The ministry admits that it has never actually proved that badgers transmit TB to cattle
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Badgers aren't under threat - except from the cullers at the Ministry of Agriculture.

And that's why their benign protectors are turning from debate to direct action

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THEY HAVE, of course, a nocturnal mystique; never seen by most people, occasionally glimpsed in the magical light of a long summer evening. They're beautiful, their facial markings be- speaking ancient distinction, their dark coats overlain with a ghostly, shimmering gold. They're vulnerable; slow on the uptake, badgers will use their traditional paths for years after a main road has been put in their way, and one in five of their number gets run over each year. They are keen on family values (the sow and the boar remain together for life), and they defecate in latrines they build outside their setts. They have been known to go after the occasional hen, but they occupy the reassuring category of "worm specialists"; as one watches them on those improving natural history programmes, they snuffle about for their food in a charmingly "don't mind me" sort of way. In these and other respects, badgers are peculiarly middle-class creatures, echoing the gentility of their protectors: the badger people, with their 80 badger protection societies around the country, their sizeable estate cars (for the transportation of distressed badgers), their audited accounts and their monthly discussions of mammalian arcana.

Which is why it's no surprise that those 80 protection groups should be formed into a National Federation. What is a surprise is that the Federation is engaged in a battle with government, which is just as intense, if not so high profile, as that over the export of veal calves.

The sources of the conflict - which has reached its highest pitch this year - are not new. While the Badger Protection Act of 1992 confirms the badger's status as the only wild mammal which it is an offence for members of the public to kill, it does not touch the animal's main enemy. For 20 years, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been killing about 1,000 badgers annually, because it thinks that, in some unspecified way, the mammals give tuberculosis to cattle. Meanwhile, the incidence of tuberculosis in cattle has been rising, and badger people are inviting the ministry to conclude that it is wrong. The debate was dutifully worked in to some recent episodes of The Archers; the Minister for Agriculture, William Waldegrave, sits in his office pondering a list of proposals for more research into the problem which was handed to him in February by the ubiquitous David Bellamy. Nothing shocking here; traditionally, the two sides have managed their differences in a civilised manner: theses have been exchanged, letters written, points politely made.

But the tone of the debate is changing. According to activists, MAFF badger cullers are having peanuts sent through their letter boxes by protesters (the choice of peanuts is not arbitrary; they are used to lure the creatures into traps employed by the MAFF), and are being told not to give their names when answering the telephone. They're also, it's said, being told to look under their cars for bombs.

At the stylish Battersea headquarters of the National Federation of Badger Groups, these seem melodramatic precautions. The office is presided over by Mary Jarvie, an efficient, crisply-spoken zoologist who greeted me with tea, biscuits, and a neat pile of immaculately prepared explanatory memoranda. "It is rather complicated, I'm afraid," she said.

This, in brief, is the story: in the Fifties, TB testing of cattle was introduced on a large scale, and by the Sixties Bovine TB - not a serious threat to humans since the pasteurisation of milk two decades before - was all but gone. Except, that is, in parts of south and south- west England, where the disease resurfaced every few years. In 1971, a sick badger found in Gloucestershire was discovered to have TB and MAFF decided that badgers were responsible for passing the disease on to the infected cows. In response, badger culling was introduced in 1975. For a while the level of bovine TB fell slightly, but in 1990 the level started to rise, and has risen dramatically ever since. Now, it is just short of the maximum permitted by the EU.

Initially, the ministry gassed badgers on farms where TB occurred. Or at least it did if it could find any; often it couldn't. In 1980, it adopted a less PR-disastrous method of extermination called, in almost parodic Civil Service language, the Interim Strategy. This involves badgers being caught in cage traps and shot.

The ministry's policy is buttressed by two independent reports, endlessly cited by ministry spokespersons: the first, by Lord Zuckerman, the enormously distinguished scientist, was published in 1979, and is referred to with disdain by badger people as "Zuckie's". The second, published in 1986, was by Professor George Dunnet, then Regius Professor of Natural History at the University of Aberdeen. Both found "circumstantial evidence" connecting badgers with TB in cows: that is, they found a high correspondence between cases of TB in badgers and cases of TB in neighbouring cattle. MAFF admits that it has never actually proved that badgers transmit TB to cattle.

MARY JARVIE is unhappy. "Even if it is badgers who are giving TB to cattle," she says, "the policy of culling is not working. The Ministry is only killing badgers to be seen to be doing something." Indeed; the pressure on the Ministry to do something is intense. A farmer owning a cow that tests positive for TB can neither sell nor buy cattle for 72 days, the time that must pass before a second test confirms the presence or absence of the disease. Those 72 days can cause bankruptcy.

The badger lobby is no match for the farming interest, but it has achieved a lot. It was pressure from the badger lobby that led to a series of Acts of Parliament to protect badgers and their setts from badger baiters and diggers, though it's still possible to walk into a pub in, say, South Yorkshire and hear the muttered inquiry between terriermen: "You goin' after Billy tonight?" What the badger lobby hopes to do now is rescue the 250,000 badgers in Britain from the depredations of MAFF.

In that struggle, no one is more of a celebrity than Eunice Overend, who has been campaigning on "the TB thing" since the start of culling. She lives in a well-rooted caravan outside Castle Combe in Wiltshire. Rather than cat flaps on the doors, there are badger flaps, and the caravan is surrounded by a complex of badger pounds. Eunice, who bears a slight facial resemblence to Mary Whitehouse and has a handshake like steel, is the only human being in a strictly hierarchical community: "Eunice on top, then dogs, then badgers."

Badgers have been Eunice's main interest since she was a young woman, although, in a successful attempt to broaden her social circle, she branched out into bell-ringing in the Fifties. She used to be a biology teacher, and, after the war, went on to work with the naturalist Peter Scott at his bird sanctuary in Gloucestershire. As a scientist, she is respected by MAFF: her conversation quickly becomes learned ("If only you knew about lymph nodes... ", she will sigh).

Eunice vigorously kicked a log into her caravan stove, shooed one of her three dogs out of the way ("Such a nuisance, but very good with the badgers - surrogate mother and all that"), then sat down on her bed to talk.

For all her eccentricity, Eunice is a moderate badger person, who continues to be on good terms with the Ministry ("They call me, I call them"). But of late, a certain froideur has crept in: "More and more people have been moving badger traps, and I wouldn't condemn it. They're normal people, like the veal calf protesters, who are sick of of banging their heads against a brick wall. I've moved traps myself, here, and over the hill at the crack of dawn."

She especially regrets the ministry's failure to distinguish between badgers that are postive with TB, and those that are infectious with it. "Most positive badgers are not infectious, and what causes them to become infectious is stress, which is increased by culling."

She wants to see a vaccine for badgers against TB, and favours one that has been developed by Dr John Stanford at Middlesex University and uses a type of killed soil bacteria. "We'd like the Ministry to sponsor a field trial of the vaccine, but they say you can't have a field trial until you've shown that it works, and you can't show it works with badgers in captivity because their stress levels are so high."

Dusk had fallen, and Eunice broke off. She thrust two plates of fat, meat and fruit into my hands, and we headed towards her badger pounds. In the spring of most years she takes in stray cubs, to be released back into the wild in breeding groups, but this year she has three adults on her hands. Eunice carried a stick because one of the three had recently bitten her. I - without a stick - felt rather nervous. "He won't bite you," shouted Eunice. The badgers - surprisingly hefty, and distinctly piggy - appeared suddenly, scrambling towards us from various directions. When the so-called "friendly" badgers made a lunge at the front of my coat, I calmly ran for the exit of the pen.

The next day, I spoke to Dr Chris Cheese- man, who has been doing "badger R & D" for the Ministry of Agriculture for 20 years. "I know Eunice Overend very well indeed," he said, and gave an ambiguous chuckle. He doesn't think her vaccine will work, and has higher hopes of one the Ministry is developing, although that, he admits, will not be ready for five years or so. He concedes that Eunice has a "fair point" on the distinction between infectious and infected badgers. "But the fact is, it is very hard to tell the difference."

He agrees with Eunice that, by causing stress in surviving badgers, which then become infectious and itinerant, culling may be causing more problems than it solves: "We're looking at that, and if there's a big downside, culling may be stopped." But this research will take a number of years, which is too long for some people.

Heathcliffe Mellanistic, for example.

Mellanistic - who is unemployed, or a full-time badger activist, according to taste - nearly lives up to his Christian name by being tall and having long black curly hair. Eunice seems to regard him with amused affection, which partly explains her strained relations with the Ministry. As he spoke to me by telephone from his home in Truro, I heard a sheep bleating. "I've seven orphan lambs in the house," he admitted. "I've also got a couple of fox hounds and a coati-mundi, a sort of raccoon thing."

Heathcliffe was a member of a Federation-affiliated badger group who "got sick and tired of writing letters to the Ministry of Agriculture". So, six years ago, he and two others formed themselves into a breakaway cell called the Badger Action Group. "The Federation has done zero in ten years, and people are getting really impatient. We have more and more sympathetic supporters from established badger groups who say 'If you need a hand, get in touch.' "

Direct action is what Heathcliffe means.

"The operatives [from the MAFF] don't start until 8am, so we start at dawn. We go out and we release any badgers in the traps, then we turn the traps upside down, which is a little sort of code between us and the Ministry so they know we know where their traps are.

"In 1993, we were following a Ministry operative. He was a cocky one, and he stopped his van and said 'Hello, Heathcliffe' - they all know me. I was talking to him, and I grabbed his briefcase and ran off. There was a map showing where the Ministry were trapping all over Cornwall. I photocopied the map and returned the briefcase to Truro police station. After 24 hours - I think the Ministry was thinking about whether they wanted the publicity - I was charged with robbery. But the case was thrown out because there was no intention to permanently deprive."

Later that year, Heathcliffe and an "operative" had a little set to at a trap site at Mevagissey, in Cornwall, resulting in charges. In a bail condition that smacked of desperation, Heathcliffe was banned from Cornwall. In December 1994, he was convicted on counts of affray and criminal damage, and, in January, was given three-month prison sentences on each count, suspended for two years. He is appealing.

Heathcliffe knows that Ministry operatives are told not to give their names on answering the telephone, and to check under their cars for bombs. This puzzles him. "We've certainly never done anything like that,' he says. But the Ministry, he thinks, is on the run: "A lot of the operatives are resigning because of us. We're definitely not going to stop."

Nor is the National Federation of Badger Groups. Currently, their energies are focused on the latest MAFF culling strategy, which is called the "live test" and works like this: where a TB outbreak occurs, badgers from setts within a 10km range of the infected farm are tested for TB, and if one is found positive, they are all shot. The test is not foolproof - it has what's called a "41 per cent sensitivity", which, its opponents disgustedly observe, makes it "less accurate then the toss of a coin". According to Professor Stephen Harries, a zoologist and patron of the Federation: "The live test won't work. You've got to find out how transmission occurs and go from there. After 25 bloody years, it's incredible that the Ministry still doesn't know."

An obvious analogy presents itself. Even the hard men who bait badgers take care not to let the mammals come near their faces, for "Billy", when incensed, is a surprisingly vicious animal. It's tempting to write that the badger people might have the same aggression latent within them. In truth, it is a little too early to say. But the Ministry of Agriculture, one feels, would be ill-advised to play for time. !