WATCH OUT, MR BADGER

After Omagh the war on terrorism moves into a new phase. Are the security services now going to get help from Sinn Fein? The British so love the badger that it has its own Act of Parliament and a job with the Wildlife Trust. Yet not only is the animal not endangered, it is a positive menace Is the hour of such sentiment over as badgers prove a greater menace than foxes?

"'DEAR old Badger,'" exclaimed Ratty as he sculled Mole down the River at the start of The Wind in the Willows.

"'Nobody interferes with him.

"'They'd better not,'" he "added significantly".

This weekend conservationists are saying much the same as they get ready to fight government plans to cull thousands of the much loved animals. But the facts show that Britons' determination to save badgers - rooted perhaps in memories of the gruff father-figure in Kenneth Grahame's 90- year-old classic - owe more to sentiment than to science.

No animal has better protection under British law, yet few need it less. Uniquely, the badger has a special Act of Parliament dedicated to its preservation. But - unlike hundreds of other, less protected, species in the country - it is not endangered. On the contrary, its numbers are booming, and farmers complain that it is increasingly threatening their livelihoods.

Over the past 10 years the badger population has risen by 76 per cent. There are now more than 400,000 of them, outnumbering foxes by two to one: they produce 100,000 cubs every year. The Wildlife Trust, the association of bodies dedicated to protecting imperilled flora and fauna, takes the badger as its symbol, but admits that the species is in no danger.

Yet under the 1992 Protection of Badgers Act it is an offence not just to kill or injure a badger, but to own one (alive or dead), to damage its sett - or to disturb it when it is in residence. In practice this means that you cannot use machinery within 60ft of a sett or do any work, even by hand, within 30ft - unless you have a special licence. The penalties include imprisonment.

You can also go to jail for six months if your dog goes down a sett on an innocent country walk. And if it gets stuck, you'll have to wait at least 48 hours before trying to get it out - and may be forbidden to do so even after that.

So strict are these provisions that environmentalists use the presence of badgers as a last resort in stopping developments. Last summer they were called in to help to prevent house-building in the grounds of a listed building when other objections failed. And in the spring of last year they helped to stop the nuclear industry in its tracks: the then Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer, cited the threat of disturbing a local badger clan as a reason for refusing to allow work to research a nuclear dump site near Sellafield.

Protection was rightly originally designed to combat widespread cruelty: illegal badger baiting - says the National Federation of Badger Groups - still kills 10,000 of them a year. But even top conservationists privately admit that the law on badgers now goes so far as to threaten to bring all wildlife protection into disrepute.

Politicians avoid this issue even when announcing badgers' executions. Jeff Rooker, Agriculture minister, last week spoke of the importance of "protecting wild badgers", and said that the cull had been "one of the most difficult decisions facing ministers". (This in a department grappling with BSE, setting up a Food Standards Agency, facing an increasing crisis in fisheries, resisting pressure for banned organophosphates pesticides, and trying to reform the Common Agriculture Policy.

He decided on it because of an alarming rise in tuberculosis in cattle, which all sides accept that they could catch from badgers (probably by eating grass contaminated by the animals' urine), though the link remains unproven. The number of outbreaks rose three-and-a-half-fold between 1990 and 1997, from 146 to 515, and looks set to top 600 this year. And the disease is spreading rapidly from its tradition stronghold in the West Country and the west Midlands.

It used to pass to humans - more than 2,000 people died of bovine TB in 1935 - but the risk has been almost entirely eliminated by pasteurising milk.

Each outbreak spells potential disaster for cattle farmers already badly hit by the BSE crisis, costing them an average of pounds 33,000 over and above such compensation as they get from the Government. Fearing increasing bankruptcies, they have been pressing for a massive badger cull to beat back the spread of the disease.

But no one knows whether this would work. The Government already kills badgers living near TB outbreaks - by trapping them in cages and then shooting them - but the disease has gone on spreading. Conservationists claim that this shows that culling is useless: farmers insist that a more systematic programme would do the trick. Each side can provide evidence to support its case.

Last week's plan is designed to find the truth. Far from accepting the wholesale slaughter, ministers have banned culling over almost all the country. But they are setting up scientific trials in the most affected areas. In some places they will try to kill all the badgers, in others they will be left entirely alone, and in others still they will be culled when TB appears: the effect on the disease will then be compared.

The numbers to be killed - 12,500 over five years - are tiny compared to the badger population, and just a 20th of those that will be killed on the roads over that period. Opponents accept that there is no real case for fighting the experiment on conservation grounds. They say instead that it is "morally wrong", and will not work.

But the morality is curiously selective: it does not extend, for example, to condemning the killing of rabbits. And the effectiveness argument is self- fulfilling because, as we report on Page 1 today, it is the environmentalists who are intent on frustrating the experiment by refusing to allow culling on their land.

Of course culling is not the best solution, even if it is found to work. The best solution would be the development of a vaccine - but that is some 15 years away. The Government needs to step up its hitherto puny research efforts on this, and devote more attention to seeing whether better farming practices can avoid the disease. But perhaps it's time to demote badgers from their unjustifiably pre-eminent place in the conservation hierarchy.

They have the law on their side...

All wild mammals are protected from cruelty, including beating, kicking, burning and impaling, under the Wild Mammals Act, 1996.

Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, it is an offence intentionally to kill or injure - or damage the shelters of - any of the mammals shown above (with estimated populations).

Under the Protection of Badgers Act, 1992, they are protected against poaching and interference with their setts.

Deer are protected against poaching under the Deer Act, 1991, and, in Scotland, under the Deer Act, 1996.

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