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

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.

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before