The First Dark Day

So it’s come to this.

On this day, June 1st 2013, licences are to be handed out that allow farmers and landowners to cull badgers. Initially in two cull zones within Gloucestershire and Somerset, but almost undoubtedly to other parts of the country in the future.

But this is just one of so many dark days for Britain’s wildlife if such policy-making continues as it is. Unable to see anything in reality without some financial value to it and greedy with the power of control, the people supposedly looking after our environment and ecosystems as written on paper are perpetuating its ongoing decline.

There’s the indirect methods – intensive agriculture, mismanagement of forest and marine ecosystems, urban development into sensitive areas – such things, driven by our government’s ongoing drive with nothing but money on the mind (generally for themselves and their chums) pushes huge declines in over 60% of our wildlife, as the staggeringly bleak State of Nature (and read the whole paper, not just the summary) reports.

Now it seems that the country sportsmen ‘in charge’ of nature are bringing their hobby to policy, covering the ears against the protests of scientists, conservationists, a large majority of the Commons and the public under a smokescreen of out-of-the-hat reasonings that a ten year old could question. The protests aren’t just hippy tree-hugging for the sake of it. I, and most other people with an interest and knowledge in nature, accept that in some though often rare circumstances culling can be the only option, deer being the obvious example. But there is no excuse here. Culling badgers reduces Btb in cattle at a best outcome by only 16%, leaving farmers with huge numbers of their stock still falling to the disease, and vast losses of badgers will only be joining their vast losses of money. If they had just topped up the biosecurity, cleaning water troughs regularly and isolating sick individuals from the herds, it may have just ticked over nicely for a few years whilst a vaccine for cattle was developed.

But DEFRA head Owen Paterson ignored all the scientifically-backed advice given to him, and the result is the first licences given out today. Wildlife doesn’t just fall to planning and land policies now as un-targeted casualties. The Badger has become the first official ‘wild scapegoat’, a way for Paterson to get around his own department’s failings and blame it on something outside societal influence (as illustrated superbly in Lucy McRobert’s article), as well as going towards getting some of those pesky wildlife protection laws out of the way so his ‘real countrymen’ have something new to shoot.

Because with every new wild scapegoat, they’ll be far more losses outside any cull’s legal parameter. Already, illegal destruction of badgers and their setts are on the rise. It’s scary just how commonplace it is. When I was investigating the nocturnal rootings of badgers in the lawns of a local stately home, the land-keeping staff of the estate, hardened country-folk who had seen so much of the natural environment change in their time, were completely casual about what they’d been told by contemporaries elsewhere on how to deal with badger problems. “They just say gas ’em out or stick poison down, then just dump it on the road when you find it dead and no one’ll even bother to notice.” Thankfully, the ones at this particular estate would have none of it, opting for tighter security to keep badgers away from the ornamental lawns. They accepted badgers as part of the countryside they loved.

But elsewhere it is a different story, and the cull will make many feel it far more acceptable to kill badgers. Wildlife crime is hard to monitor, the police keep it low priority and the wildlife crime unit is badly underfunded. The illegal activities mentioned by the keepers on the estate that are already going on are taking an increase as the cull brings them one step closer to being able to get away with it. I monitor over a half a dozen setts in the New Forest, noting down the state of them and the activity of it’s inhabitants for the local badger group. But a serious part of our work now and other groups across the country is ensuring the setts are intact, and watching out for suspicious activity. You’re not just a naturalist but a security guard, the pleasure of watching badgers mixed with apprehension as I never know if the next time I visit, there will be none to see.

Badgers, and potentially many more wild scapegoats – buzzards seem next – are likely to go under disturbing extermination programmes, official ones then spiralling off into the ‘DIY’ attempts elsewhere. As I write this, protesters will be marching to Westminster, but it has come too late. Wild scapegoats are becoming just another brick taken out of the unstable wall of our natural heritage.

It’s up to us – those who aren’t in charge, but know about how things work, and crucially actually care for nature – to try and stop it.

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