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A badger eats, squats, thieves. But should we cull them?

Patrick Barkham tries badger stir-fry and weighs the culling debate in Badgerlands

19 October 2013

9:00 AM

19 October 2013

9:00 AM

Badgerlands Patrick Barkham

Granta, pp.369, £18.99

Lord Arran was responsible for the bill to legalise homosexuality and a bill to protect badgers from gassing and terrier-baiting. One, he said, had stopped people badgering buggers; the other stopped them buggering badgers. The Homosexuality Act had an easier passage through the Lords. ‘Not many badgers in the House of Lords,’ he observed.

The badger, Meles meles, a chunky member of the weasel family, is our largest native carnivore, with huge, powerful claws and a ridge on its skull. Familiarly
known as ‘Brock’, its history in these islands is chequered. For centuries, badger-baiting was a sport openly pursued by whole villages: in the 1830s John Clare’s remorseless poem ‘The Badger’ describes a day’s fun with an animal turned loose in the street:

He turns again and drives the noisey crowd
And beats the many dogs in noises loud
He drives away and beats them every one
And then they loose them all and set
them on
He falls as dead and kicked by boys and men
Then starts and grins and drives the crowd
again
Till kicked and torn and beaten out he lies
And leaves his hold and crackles, groans and
dies.

By the mid-20th century badger numbers were low: they lived alone in large complex setts and were regularly persecuted by farmers and by terrier-fanciers from the large conurbations. In Badgerlands, the author of The Butterfly Isles suggests that badgers started to make a comeback when Kenneth Grahame created the character of Badger in The Wind in the Willows, a striped humbug of squirish manners.


Beatrix Potter’s anti-hero Tommy Brock had appeared just a few years earlier in The Tale of Mr Todd, a sinister and gutsy depiction of country life compared to Grahame’s Ideal Home Exhibition version. Potter, as a countrywoman, had a place for the badger in her natural scheme, but few illusions about his character: Brock eats anything, thieves, squats dens and is a vicious brute when cornered. There are reckoned to be more badgers per square mile in the British Isles than in any other country in the world.

For all that, the author’s efforts to meet a badger by standing for hours in dark woods go unrewarded for much of the book, but allow for some outstanding natural observation. Patrick Barkham writes well and wittily about the night, and about a badger’s habitat. ‘Each time Don briefly flashed his torch, the badgers would be caught in various poses, like mime artists.’ He visits people who care for wounded badgers, and people who watch and feed them; he talks to Brian May, the guitarist, who devotes much of his time and some of his fortune to animal welfare issues, the badger most of all: he strikes Barkham as sincere. In one memorable chapter he investigates the dwindling tradition of badger ham, once sold in West Country pubs, and visits a man who lives on roadkill — wild, healthy and free. Together they butcher a large boar and eat a great plateful of badger stir-fry.

He also follows a modern case of badger-baiting, which results in convictions for the tough working-class men with their tough working dogs. Barkham reveals a human underworld as complex and elusive as any badger sett, in which baiters and animal rights activists grapple over the internet, each implacably confident of their own position.

Badgerlands is a commendably even-handed book, recording the anxiety and despair of people on both sides of the culling debate, and the confused mess of official policy: any attempt to explain to the urban reader the mechanics and emotions of farming in general, and dairy farming in particular, deserves a cheer. The cost of the proposed cull seems likely to outstrip the putative benefits, while the effects of driving badgers from their current territories may be simply to spread the incidence of bovine TB. Anyone interested in the debate should read this book.


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