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Book review: Badgerlands, By Patrick Barkham

Digging deep into nature and culture, this study reclaims an abused animal from its persecutors

Two chapters before the end of his timely and virtuous book, Patrick Barkham revisits his friend Judy Salisbury in Cornwall. In her eighties she lives alone, a dedicated friend to local badger communities, with special feeling for Bella ("our oldest badger. I think she's deaf"), the first to appear for the nightly meal.

Then other foraging badgers arrive, like shoppers in some well-stocked supermarket. Barkham has already been impressed by badgers' general non-competitiveness: "family groups ate together, tolerantly stepping around shoppers from other social groups." I can personally vouchsafe for the accuracy of this observation.

Abruptly the writer's pleasure is broken by a vivid appalling thought. "At some point soon, this exact scene would be played out at apparently generous and benign badger supermarkets built conveniently close to setts in Gloucestershire and Somerset… a dozen badgers would be browsing aisles together and then a barrage of shots would ring out. Most, hopefully all, would perceive a flash of light, a punch in the guts like nothing they had ever experienced, before darkness descended for ever." For some, that darkness wouldn't descend so swiftly.

The supermarket simile shows Barkham at his most brilliant. It imaginatively demystifies badgers, the subject already, as this study shows, of far too much mystification. It restores them to the ranks of eating, breathing, sensate mammals, with regular habits, social customs, daily needs. It acts as a most effective lead-in to his next chapter dealing with the government's preparations for the cull, and the widely watched "omnishambles" ending with Owen Paterson's postponement of the killings for which he was so intemperate an enthusiast. Now in the designated regions the cull is underway, details of which are so elusive and contradictory it would be unwise to supply them here.

Barkham is not only the author of the informative, lyrical and very personal The Butterfly Isles, but the grandson of Jane Ratcliffe, who played a key part in the Badgers Act of 1973, "the first time in British history that a land mammal had been given specific protection from persecution". These mammals have, over the centuries, been regular recipients of deliberate cruelty (for amusement) from diggers and baiters, still present in the 21st century. Barkham devotes a chapter to a Yorkshire bait photographed with perpetrators "laughing as badgers were having their insides torn out by [their] dogs".

Why does the badger invite both blood-lust and empathic veneration? Why are so many English farmers, spearheaded by the NFU, so resolute in opposition to the vaccination course taken by the Welsh Assembly? Barkham has respectfully interviewed farmers, sincerely feeling for them in their losses of livestock and income. But he confesses to the troublesome thought that, even with no bovine TB, some farmers would urge a badger cull.

Badgers, their labyrinthine setts with latrines, their successful, largely harmonious social structures, present a comprehensive alternative world-system to ours, and it baffles us. We should take ourselves in hand. In his superb last chapter Barkham quotes six professionals who insist that intensive dairy-farming has produced "mutant cows" unable to resist TB, "a disease of poverty… many of our dairy cattle live in poverty equivalent to that of a workhouse in the industrial revolution". Yet instead of insisting on more merciful conditions for cattle the government goes for the 75 per cent slaughter of an independent-living wild species.

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