The cull is on and the joy of autumn is ruined. As I tread stony woodland paths that I’ve trodden for over 30 years, stopping to admire fungi or to check hazelnuts for rodent toothmarks as usual, I feel underlying fear and anxiety. Woodland gives way to grazing pasture on one side of the hedgebank above the sunken path and there, neat rows of horizontal fern fronds combine with vertical stems to form the square mesh of cages before my eyes.
Although I actually see nothing untoward, I am aware that any section of fencing, any clump of bramble, could hide a badger trap. I pass a spent gun cartridge – plastic littering the earth – as a reminder. On the other side of the wire fence, beside the wood that forms a canopy above my head, beef cattle graze contentedly on lush pastures and a sleek fox suns itself in the last warmth of a summer now turned to autumn. Along the woodland edge, a few discarded plastic buckets, rolls of wire, new fence posts – all signs of human activity – fill me with dread. In the distance, I hear the whine of a chainsaw.
I am not simply being paranoid. As the countryside goes to sleep, there are real reasons for my distress. I live in badger country but have little or no individual influence over what happens here. I love my wildlife garden with a passion too deep to express, but farmland ownership is beyond my means. Among many of those who are landowners, badgers continue to be blamed for bovine TB and the arguments continue along with the killing.
Yesterday I found a weathered badger skull, completely exposed on the steep side of the pathside hedge bank, reminding me that countless generations of badgers had lived and died there. They exist in close-knit families – digging, foraging, tumbling over each other, cleaning out their setts and snuffling around for worms and berries, just as we see them in wildlife films.
The white molars were still there in the jaws, which hinged beautifully, opening and closing like a comic puppet mouth. One piece of bone, on the nose near the top of the head, seemed to be sliced cleanly, as if by a glancing blow with an axe edge, not accurate enough to smash the bone. I hope this animal died a natural death. I slipped the skull into a pocket of my fleece, cradling it in my hand.
On the other side of the wood, remarkably, I found another skull that same day, in a greater state of decay. Up the hill, by some fungi I was perusing, I found a spine, too; possibly badger but maybe a deer. This bone was younger, shinier and fresher. Every piece was beautifully formed, interlocking with the next, yet no longer held together by muscles and spinal cord. It would have been too difficult to pick up without it falling apart, so I left it in peace.
The only natural predators of the European badger are wolves and bears, which might be tempted to eat the cubs. We have upset the balance of nature with clever inventions that increase our own dominance, and I don’t just mean guns (see below). Road traffic kills up to 50,000 badgers a year in Britain – a huge proportion of the population – added to which, we now have a cull.
To quote The Woodland Trust, ‘badgers are a wood’s ruling clan’. https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/animals/mammals/badger/
Those black and white stripes were the flag of our countryside’s rulers for a long time. Badgers have lived on our islands – a native species that is now also a protected species – for millennia (at least 250,000 years). They were resident long before people ventured here, and humans have lived in Britain continuously for only about 21,000 years. Perhaps we should use black and white stripes on our national flag to honour our ruling predecessors, replacing the black and white cross of St Piran in Cornwall and the red, white and blue of the Union Jack.
We still have a quarter of the world population of badgers living in our rather diminutive islands. And yet that may be only 250–400,000 individuals, as opposed to 66.65 million humans recorded in the UK in 2019. According to DEFRA, there are around 9.6 million cattle in the UK, of which 1,487,350 were slaughtered in 2019.
Although these seem like large numbers, the biggest problem for the UK’s cattle farmers must surely be the mind-bogglingly immense cattle farms abroad, where an individual animal loses its personality and identity in the sheer magnitude of animals and acreage, driving down meat prices to feed billions. Soya production replaces biodiversity in formerly wild places to feed all those crowded cattle. Deforestation for cattle ranching creates barren, silent, degraded land where wondrous forests with swooping, whooping, buzzing, whirring life once flourished.
This is a world where better-educated, privileged populations realise we must stop overeating red meat and dairy (especially imports from mega-industry) for the sake of our own health and the health of the world. But we are busy creatures of habit, and we mostly choose neither to make the connections nor to take immediate action.
The vision of a few sturdy beasts grazing small, flowery pastures, contentedly chewing the cud, is still a limited reality in Cornwall. However, with the dramatic loss of flower-rich meadows it’s largely a hazy ideal, and unless we change our eating (and paying) habits en masse to discourage cheap meat imports from around the world, small farms have to change or go bust. This is not the fault of badgers. Once the cull is a thing of the past, consumers and farmers might live more comfortably together, and move onwards with greater mutual understanding. Our population must be able to afford to eat high quality local produce, so the ill effects of the alternatives such as animal cruelty, human exploitation, transport pollution and environmental degradation must be factored into prices. Our farmers need support if they are to feed us and also look after the soil, the countryside and its wildlife into the future.
Back to the past: even in the days of local butchers and greengrocers, carts, churns and wooden milking stools, it was becoming too late for nature. We had plenty of guns and poisons to kill off wildlife. Having introduced agriculture, our society sadly lost the ancient, wise and necessary respect for the natural world held by hunter-gatherers long ago. As our own numbers have grown out of proportion to our own niche, we haven’t been able to share the bounty. We have kept our own food stores and tried to keep the rest of nature out. The traditional foes of farmers in our society have, for centuries, been wild animals, aka ‘vermin’. It’s one of those ‘them and us’ situations that always lead to bloodshed.
As well as struggling to keep their heads above water in the competitive meat market, our 21st century cattle farmers remain justifiably terrified of losing their animals – and their livelihoods – to TB. Thanks to scientific progress, we hold a new solution in our hands that could be acceptable and beneficial to all: vaccination of badgers, even if vaccination of cattle themselves is still a matter of frustrating uncertainty and debate. Yet only some farmers are on board, the effects of vaccination may take a few years, the cogs of change grind far too slowly, and people are creatures of habit who think (especially about the urgent need for income) in the short term. The badger cull continues.
Meanwhile, despite having such developed brains, we humans have taken the natural world’s free gifts – like pollination, oxygen to breathe, productive soil, medicinal wild plants and constant supplies of water, the joy of birdsong and the sheer uplifting beauty of nature – for granted, as would any other animal; semi-oblivious to what we now label ‘ecosystem services’ in our anthropogenic world.
Claims that badgers are responsible for the decline in hedgehogs fills me with welling rage. Badgers and hedgehogs coexisted for millennia before we put our spanner in the works. When we removed much of Britain’s woodland cover then divided up the land between ourselves, we spared the hedgehog by building so many hedges. When land is degraded and when traditional wildlife-rich tangled hedges and woodland edges diminish, along with ponds and ditches, the landscape can no longer support hedgehogs. Rural hedgehogs are disappearing faster than urban ones as we change the countryside.
Whether in rural or urban environments, we have deprived hedgehogs of safe shelter, killed off their previously abundant prey, fenced them out of our gardens, run them over on our ever-increasing network of roads, built over their habitats, subjected them to attacks by our dogs, and poisoned them with our slug pellets and other chemicals. Unless we change the way we live and the way we ignore or persecute wildlife in our ignorance, the human race is in for a barren and impoverished future. We have already omitted to teach natural history in our school curriculums, then installed alternative electronic worlds that distract us from the wondrous diversity around us. We voluntarily become trapped in our buildings with our own fevered imaginations and twisted inner realities. (Indoors is where I am now, but a blue sky beckons me outside.)
In the 21st century, tufts of coarse badger hair still catch on 20th century barbed wire fencing. The familiar claw-marked badger paths still lead downhill through the trees to woodland valley streams. But cages are baited, hidden somewhere nearby. Guns are being loaded. I wonder whether COVID-19 and its repercussions – or Brexit – are drawing attention, funds and people away from caring about badgers and developing the vaccination program. I don’t know the answer. My badger skull sits by my side with hollow, empty eyes. Long live its descendants.
Two good articles from Countryfile magazine: