“We asked some the other farms round here what to do about these badgers.” The estate keeper told me as I secured the camera trap to a post, in a thick ‘Hampshire-hog’ accent. “But they just tell us to gas the setts, or shoot ‘em as they come out into the fields and dump the bodies on the road.” He paused to take a puff on his cigarette, smoke melding indistinctly with his condensed breath on this crisp January morning. “But we don’t want to work like that. I mean it’s illegal and all, but the badgers have got just as much right to be here as we have. Just gotta work round ‘em .”
That was just over three years ago, when I had been called out to assist in a badger problem at a local fishing estate back home. Each night, the animals had been visiting the picturesque front lawn of the house, and in their quest for caddis fly larvae, had created a scene that could quite comfortably win an Oscar for set-design of the Somme. Even I thought it was feral pigs or boar at first, until I noted the tell-tale kidney shaped prints among the destruction. So it was a surprisingly refreshing stay-of-execution to hear from the keeper, despite the trouble. He was one that some would describe as ‘true country folk’ (not that I am fond of the phrase) – worked on the land since his teens, fingers hardened and earthy from decades of practical jobs in all weathers, and certainly not a glad sufferer of fools. Yet he lacked one trait I have found extremely common in this demographic, which is the desire to kill badgers.
It’s something I’m sure many a ‘badger person’ can relate to having witnessed. There are some village pubs where even the mention of the animal’s name becomes a trigger word for trouble. “There’s too many badgers!” rings loud and clear across the rural landscape.
Undoubtedly, when it comes to its national population, the badger is what you’d call successful. Whether you’d define there as being too many depends on your outlook, but at the last government guess there may be anything between 285,000-290,000 of them in the UK between 64,000 social groups . There are likely two main reasons for their abundance; while badgers are particularly fond of earthworms (which is probably why they do so well in pastoral farming landscapes like the West Country), they’re quite happy to snuffle up pretty much anything they can fit in their mouths. And perhaps more obviously, both the animals and their setts have been fully protected since the 1973 Badgers Act.
Unfortunately, the former habits don’t necessarily come with concessions to conservation efforts. The animal can have a significant impact on nationally declining hedgehogs [2, 3] and some vulnerable populations of ground-nesting birds [4, 5].
Before I continue however, I want to make two points very clear. The first is that I by no means have anything against badgers – in fact they’re among my favourite animals. Their social dynamics, individual characters and behaviour is just fascinating. I have spent many atmospheric evenings sat outside setts, studying wild badgers in my local wood back home, and at locations in the New Forest; the observational data I gather at the latter going right back to the New Forest Badger Group, of which I am proud to be a member. As part of my duties to the group, I will and have investigated any suspicious activity in relation to the animals or their setts, and will report to the police if necessary. I’m always keen to find as conflict-free a solution to badger problems (usually related to their digging, as was the case at the fishing estate) as possible. And as others will attest with pity, I will happily dive off the path mid-conversation to investigate a newly found latrine or paw-print like a mad sniffer dog.
And neither do I support the current culls in response to bovine tuberculosis. It’s such a huge issue, and one not particularly relevant to the points I wish to make, so I won’t make it the focus of this article. But my view is shaped by the scientific evidence available, and that is that culling is not an effective long-term solution for significantly reducing BTb [6, 7].
But if naturalists and wildlife conservationists want to hold any credence to the claim of thinking by scientific principle, we can’t just assume that having a very high population of opportunistic carnivores in a heavily human-altered ecosystem will have no consequence 100% of the time. There is little protest of the fact foxes, stoats and weasels can be lethally controlled on the general licence, and charities like the RSPB and Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust regularly do so to protect vulnerable species.
Additionally, the need to cull deer due to the absence of top predators is willingly accepted by most, given the damage deer overpopulation creates within forestry. But few also pick up on another consequence – mesopredator release. Badgers and Britain’s suite of other mammalian carnivores are all classed as mesopredators, and in a natural system are just as subject to suppression by top predators as the herbivores. Subsequently, the extinction of animals such as wolves and bears in Britain is likely to have lead to larger populations of mid-size carnivores than would naturally be present, with the associated consequences on their smaller prey – a process that has been recorded across the world [8, 9].
So why aren’t foxes protected, but badgers are? The key reason here is by far public image. The iconic striped face that gazes out from the logo of one of Britain’s largest conservation NGOs strikes affection from many, no doubt with childhood memories of Kenneth Graham’s grandfatherly Mr Badger and his ilk lingering in the sub-conscious. The sheer number of badger groups and their frequent top-billing on shows like Springwatch hold testament to this. No matter what the scientific consensus may be, any weakening in the laws surrounding badger protection will be met with howls of protest largely based around the animal’s star appeal.
But conservation is riddled with tough decisions. Much like the lives of the wild animals we are trying to protect, it is filled with trade-offs, un-pleasantries required in order to reach a positive goal, and the more we modify our environment the more these ugly facets raise their head. I’m not calling for an all-out abolishment of the badger act right now. I don’t blame badgers entirely for the decline of hedgehogs and the like, which many on the land are quick to jump on. But I feel we do need to seriously review what we know about badger ecology in the UK, which may at least result in control at local levels. There are times when we need to put aside what are ultimately man-made prejudices, and think carefully – what’s best for nature as a whole?
- DEFRA Request for Information, 2014.
- Young, R. P., Davison, J., Trewby, I. D., Wilson, G. J., Delahey, R. J. & Doncaster, C. P. (2006) Abundance of hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) in relation to the distribution and density of badgers (Meles meles). Journal of Zoology. 269, 349-356.
- Doncaster, C. P. (1994) Factors regulating local variations in abundance: Field tests on hedgehogs, Erinaceus europaeus. Oikos. 69, 182-192.
- Bolton, M., Butcher, N., Sharpe, F., Stevens, D. & Fisher, G. (2007) Remote monitoring of nests using digital camera technology. Journal of Field Ornithology. 78, 213-220.
- Morris, A. J. & Gilroy, J. J. (2008) Close to the edge: predation risk for two declining farmland passerines. Ibis. 150, 168-177.
- Donnelly, C. A., Woodroffe, R., Cox, D. R., Bourne, J., Gettinby, G., Le Fevre, A. M., McInery, J. P. & Morrison, I. (1998) Impact of localized badger culling on tuberculosis incidence in British cattle. Nature. 426, 834-837.
- Woodroffe, R., Donnelly, C. A., Cox, D. R., Bourne, J., Cheesman, C. L., Delahey, R. J., Gettingby, G., McInery, J. P. & Morrison, I. (2006) Effects of badger culling on spatial organization: implications for the control of bovine tuberculosis. Journal of Applied Ecology. 43, 1-10.
- Ritchie, E. G. & Johnson, C. N. (2009) Predator interactions, mesopredator release and biodiversity conservation. Ecology Letters. 12, 982-998.
- Elmhagen, B., Ludwig, G., Rushton, S. P., Helle, P. & Linden, H. (2010) Top predators, mesopredators and their prey: interference ecosystems along bioclimatic productivity gradients. Journal of Animal Ecology. 79, 785-794.