Thursday, November 3, 2011

Starting points...

For the farming community culling badgers is a reasonable solution to the bovine tuberculosis (bTB) problem. I know this because of just how much I fear a reactor in our herd. The days between the tests and the results are an anxious time.

You see a herd of cows is much more than just a herd of cows. To discover bTB in your herd is not simply about the 100, 200 or even 500 cattle being shot. It’s also about the loss of your income, your livelihood, your heritage, your hobby, your woes, your life’s work, and everything that kept you going when the alarm went off at 5 am. In short to discover bTB in your herd means an irrevocable change to your life and livelihood as you know it.

In my opinion farming today is often thought of as being at odds with the natural world and the debate over bTB could be seen as proof of this. In our subconscious we have separated our ‘food production’ and ‘our countryside’ when really we should consider them as one and the same.

Let us also not forget that most farmers delight in the wildlife on their farms, they welcome the return of the swallow as a sign of winter’s end and they mourn the loss of the skylark’s song on summer days- but they understand better than anyone that idylls come at a cost. To put it bluntly if culling a few badgers, somewhere far away could prevent the terrible fall-out of this disease reaching your life might you be in favour. You may well.

Where we think we’re at...

Badgers are one of a handful of species that can catch and spread bTB. The disease is a growing problem among cattle and whether you feel that cattle graze on badgers territories or badgers forage on cattle ground the truth is the two species share habitat and share a disease. It is also true that we have to do something about the spread of bTB- we can’t just turn a blind eye whilst thousands of cattle are slaughtered and people’s lives unravel just because the questions raised are a bit tricky. The most frequently touted options are to vaccinate wild badger populations- or to cull them.

The pros and cons of these two options have been discussed, tested and debated in great depth, for some time, and by people much more informed than me. What I do know is that such controversial issues raise a great deal of comment. I also know the loudest voices are not always the most informed, and equally that having a bigger soapbox does not make your opinion anymore valid or correct. All I know is that living where I do, and leading the life I lead I am simply aware of the impact picking the wrong measure could have.

Whether you’re pro-vaccination or pro-cull it seems all too readily assumed that the situation in which we find ourselves is somehow ‘natural’. We are treating the current distribution and movements of badgers as if they are at some wild base-level determined only by Mother Nature. At the risk of making a controversial topic even more controversial this is just not so- and these are the foundations upon which big decisions with big implications are being made.

Badgers are protected by law- to kill one is a crime, so too is disturbing their setts and it is perhaps because they are afforded this official protection that we so readily assume their population is ‘uncontrolled’.

Where we’re at...

The way I see it the vast and ever-more complex place that is the British countryside is home to a myriad of different user-groups, different individuals, different voices, opinions and attitudes- and on the whole it’s a better place for it. On the downside this means controversial species such as badgers can find themselves on the receiving end when some of the more agitated attitudes turn to actions.

Our small farm may not be representative but it is the only example I have. We once had two active setts, the largest of which with about 15 adult badgers in residence. Save for a bit of digging in the cow pastures they were little trouble- they’re shy and elusive and you wouldn’t know we had them. Over the years the badger population seemed to dwindle and some of the sett entrances fell out of use. Then one day we noticed the distinctive sign of human activity- someone had dug the sett- and the badgers were gone.

I was furious, not just at the intrusion but also because our bTB-free badger’s territory sat rather nicely in the middle of our bTB-free farm. It was comforting to think that my badgers would see-off any wandering individuals- obviously territories don’t run strictly in line with farm boundaries and my peace of mind was perhaps born of naivety but regardless of this I was happy with the way things had been.

I began to think about why my badgers had dwindled and then been dug- and the fate of other badgers in the locality. It became clear that life as a protected animal wasn’t one of guaranteed safety:

  • We are often approached by individuals or groups looking for somewhere to go shooting. With few exceptions they are polite and genuine and just after pigeons, rabbits or corvids, some after foxes or hares- but others are after whatever they can hit and a few will offer to “rid anything we don’t want”- and these are just the ones that ask.
  • The country lanes here are plagued by illegal lamping- the lights scanning the fields in the early hours is so prevalent and so hard to police that it is largely ignored. I’ve got no idea how many animals are shot, or of which species- I doubt that anyone does.
  • Then there are pheasant shoots- two locally- and keepers charged with protecting hundreds of docile captive-bred poults from the natural world into which they have been released. I have no doubt that the vast majority of keepers- like farmers- contribute much more to the countryside than they take away. But there are always others, working in the remote countryside, made more remote by the hours they work- and with a long list of native species that are perceived to pose a threat to the birds they’re tasked with protecting.
  • The way game keeping is carried out here has also changed; large estate shoots have given way to small private affairs run by individuals across land that belongs to a number of separate holdings. The gamekeepers here are not employed full time- but are people with guns and a quad that willing to look after the pheasants on a part-time basis. Game keeping here has become more detached and less labour intensive- and as a result is driven to be more efficient.
  • Then there are those landowners ‘in the know’- conversations in which advice and insinuation are interwoven. Its common knowledge in the countryside that slurry or diesel will drive badgers from their setts. We all know that disturbing a sett is only a crime if it’s discovered, that being discovered on private land is unlikely, and that you’re only really disturbing a sett with intent if you knew it was there. You’re not killing the badgers, you’re persuading them to leave.
All of the above represent the thoughts and actions of a few. They do not represent the thoughts or actions of the vast majority of landowners, farmers or gamekeepers. But all of the above is true of some.

Now the story of the badgers on our farm may not be typical of half, or a third, or a fifth, or a tenth of farms across Britain- but just supposing it were. If this were true then the size, distribution and population of badger clans and territories would seem to be at least in part dictated by the actions of our landowners as too would the dispersal rates of groups or individuals.

If a good habitat is cleared of its badgers it will doubtless attract others badgers- displaced animals will move in- or neighbouring territories will expand. I’m not for one moment implying that unhindered badger populations are static but if the distribution and movement of these animals is caused by the actions of a minority then it may well be enough to add momentum to the spread of bTB. Are we already in a vicious cycle of fear, reaction and ultimately the further spread of bTB?


There is justified concern about the spread of bTB.

Badgers are afforded protection because they are perceived as a threat to rural business interests. This is compounded by concern about the spread of bTB.

I think Britain’s badger population is already controlled by us and this is bound to have an effect on the current spread of both badgers and bTB.

Because of this I am sceptical but not fully opposed to a cull of badgers.

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