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Badgers fall foul of planning rules: A council is opposing a wildlife project that it promotes. David Nicholson-Lord reports

THE BADGERS of Burley, in Hampshire, have never been so popular. Each night since March they have been performing to rapt houses, up to 20 pairs of eyes feasting on their every move. It is not much of a show - an hour's snuffling and shoving before they vanish into the night in search of slugs - but last year they attracted more than 700 people. This year there should be even more.

Ring up New Forest Council's tourist office and staff will paint a cheery picture of the badger watch.

'It's very slightly lit up so you can see the badgers but they can't see you . . . It's all fairly natural,' a spokeswoman said. They will also send you a free colour leaflet. But New Forest planners have different ideas.

A year after opening the badger sett in his garden to the paying public, Alistair Kilburn has been told it contravenes planning laws. Mr Kilburn is mystified. 'The council has known about the project from day one, supported it with free editorial in its promotional literature . . . When they get groups of journalists down they give them a whole selection of things to look at and top of the list is the New Forest badger watch. The whole thing is a complete paradox.'

New Forest council is torn between discouraging tourism and promoting understanding of nature. Chris Elliott, head of development control, said it was a 'unique case . . . I have never run across anything with quite the same ingredients in my professional career.'

Mr Kilburn sees his badger watch as the quintessence of green tourism. Visitors pay pounds 8 a head to sit in dark clothes and 'total silence' in a half-sunken hide. They can watch the badgers underground - he has built a viewing sett - or on the lawn. Occasionally he sprinkles nuts on the grass to ensure a decent show.

He says the project has educational and environmental aims, including taking the pressure off the New Forest and its wild badgers. 'It's providing a unique experience on a very small scale. Visitors are going away with misty eyes.'

His neighbours remain dry-eyed, however. Some have complained of food and drink being sold and up to 20 cars parked in narrow lanes.

Mr Kilburn rejects the claims as 'far-fetched and exaggerated' - badger-watching tends to be a family activity, he says, so there are many fewer cars than watchers - and wishes people had come round for a chat rather than going to the council 'behind his back'.

A few miles away in Ringwood, Mr Elliott has two piles of letters on his desk. He estimates there are about 80 supporting the badger watch - from as far afield as Bangor, in Ulster - and 30-40 against, almost all local.

'We have policies designed to curb the growth of tourism, because of overcrowding and the damage that day visitors, in particular, are causing. On the other hand we want people to understand the forest and its flora and fauna more fully, so we encourage the interpretation of wildlife and nature.'

Mr Kilburn, he said, had set up a commercial operation in a residential area and would have to seek planning permission. 'We don't want 'kiss-me-quick' tourism in the New Forest. Having said that, the badgers themselves will probably not tolerate a couple of hundred people staring at them.

'By its nature, it is probably something that will have to remain small-scale and could be found to be acceptable.'

(Photograph omitted)