Granta, £18.99. Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop
Book review: Badgerlands, By Patrick Barkham
Digging deep into nature and culture, this study reclaims an abused animal from its persecutors
Friday 18 October 2013
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.
Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated
tvAn expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle
artLee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist
‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Benedict Cumberbatch says Hollywood is better for black British actors: 'I think as far as coloured actors go it gets really difficult in the UK'
- 2 Man who held up 'hire me' sign at Waterloo station returns a year later with 'I'm hiring' sign
- 3 UK weather: Snow to fall in the coming week with sub-zero temperatures to last until early February
- 4 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 5 Warriors in ancient Iraq suffered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder more than 3,000 years ago, say researchers
Heavy metal producer's corpse to be mutilated by models as per his dying wish
Mr Selfridge series 3: Actress Kara Tointon says 'We're starting to see his demise'
Benedict Cumberbatch says Hollywood is better for black British actors: 'I think as far as coloured actors go it gets really difficult in the UK'
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
V&A removes depiction of Prophet Mohamed from website amid 'severe security alert'
Nigel Farage: NHS might have to be replaced by private health insurance
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
George Galloway condemns 'racist, Islamophobic, hypocritical rag' Charlie Hebdo at freedom of speech rally
Islamic history is full of free thinkers - but recent attempts to suppress critical thought are verging on the absurd