It dawned on me a few months ago, when a cull looked to be too stupid and ugly a prospect, that we can show no real mettle in the battle to stop the slaughter of wildlife overseas if we are seen to be slaying it without scientific basis.
I have spent time recently with Andrew Lynch, an MSc student who is voraciously charting the former range of badgers in an area of London from which they disappeared in the 1990s. A few weeks ago we entered a wood of ancient origins that is closed to the public armed with a rusty key and the permission of the landowner. We crunched through leaf litter rarely trodden by humans, through spider webs, brambles and holly. There were no paths. We discovered two specimens of Solomon’s seal, an ancient woodland plant that was surviving here in the deep shade of an unmanaged but very old and undisturbed woodland. The next day Andrew discovered a crumbled badger sett, its former inhabitants long gone. Why did they go? It’s hard to say, but that’s the point of Andrew’s work. In my view it is probably because the human population rose and the local environment felt the eventual impact of the post-war development of open fields and other pockets of woodland. They were most likely cut off from badgers living on London’s periphery. This is an animal that likes to create new colonies and does not like inbreeding. The badgers were reintroduced but their roaming nature led them to their deaths on main roads a few miles away. Amazingly we have recently had a record of badgers returning to one of the woods that is open to the public and well used. It was a moment of immense satisfaction and gave us hope for this network of dysfunctional woodlands. To think that badgers could be returning to woodlands which suffered disturbance in the Victorian times but still makes a home for owls, bats and other woodland animals, feels like a crowning moment. They will not have a sett in this area of London for many, many years, but to think that they have been by is, in part, a conservation triumph for the local community.
I find it difficult to respond to the fact that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) are contracting the slaughter of badgers in Somerset and Gloucestershire with anything other than anger. The cull is wrong, expensive, bloodthirsty, unscientific, barbaric and worst of all, it is happening. It angers me like nothing else that afflicts our environment. For British wildlife conservation today it’s worse than the Lydd Airport trump, the shameful Oaken Wood debacle, the threat to privatise the public woodland estate, the idea of 50 ancient woodlands lost to HS2, and far more sinister than the threat of ash dieback disease or oak processionary moth. I feel a deep seated sense of injustice. A cull has already been done and proved ineffective in reducing bovine TB (bTB) in any meaningful way. I believe the National Farmer’s Union and DEFRA should take greater responsibility for biosecurity and that badgers and cattle should be vaccinated, that the government should show a greater willingness to invest in this rather than focusing solely on political gains for 2015. They have, however, turned more than 300,000 people against them, perhaps for good. I am convinced, from what I’ve read and heard from all involved that it is based on political ideology – much like the government’s attempts to downgrade Lewisham A&E (deemed unlawful by the High Court) – and is purely to accrue political support from the farming lobby at the next election. I feel there is a bloodthirsty element to the cull, just like the killing of hen harriers to the point of extinction in England, the poisoning of buzzards and golden eagles in Scotland. With the badger cull we are in the throes of a witch hunt. It has the hint of Chairman Mao’s communist war on tree sparrows which backfired completely. This is the very thing we as leaders of the global conservation effort are attempting to halt overseas and now, it seems, at home.
Life and people have moved on from the days of the hunt, when the aristocracy took to the countryside to chase foxes on horseback. Wildlife is valued for more than its fur and flesh, many people in the UK have come to value the need for a connection with the natural world, and science has taught us the need for humans to maintain the environment and to repair degraded ecosystems. The repair takes on many different forms – the work of the Great Bustard Group, reintroducing this charismatic and iconic bird to Wiltshire after it was hunted to extinction in the UK; the resurgence of otters, another animal ‘clashing’ with humans where it forages from commercial fish ponds, but a welcome sign of healthier rivers in England; and then there’s the crane, a bird that was slaughtered in its thousands and now returning, like the spoonbill, to breed for the first time in over 400 years. It’s hard to say why the crane is back, but it could be because larger areas of land are being set aside for wildlife, larger reserves rather than pockets. These are great moments in the history of British wildlife conservation and are not all because of human action. Another great thing is the thriving badger population in England, of which there is no set figure. However, one thing that the badger cull reminds us is that whenever wildlife does well – foxes and cormorants being examples – it is treated with disdain and someone, often on the right wing of government, will call for a cull. Take Boris Johnson’s recent attack on London’s foxes. It is an instinctive, atavistic response, rooted in a love for slaughter that is abhorred by more modern attitudes towards animal welfare and the environment. Most pertinently it is a human failing, an inability to look at the impact we have on species and ecosystems we believe ourselves to be free from and above. When it comes to natural resources no species is more invasive and damaging than we and yet no other species has the ability to think and reflect over how we might improve our behaviour, to evolve, and improve the health of the environment not merely for ourselves.
Perhaps my lifestyle is implicated somewhere in the decline of the hedgehog but the badger is not to blame.
For me, the beauty of badgers is their very nocturnal nature, something which has inspired artists, scientists, conservationists and authors down the centuries. The image of a twilight woodland is one of the most magical, with badgers beginning their nightly forage for worms (and yes, even hedgehogs sometimes), moths taking to the wing with the moon as their guide, and tawny owls calling from the canopy, their prey of mice and voles scrabbling around in the leaf litter. If I were to talk like this to many people who are for a badger cull, I would be labelled as emotional and naïve or worse, only against a cull because I think badgers are sweet. I know that badgers predate hedgehogs but I don’t blame them for the decline in their prey. It’s an excuse used by individuals who have no scientific grounds to defend the cull. Perhaps my lifestyle is implicated somewhere in the decline of the hedgehog but the badger is not to blame. The blame for that can firmly remain with human impacts on the landscape, the lack of suitable habitat, a loss of food sources after the tidying up and poisoning of the English landscape through mass expansion of intensive agriculture after the Second World War (note that in modern times Owen Paterson went against the will of the people when voting to continue with neonicotinoid-laced systemic pesticides that kill wild pollinators and ruin the soil).
It dawned on me a few months ago, when a cull looked to be too stupid and ugly a prospect, that we can show no real mettle in the battle to stop the slaughter of wildlife overseas – migrating birds in Malta and Cyprus, lions in Africa, tigers in India – if we are seen to be slaying wildlife without any scientific basis. England is just as bad as everyone else. In the same way that we are looking to destroy our own version of the rainforests through development, we cannot truly argue with deforestation in the Amazon, the Congo and Eastern Europe when we are championing the very same thing at home. Overseas these people are barbarians, at home they are ‘doing the right thing’. And as we look for badgers in a landscape that has lost them, the loss feels peculiar with the government’s mindless slaughter of this beautiful and vital wild animal echoing in the background. I just hope that in twenty years people in Somerset and Gloucestershire will not be retracing old setts mindful of the senseless brutality that was inflicted in the past. Looking at the state of things it appears a distinct possibility.