When the sun sets the dark reality of badger culling emerges


2 September 2013

We’re a week in to the badger-cull that is said to be taking place in West Somerset. As yet no official facts or figures relating to the operation have been released but WMN reporters have been out gauging the mood in the area…

The public visible, normal face of West Somerset could be found on the shoreline at Minehead this weekend when thousands of people gathered in sunshine to witness the finish of the popular annual RNLI raft-race. It’s a happy vision that belies the new, hidden, furtive and sinister side of the area which occurs after sundown several miles from the coast up in the hills. For that is a zone of threat and, at night-times, even fear. A place where police helicopters hover at midnight; where roadblocks are set up without notice; where once- unpopulated nocturnal lanes are suddenly busy; where strangely clean Land Rovers lurk in gateways; where the gateways themselves are now chained and locked; where torchlight flickers in woods at two in the morning; and where – just occasionally – the sound of gunfire reverberates through the coombes.

Welcome to Badger-Cull-UK – land of anonymity and rumour. A place where locals won’t go on record and where unknown people move about the byways at night because they’re either trying to stop the cull, or because they are guarding those who’ve signed up to kill badgers. Or, perhaps, they’re just making their way home from the pub… like one hapless West Somerset local the other night who inadvertently terrorised a dozen or more people out on anti-cull patrol.

“I was riding my bicycle over the hill from Monksilver and I passed this cottage where two dogs often come out and have a go at me if their owner has forgotten to lock them up,” he told the Western Morning News. “I was swearing and shouting at the dogs as they chased me in the dark lane – and when I went around the corner there were more than a dozen people huddled in the hedgerow, and some of them were screaming in fear. They must have thought I was some crazy farmer out to attack them, but I was just fed up with those dogs. And it was a steep hill so, by the time I’d shot by the badger-cull people, it was too late to explain.”

An hour after the late-night incident, a police roadblock was set up in the village of Monksilver – although it is not known if the two events were related.

Indeed, in West Somerset most things related to the cull are unknown. Media enquiries are unwelcome by both sides and monitoring a vast district riddled with valleys and myriad lanes on the ground at night is not an easy option. Which is presumably why a police helicopter was hovering over the Brendon escarpment between the villages of Monksilver, Roadwater, Luxborough and Withycombe for nearly an hour just after midnight yesterday morning.

In most places where people fear to speak out, rumours tend to abound. And so it is in West Somerset. All manner of tales relating to anti-cull activity are doing the rounds. Is it, for example, really true that one farmer who owns a holiday complex had diesel oil tipped into his swimming pool by animal-rights activists? Landowners who’ve signed up for the cull are, understandably, reluctant to draw the spotlight of attention on themselves – this newspaper is aware of a dozen such stories, but we cannot vouch for their authenticity because the victims would rather not speak with the Press. We do know that animal rights activists have created websites giving details of every farmer or landowner in the West Somerset area who has signed up for the cull – one such site provides intricate detail with maps and even videos of properties concerned.

Darkness is descending on the other side of the fence too – a freelance photographer used by the WMN who’d been following the cull story was told this weekend that he was no longer welcome to go out on patrol with activists in the area.

If we descend to the last possible rung of reportage and relate to the “general feeling” of a normally peaceful area that suddenly finds itself the focus of so much nocturnal attention, it would be true to say that many have noticed an upturn in badger numbers over the last few years. Some will have been glad to see them – but, in what is mainly an agricultural community, the most commonly held opinion sparked by bovine TB has, for a long while, been along the lines that “something must be done”.

The trouble a week into the cull is – what is being done is about as clear as mud. There are beginning to be murmurings even among some in the agricultural community that the experiment, operation – call it what you will – lacks scientific credibility.

One farmer in his late 60s – who remains adamant that large numbers of badgers should be exterminated – pointed into a West Somerset valley and told the WMN: “There are two large setts down there – the landowner on the right has signed up for the cull, the one on the left hasn’t. “No-one knows what state those badgers are in – what happens if they cull a healthy colony, leaving one that is infested with TB? I’ll tell you what – all they’ll have done is helped spread the damned disease!”

And what’s making such people more uncomfortable – or even angry – are unverified reports doing the rounds that the corpses of culled badgers are not being tested for TB. “If those reports are true,” said the veteran farmer. “Then this whole thing is half-cocked and a waste of time.”

In the meantime, some locals in West Somerset who have nothing to do with the cull either way are beginning to wish the area had never been selected.

A woodman who has worked on an estate near Williton for the past 25 years was stopped by police last week. “There were three officers in the vehicle and they gave me a right old grilling,” said the man. “One even took my name and wrote down everything I said in a notebook. Maybe I can’t blame them – I’ve been in the lanes around here in the past few nights and they’ve been full of all sorts of suspicious-looking people – including security guards in big Land Rovers. I’m fed up with it,” he added. “What’s more – I’m afraid it’s all going to kick off and get much worse.” Many locals would agree with the sentiment – and yearn for the days when the most newsworthy thing that happened in West Somerset was the annual raft-race.