most difficult to read. The long history of persecution is not a comfortable subject and it is hard to understand the mentality behind baiting (or indeed any hunting for sport).
It is not a 'high society' sport where deer and foxes have been conserved in order to ensure enough to hunt. The badger was, and is, the poor man's sport.
In Jane Ratcliffe's badger watching days in Cheshire badgers suffered terribly from the diggers who travelled out from Stoke-on-Trent and other towns. Jane and her husband Teddy had been observing 27 setts. Between 1969 and 1971 no fewer than 15 were destroyed, mostly by diggers. By 1973 only one sett was still occupied.
From its rural roots baiting has become an urban 'sport'. Diggers and baiters tend to come from old mining communities and council estates and they breed and boast about the dogs they use. One man, convicted for digging and killing badgers, would spend the summer months taking his terriers round the shows.
He 'loved' his dogs so much his number plate read "DOG". But was it really love that put his dogs at risk of injury, or macho pride? Should we not just call it blood lust that drives the persecution of badgers and other wildlife?
Outrageous (and unbelievable) myths
While many farmers are knowledgeable about the badgers and other wildlife on their land, there can also be a lot of ignorance. Outrageous myths about badgers still persist and are repeated among some farmers.
"One farmer told me in all seriousness that he had watched badgers gathering at dusk ready to take newborn lambs. It was as though the farmer was still living in the 18th century. The politics of the cull has encouraged a retreat into historic thinking, of viewing the badger as diseased, aggressive, invasive."
This willingness, based on ignorance, to blame the badger for the whole of the bovine TB problem has been greatly encouraged by the language the NFU and Defra have used, when pushing for the cull.
Constantly repeated untruths become facts in both farmers' and the public's minds. It has, suggested Patrick, awakened old fears and prejudices buried deep in the rural psyche. Ex-Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and his allies have a lot to answer for.
Local extinctions reported
Badgerlands doesn't give an account of all the complexities of the government's badger culling policy and the science that goes with or against it - that was not Patrick's focus. That, he said, was a book for someone else to write. And, as he said after his talk in Dorset, "I still don't know the answer to bovine TB and badger culling."
One must remember that the book was written before the pilot badger culls had taken place and much more information has since become available, including the fact that the incidence of TB in cattle was already dropping - before any culling took place.
Where the 'science' of culling is concerned, Badgerlands came out with one interesting fact. In the summary of the badger's history, it noted that because the badger was so ruthlessly persecuted, it was in many places a rare animal and in some areas considered extinct. And this was at a time when TB was rife in both cattle and humans.
The badger cull has reignited a lot of interest in our wildlife and the environment generally. Asked whether, considering such issues as climate change, that interest will become more important in tackling the future, Patrick replied that he hoped that was right. But he felt we have gone backwards since the early 1990s when there was a great awareness of green and environmental issues.
"Politically that thinking seems to have stalled and it is now hard, when writing about the environment, to remain hopeful."
Although he acknowledges the advances made by environmental activism, which have sometimes altered governmental thinking, he says most environmentalists believe that progress towards a more sustainable way of life is too slow.
We must learn to live with wildlife
Considering the way that pro-cull supporters tend to dismiss anti-cull people as "sentimental", Patrick said:
"If you care about something you will be sentimental, and that's not a bad thing ... But the debate is so polarised now, because of bovine TB. One side is sentimental, the other hardhearted, but for all of us the truth is somewhere in between.
"We view with incomprehension the idea that we should take a hit from wildlife and suffer because of it. I'm sure that many of us with plants in our gardens struggle with this one, putting slug pellets down for instance ...
"I'm not judging farmers for putting their economic interests first, but we as a nation need to look at that ... If we want a more sustainable way of living, and I believe that we would be much the poorer if we don't care for our environment, we have to accept that wildlife will impinge on our lives in negative ways and be tolerant of that."
Sentiment is feeling, and there is a lot of feeling in Badgerlands. Anyone reading this book will be better informed on all sides of the interaction between badgers and humanity.
But more than that, this book should inspire readers to get acquainted with the dusk and dark - and the magic - of the badger's world.
Lesley Docksey is a freelance writer who writes for the Ecologist on the badger cull and other environmental subjects.
See Lesley's other articles for The Ecologist.
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