by Patrick Barkham
Badgers: Loved or loathed?
The Twilight World of Britain's Most Enigmatic Animal
Feature writer, Mark Smith, "Just up ahead in the wood, something is moving"..............
Patrick Barkham switches on his torch and shines it at the dark. "There," he
says, "do you see it?" He points the light straight in front of us, but all I
can see is a circle of white and across it the random black scribbles of trees.
Then, after a second or two, in the middle of the light, I spot it too: the eyes
of an animal, bright red and fixed on us. For a second, I stare at it, and it
stares at me. Then there's a little flash of movement and the animal disappears.
Could it have been a badger? That's certainly what we came out to these woods to
find, but today it would be easier to spot a celebrity than a badger. Just a
couple of miles down the road, the Wigtown Book Festival has started and the
area is full of writers and famous people, including Joanna Lumley. Finding a
television star is not a problem. Finding a badger is going to be harder.
Barkham, a nature writer who has just published a book on badgers, did warn me
our hunt would be like this and there's a simple reason: badgers are
exceptionally good at spotting us and we are exceptionally bad at spotting them.
Even so, this wood is just the kind of place the species love. For a start, we
are near a burn and they like water. We are also near some boggy fields which
are nice and wet and easy to dig into for worms (the badger's number one
favourite meal). The ground is also perfect for digging setts, their elaborate
and elegant underground homes.
ahead, Patrick Barkham is still looking at the spot where he sighted the pair of
eyes. "I love the idea that a badger could be just a few feet away from us and
quietly slinking off because that's how they do it," he says. "We could have a
badger just a few feet away and he's looking at us and smelling us and we have
no idea he's there."
It is partly this, says Barkham - the ability of the badger to be close but
inconspicuous - that has ensured its survival in the UK, although by any measure
its survival has been hard fought. For hundreds of years, the species has been
persecuted, baited, dug out and tortured and even now, 40 years after it was
made a protected animal, the persecution continues.
Across the UK, and particularly in the Central Belt of Scotland, baiting is a
significant problem, while in the south of the England the persecution now has
the sanction of the Government, an official justification (to protect cows
against bovine tuberculosis) and a euphemistic name: cull.
Even in Scotland, where there is no cull because there is currently no problem
with bovine TB (which badgers have been blamed for transmitting to cattle) there
is still great confusion about the badger and a stark division between lovers
and haters. This is partly why Barkham wrote his book, Badgerlands.
He wanted to explore this confusion and try to understand what the badger really
is - predator or prey, harmless foraging animal or ruthless carnivore, good or
evil? But he also wanted to explore the division the badger causes in humans and
the fact it is caught in the middle of some classic divisions between upper
class and working class, farmer and townie, men and women. The ordinary native
badger, inconspicuous, harmless and happy in its 50-roomed home in the ground,
has become a symbol of these divisions, and a victim of them. There is a war,
and it is being waged through the badger.
Take the divide between upper and working class for instance. Barkham believes
the great misfortune of the badger in many ways was that it never became a
formally hunted animal. "You can disagree with fox hunting," he says, "but it
sets out a whole series of rules and a close season. But the aristocracy left
the badger for the villagers to do whatever they wanted with, so you had this
sport without any kind of rules and there was no taboo on it either, so people
could just go ahead with impunity."
In his book, Barkham vividly describes the consequences of this: baiting rings
hidden in back rooms and courtyards where a brutal, bloody, rough and ready game
was pursued throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.
What he also describes is the curious modern version of it; how this nasty game
migrated from country villages and farmworkers to mining towns in Ayrshire and
council estates on the edge of big cities. It was, says Barkham, an affirmation
of working-class community, a sport that labouring people kept to themselves and
loved to practise in defiance of the ruling classes. "It's a weird,
anachronistic subculture passed from father to son," says Barkham.
And it is still happening. Ian Hutchison of Scottish Badgers, a charity that
promotes knowledge and understanding of the species, tells me there is still a
large amount of baiting going on in Scotland: around 120 incidents every year
and around 12 prosecutions. "It's happening right across the Central Belt," he
says. "The problem is that the chances of catching them in the act are very
And it is men, not women, who are doing it - which leads us to the other
dividing line that the badger lives on. There was one man - Kenneth Grahame, the
writer of The Wind In The Willows and creator of Mr Badger - who did help change
our perception of the badgers, but he was an exception.
On the whole, it has been women, including Barkham's grandmother Jane Ratcliffe,
who have changed our relationship with badgers, and they are still doing it: the
protesters who are disrupting the current culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire
are overwhelmingly women.
Jane Ratcliffe first started working with badgers in the 1960s, when opposition
to their slaughter was beginning to grow; she wrote articles, a book called
Through The Badger Gate, she appeared on television and radio, and broke new
ground by submitting a resolution on cruelty to badgers to the Women's
Institute. As such, she was at the heart of the campaign which led to the
Badgers Act 1973 which outlawed digging and baiting.
Barkham's grandmother also had a personal relationship with badgers, adopting
them and looking after them when they were injured. The first of them was named
Bodger and when Bodger finally disappeared, possibly poisoned by bait laid for
moles, Ratcliffe wrote movingly of her relationship with the animal. "Although I
mourn her passing," she said, "one life has been made the richer and the fuller
for her company."
Barkham remembers visiting his grandmother and early encounters with her
badgers. "She was a very exciting grandma," he says, "yet she wasn't a
particularly warm or maternal person and she was one of these people who found
the company of animals easier than humans. She was also pessimistic about the
human race so she had a rather gloomy view of mankind and felt that animals are
somehow almost more worthy of our care. She was passionate about them and felt
they needed defending."
What Barkham did not realise about her until he started researching his book was
that she was just one of the influential group of women who campaigned for
badgers - the group also included Eileen Soper, who illustrated the Famous Five
books. "Suddenly all these women showed us a different way of engaging with the
badger," says Barkham, "so that rather than treating it as sport, we could paint
it, or watch it or photograph it." In the end, the women won their battle,
although by the time the Badgers Act 1973 was passed, and digging and baiting
were banned, the badger was facing a new problem: bovine TB.
By the mid 1970s, the disputed link between badgers and TB was being made in the
press, and by farmers, and the Government amended the Act to allow the killing
of badgers under licence by gassing them. A cull in Gloucestershire appeared to
show a dramatic drop in TB in cattle, although by the 1980s gassing had become
controversial and was banned.
It was not until the 1990s that the issue became live again as bovine TB began
to significantly rise in parts of England and the badger again split the country
into lovers and haters, into those who wanted another cull and those who wanted
the badger protected and disputed the effectiveness of killing them as a means
of controlling TB.
Scotland, on the other hand, is officially TB free and both the Scottish Badgers
organisation and the NFU Scotland tell me that they think that is because
Scotland has more rigorous testing of cattle than England (cows are tested
before they are moved and afterwards).
In his book, Barkham looks at all the research and speaks to people on both
sides, including Queen guitarist Brian May who leads the anti-cull movement, and
the results are clear. Every mainstream scientist accepts badgers can transmit
TB to cows but this does not mean a cull is the logical way to deal with it. Not
only are culls fairly ineffective but, as Barkham points out, the science is not
the main driving force anyway.
"The cull is a sop to the people in the countryside who would like the hunting
with dogs act repealed," says Barkham. "However, David Cameron and the Tories on
the back benches know that they can't get that through Parliament - they haven't
got the numbers - but they can at least show they are on the side of the country
person. It's symbolic politics. They're allowing farmers a little bit of
autonomy again. They're saying: 'You go and sort out the problem with badgers,
we're not a bunch of townies.'"
And there is another important point - perhaps the most important in Barkham's
book. Yes, he says, badgers can pass on TB to cows. Yes, a cull may reduce the
disease in cattle. But even if you accept all of that, there is a critical
question for farmers and the rest of us: do we want to farm in a way that is
dependent on killing one of our native animals?
Barkham's answer is no and that's because he has spent so much time close up to
badgers and has fallen in love with them. His book is full of loving
descriptions of how they look - what he calls their mint-humbug faces, the dark
grey fur, bouncy and luxuriant, and the curious, dainty tail that is an amusing
anti-climax to their long bodies. It is also full of wonderful detail about how
they live in their setts. In Dumfries and Galloway alone - where we are today -
there are around 3000 setts and they are fascinating places.
A typical sett will feature 16 entrances and 57 chambers, and the badgers,
usually between five to 10 in a social group, will have excavated up to 25
tonnes of soil to create it. Inside, the badgers usually move between different
bedrooms and spend around three nights in each one (possibly because it helps
control parasites). One other curious behaviour pattern is that badgers will
bury their dead in one chamber and then seal it up.
Why they do that? Is it some kind of funeral? Is it to control infection? Which
leads to the beginning and the end of Barkham's book: the fact there is a lot we
still do not know about the badger and there is always that constant confusion
that draws some people to badgers and repels others. With a cull going on right
now in England, you could get depressed about that, but Barkham is upbeat.
We may not know what the badger really is, we may be killing a species that is
supposedly protected, but the population is rising and it is enduring, charming,
independent and beautiful.
Review by Mark Smith -
Herald Scotland - 05 October 2013
Footnote from Norma Kearton - This
wonderful book is totally absorbing, informative, factual (sometimes
distressing) and certainly
reinforces my own determination to save our badgers for future
'Badgerlands' by Patrick Barkham is published by Granta.
A new, updated paperback was published in 2014; both versions are still
If you wish to purchase 'Badgerlands' from Amazon (at the time of
writing their paperback price is £9.98; Amazon prices can change up or down overnight) you
can raise a donation for B-R-A-V-E from the Company. Click on the banner below
and register with easyfundraising for free (if you haven't already done so);
check that B-R-A-V-E is your chosen cause and then, still from the easyfundraising site, click through to Amazon and
purchase as normal. The tracking from easyfundraising will 'ask' Amazon for
their donation to help B-R-A-V-E.