Making tracks: Dairy farmers are getting embroiled in a bitter dispute about badgers

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The Independent Online

I have great respect for badgers. I admire their single-mindedness, the way they go about their business, using the same tracks they always use, purposeful, undeterred. But I have an equal regard for cows. I like their steadiness, the slow, swaying way they bring themselves from their pastures into their milking parlours, the fixed regard with which they watch you when you walk through their fields. I'm also grateful to them: for me, life without lashings of butter, cheese and cream would be a miserable travesty.

Here, where we live in the West Country, badgers and cattle are both thick on the ground. It's a deeply rural area, but much of the land is too hilly for arable crops. Pasture is more typical – grassland interspersed with bits of wood in the valleys. The ground round us is light and sandy, easy digging for badgers when they make their extensive setts. It's an ideal habitat for them.

Badgers are spread pretty widely over Britain ("several hundred thousand" of them, according to Paul Sterry's Complete British Animals) but the problem in dairy country is that some badgers are carriers of tuberculosis and can pass it on to cows. Thirty six thousand cattle were slaughtered in 2009 because of bovine tuberculosis. It's not surprising that dairy farmers, particularly here in the West Country where there are so many badgers around, agree with the findings of the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) – that the numbers of badgers alive has an effect on the numbers of cattle dead.

The Badger Protection League (BPL) does not accept the Government's view and has been taking out expensive (and emotive) advertisements in the national press, saying "Show that YOU care". Yes I do, but I care about the cattle, just as much as the badgers, or indeed any other living thing. You would, too, if you knew how our neighbour, a dairy farmer, drives his tractor as noisily as possible to the furthest part of his farm, so he cannot hear his tuberculosis-infected cattle bellowing when they are collected by the slaughterman. He's the fourth generation of his family to farm that land and his carefully reared herd is an intrinsic part of his life. He lost 56 cows to tuberculosis in one hit.

Tuberculosis testing was a big new thing at the time and the place where I grew up (my mother's people were all farmers) and for a time, after the great push of the Fifties, dairy cattle were free of the disease. For the past 25 years it's been spreading again. Fast. In high-risk areas, such as the West Country, where 14 per cent of herds are under tuberculosis control orders, farmers have to pay for their cattle to be tested every year. They're injected in the skin of the neck and if they react, they're tested once more, after a 60-day interval. If they react again, they're condemned. In the interim, no animals, not even the healthy ones, can move on or off the farm. And if you can't sell stock at the point at which it ought to be sold, you lose money.

The Government gives some compensation for cattle that have to be slaughtered – about £1,200 a time – which scarcely covers the actual cost of replacing the stock. Round here on "redwater" land, farmers can rarely buy in animals, but have to raise more from their own herd. "Redwater" is a ground-borne disease that can cause fatal internal bleeding in cattle. Stock raised from birth on redwater land is usually immune to the problem. Bought-in stock isn't.

Breeding new stock takes time, therefore money, and meanwhile, you've also lost the income from the milk that those slaughtered cows might be producing. Defra reckons that each TB "incident" costs about £30,000. Twenty thousand of that is paid out by the Government. Ten thousand is lost by the farmer.

Last year, the government spent £63 million in its efforts to control bovine TB. Defra is clear that in problem areas, "it will not be possible to eliminate the disease in cattle without addressing the disease in badgers". In the long term, vaccines for both cattle and badgers might provide the solution everyone wants.

But for now, EU legislation prohibits the use of TB vaccines in cattle. So they have to watch them being slaughtered. "Cynical emotional blackmail" was the BPL's response when, in the autumn, the farming press reported on the despair of a Welsh dairy farmer in this situation. Yet I'd say there was a fair amount of emotional blackmail in the BPL's own output – "Born to be maimed or killed" they write, as though every badger in the land was to have a gun at its head.

Next month, the Government will publish the results of its consultation on a control policy for badgers. It is recommending culling by licence in the short term, combined with vaccination which will take much longer to have an effect. Meanwhile, we all should think about the perils of leaving the destiny of any animal (or plant) to the whims of human sentiment. If we really wanted to save badgers, we wouldn't drive so fast. Singlemindedness isn't such an asset for a badger crossing a road in the dark.

The snow before Christmas showed up very clearly who was going where in our garden. The place was littered with tracks. Badger tracks are very distinctive, the pad rather broad, with five toes and quite sharp claw marks. Foxes (and dogs) have only four toes, though the claw marks can show up equally clearly. During the cold weather, badgers dug up arum tubers in the garden – even celandines. They are welcome to those. I was sadder when, in the summer, they dug up and destroyed several nests of bumblebees. Plenty of rabbits have come through of course – their tracks are easy to spot because of the long flat prints made by the back legs, behind the rounded prints of the fore feet. No deer, thank heavens, though I frequently see them in our fields. Following animal tracks brought me to the place where the first snowdrops usually bloom. They are well up. Soon, the show will be on the road again. Hooray!

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