Badgers: To cull or not to cull? Either way, they are not as nice as they look

Farmers want to stop the spread of TB in cattle. But Brock will fight back, says Harry Mount

A A A

I blame The Wind in the Willows. Until Kenneth Grahame published his tales from the riverbank in 1908, badgers were firmly in the non-cuddly-animal category. But once Badger had installed himself in the subconscious of generations of schoolchildren – the solitary but wise, kind and principled creature who bathes Mole's wounded shin and gives him and Rat a slap-up dinner – the battle was over.

E H Shepard, the original illustrator of The Wind in the Willows, also helped to anthropomorphise the badger, and move him into cuddly territory – alongside seals, rabbits, and ickle polar bears. The arrival, in 1920, of Bill Badger in the Rupert Bear comic strip in The Daily Express sealed the deal.

Badgers are now so popular that Badger Groups, whose members track the animals' activities, make up the biggest fan club for a single species in the country. So, when, in the next few days, the Government gives the expected green light to a badger cull in south-west England, prepare for howls. In west Wales too, an experimental cull has been in the offing for several years. A cull is to designed to halt TB in cows, which is thought to be spread by badgers. Last week, however, this was stalled, while the Welsh government re-examines the evidence on the connection between badgers and the disease.

The jury has been out on the connection ever since the first dead, TB-infected badger was discovered in the Cotswolds 40 years ago. Ferrets, foxes, deer, cats, rats, mink and even Grahame's dear old mole can carry the disease. But none, apart from deer, carries it quite as effectively as badgers, who can survive despite being infected. Circumstantial evidence suggests that badgers are the most likely suspects, but some argue it the other way round: it's the cows that are spreading TB to the badgers. Farmers, though, are firmly in the first camp, and you can see why they're worried – 25,000 cows are infected every year in the UK, and are sent to the abattoir, at a cost of £63m to the taxpayer.

The Government tends to agree with the farmers, although official language is carefully hedged: "Badger culling has the potential to reduce bovine TB in cattle .... No other country in the world with a similar reservoir of bovine TB in wildlife has eradicated TB from cattle without stringent wildlife control measures." So you can see what a mess the whole thing is, with two of the most outspoken, implacable groups in Britain – farmers and animal rights protesters – lined up against each other.

And what about the poor, benighted black-and-white-striped, omnivores – officially, Meles meles of the weasel family – at the heart of this bristly debate? Well, truthfully, they're not that benighted – except in that they're nocturnal. Precisely because they usually come out only at night, you don't tend to see them – and that adds to their allure.

There are, in fact, plenty of badgers, particularly in Pembrokeshire – where the Welsh cull was due to take place. And there are many others throughout Britain, which has more badgers per square mile than anywhere else in Europe: more than 21 per cent of all European badgers live on our shores. Numbers are stable, if not increasing. Between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s, the population grew by 60 per cent, from 250,000 to 400,000, as badger groups expanded and spread to new areas.

I spend much of the year in west Wales, and they're everywhere: burrowing in their sett by the gate at the top of the lane; lying dead by the side of the road, taken out, not by a government-licensed assassin but by a passing Land Rover. Examine one of these dead creatures and you'll see that they are far from cuddly. They are purpose-built for excavating their setts, with short, powerful front legs and long, sharp claws. Extensive musculature around the neck, front legs and shoulders, makes them not only extremely strong but also stocky – like hairy bouncers who've done too much gym work on their upper body.

They're designed for killing, too. In The Wind in the Willows, Badger's home is piled high with apples, turnips, potatoes, nuts and jars of honey. Grahame, understandably, didn't refer to Badger's vice-like jaws and his capacity to ingest game, eggs, small mammals (including rabbits, hares, mice, moles, voles and shrews), earthworms and roots. Once a badger gets its teeth into you, you'll have a job unlocking those gnashers.

No one expects children's writers to be naturalists but, all the same, Grahame got badgers wrong in practically every detail. Yes, they are occasionally solitary, but they are more likely to live in so-called clans, of anything up to 15 animals. In Badger, Timothy Roper goes so far as to call the animal "one of the most social of UK mammals". Nor are they the sluggish creatures of legend. "Badgerly" isn't used much any more; but the word was once in vogue, meaning elderly and grey-haired. In reality, the creatures can reach 20mph. I once accidentally surprised one in Pembrokeshire: I was on my bicycle but it sprinted well ahead of me before scuttling under a hedge. They're big, too – the largest naturally occurring carnivore in Britain, in fact, weighing in at around 8kg and growing to as much as 12kg.

Not that they've always been here. The ancestor of the badger originated in South-east Asia before migrating to Western Europe – and Britain – around three million years ago. Earlier, they were used by humans, like most other animals by humans , for food and clothing. From the Bronze Age until the 17th century, badger meat – said to taste like mutton, with notes of fungus and leaf mould – was eaten in Britain. The leftovers were used for leather and pelts; their fat was turned into soap and cooking oil. Their bristles are still used for badger-hair shaving brushes. Half a millennium ago, the Tudor Vermin Acts offered bounties for their corpses.

The enclosure of the British countryside in the 18th and 19th centuries intensified the vilification of the badger, by then considered a threat to game birds and their chicks. Badger-baiting with dogs was also popular (illegal, it continues today), not least because badgers competed with foxes for earths and so found another natural enemy in hunters. So badgers had a rough time of it, until about a century ago, as numbers declined and gamekeepers increased. It seems to be coincidence, but Grahame wrote his masterpiece when badgers' fortunes were at their lowest.

Whether or not it is thanks to him, the badger was increasingly protected in the 20th century. Badger-baiting had been banned in Britain since the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835, but the 1992 Protection of Badgers Act made it illegal to injure, kill or take a badger, or to interfere with its sett. An exemption allowing fox-hunters to block setts to prevent them becoming refuges for their prey lapsed with the 2004 Hunting Act.

All in all, the population is stable enough to put up with localised reduction in the West Country and Wales, hotspots for bovine TB. If a cull in the West Country does bring down the incidence of bovine TB, then the badger population will have to be controlled there and in other hotspots. If not, and the experiment is ended, the badger population will soon bounce back. Either way, the whole debate would have been a lot calmer if Kenneth Grahame had made Badger of Badger Hall the bad boy of the book. Who now cares for the poor, unloved toad?

Suggested Topics
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
people
Sport
SPORT
News
people
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Biggins as Mrs Smee in Peter Pan
theatreHow do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick