Not black and white: Badger supporters include celebs such as Brian May

FOR a generation brought up on The Wind In The Willows, they are the most avuncular of animals: wise, benevolent and kind. To large segments of the rural community however they are a menace which spread disease, cause the annual slaughter of 26,000 cattle and cost the taxpayer £100million a year. For such gentle-looking creatures, badgers have the ability to stir up massive controversy to say nothing of lawlessness, a situation that is only going to get worse.

The most recent battle of the badgers began last week when Environment Secretary Owen Paterson approved a cull in west Gloucestershire in an attempt to stop the spread of bovine tuberculosis by granting a licence to an estimated 1,000 marksmen to shoot badgers. He revealed to Farmers Weekly that as a child he had actually had two badgers as pets, Bessie and Baz and that it was concern for their descendants that made him support the cull. “I’m the last person who wants to see any badgers killed unnecessarily,” he said.

If this was an attempt to defuse the row that followed it didn’t work. Wildlife presenter Bill Oddie called the policy “arrogant, ignorant and insulting” and went on to insinuate that perhaps Paterson’s pet badgers had been on the receiving end of more attention than the young Owen and this was some kind of vendetta in result. “Beware budgies, white mice, hamsters, dogs and pussy cats,” he continued. “You’re next.” Oddie was not the only highprofile naturalist to condemn the move . Sir David Attenborough, Springwatch presenter Chris Packham and wildlife expert Simon King have all spoken out .

Queen guitarist Brian May and his organisation Team Badger are working to gather 100,000 signatures for a petition, which would mean the issue will have to be debated at Westminster. They are also calling on consumers not to buy milk that comes from the affected farms. Pressure group Stop The Cull is threatening to send at least 50 protesters out at night to expose even the smallest breach of the rules surrounding the cull and Gavin Grant, chief executive of the RSPCA has called on tourists to boycott Gloucestershire and Somerset, saying the farms will be “soaked in badgers’ blood.” DAIRY farmers are furious meanwhile that they are being portrayed as predators intent on murdering attractive small animals, pointing out that they merely want to protect their cattle and stop losing an average of £10,000 a year.

All in all the row is increasingly reminiscent of that surrounding the abolition of hunting and it looks as if it is going to get a lot worse. Already farmer Jan Rowe, one of the leaders of the cull and a spokesman for the National Famers Union (NFU), has said that he and his wife have been subjected to intimidation and that a B&B business run by his wife Gill has had negative reviews posted on the website TripAdvisor by people who have never been there. These have since been taken down but not before Gill’s mobile phone number was posted on the internet.

Owen Paterson has also been targeted: pictures of his home have been posted online, along with his address and phone number, prompting him to take out an injunction to get the information removed from the website. It does not help that the source of this information was said to come from within the Civil Service and the details have since reappeared on an Australian website. Nor has it escaped the notice of the police that Paterson is a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and thus a high-security risk. There have also been reports of harassment of members of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), members of Natural England and further officials at the NFU.

At the heart of the problem is the spread of bovine TB. It causes the death of 26,000 cattle every year, but also infects badgers as well as deer, goats, pigs, dogs and cats and many other small animals. There are really only two ways to deal with the problem. Culling rather than shooting them outright and vaccinating against the disease.

There are fierce proponents of either side of the argument, but already there are suggestions that shooting will make matters worse.

If a badger is shot but not killed it could make its way back, a hideously inhumane way of dispatching it and under the Protection of Badgers’ Act, the hunters are not allowed to follow it underground. This means the animal either risks bleeding to death or manages to make its way to another area thus spreading the disease.

GIVEN how high emotions are running there is a further element to add to the mix: the role of the police. They are in the unenviable position of being caught between the protestors, who say this is barbarity towards wild animals (and who probably have public opinion behind them) and the dairy farmers, with the 1,000 marksmen who have been specially trained for the cull.

Protesters have been threatening to disrupt proceedings by feeding the animals during the day so that they will not be lured out by the farmers’ bait – a mixture of peanuts and chocolate – at night. They have also said that they will cause maximum disruption wherever possible. In the expectation of trouble police have already issued blank witness statements to 300 farms in case they are required. There may well be many more sch statements to come.

If the example of the fox-hunting debate is anything to go by the row could turn even uglier very quickly and all the more so if the scheme is extended across the rest of the country. Initially the cull will cover 86,000 acres of west Gloucestershire but Somerset is next and if it is deemed to be a success then it could go nationwide. But the anger it has attracted is not just from a hard core of animal rights protesters.

There are a great many naturalists and experts in the field who simply believe that this is the wrong course of action to take and could make matters worse.

As for poor Brock the badger himself, sitting in his sett and blithely unaware of the fevered debate raging about his future and wellbeing, he could at least console himself with the fact that there are so many people prepared to fight his corner. Then again it has also been suggested that the Conservative party is determined to press on with the initiative in the hope of winning back some of their more traditional rural supporters, who have been deserting the Tories in droves in recent years.

It was never like this in The Wind In The Willows where all anyone had to worry about was weasels, stoats and ferrets. Brock is up against the political establishment which is far, far worse.

DAILY EXPRESS | 24 September 2012 by Virginia Blackburn