Friday, July 10, 2020
Home News Notes from the sticks: The great badger debate

Notes from the sticks: The great badger debate

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IN MY piece on skylarks last week I said that they are in decline and that the RSPB and British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) attribute this to changes in farming practices. However commenter Far Canal suggested that badgers are mainly responsible. I thought I would look up facts about badgers, and found there are two sharply divided camps.

The badger (properly the European badger, Meles meles) must be one of the most familiar animals in the country, yet most people have probably never seen one. The only live one I have seen was crossing a road at night in south London. They are burly, low-slung animals, very powerful and with strong claws which enable them to dig their setts. These are systems of tunnels and chambers which can be several hundred feet long, with multiple entrances, and are home to several families. They are kept scrupulously clean, with soiled bedding removed and replaced, and latrines dug nearby for droppings. Here is a video of a group in Devon. It looks as if one of the adults is paler, and apparently this variation in colour is not uncommon.

They enjoy strict legal protection, with persecution outlawed in 1973 and interfering with setts banned in 1992.

An issue is that badgers can be infected with the cattle disease bovine tuberculosis (bTB) and can pass it to cows. If cows get it, they are slaughtered to eliminate the risk of it entering the human food chain. Nearly 33,000 cattle were slaughtered in England in 2018 because of bovine TB, and 3,600 farms were newly affected by the disease, according to the National Farmers’ Union. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs calls bTB ‘the greatest threat to animal health in the UK’, costing taxpayers £100million a year and causing ‘devastation and distress for farmers and rural communities’.

Badger culling has been the mainstay of the government’s bTB policy since 2011, with a system of licensed shooting introduced in Gloucestershire and Somerset two years later. Since then, the English cull has been expanded, and last year ministers announced 11 new areas of culling, taking the total to 43 zones in the Midlands and the west of England from Cornwall to Cheshire. Up to 64,000 badgers were expected to be killed last autumn. They are either shot as they move around or trapped and then shot.

Animal welfare and other groups are deeply opposed to culling. The RSPCA estimates the bTB infection rate in badgers at 4-6 per cent, and the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) agrees that the risk to humans is very low because of milk pasteurisation. Other animals such as cats and dogs, deer, horses and goats can spread the infection, not to mention it being transmitted within the cattle herd.

Alternatives to culling include fencing to keep badgers out of farms, vaccinating badgers and vaccinating cattle. The arguments against the latter are that it does not guarantee full protection from infection, it probably needs to be repeated annually, and it can result in a cow testing positive for bTB even if it is not infected.

There has been a wealth of test culls, reports and surveys, and you can read a detailed article here. 

The difficulty of the problem is highlighted by two articles in the Guardian two days apart last year. The first, on October 9, was headlined: ‘Badger culling may increase spread of tuberculosis, say researchers’. The article said that researchers had found that culling disrupts the badgers’ social behaviour and caused them to visit neighbouring territories, potentially spreading the disease.  

The second, on October 11, was headlined ‘Badger cull linked to fall in bovine TB in two areas, study suggests’, with the subheading: ‘Report on test areas in England hailed by farmers’ union as proof that badger cull works’. It reported that In Gloucestershire, the incidence of TB cases in cattle was two thirds lower after four years of badger culling than would have been expected from a comparison of similar unculled sites, while in Somerset the rate was 37 per cent lower. In a third area, in Dorset, there was no significant difference.

And so the controversy continues. In March the government announced that culling in England will ‘begin to be phased out in the next few years’, with vaccination of badgers being ramped up instead. 

However culling is a side issue for this article.

I’ve checked back on the RSPB and BTO websites, and neither has a mention of badgers as a factor in the decline of skylarks, though the RSPB mentions the vulnerability of nests to ‘ground predators’. Like the previous two, the Wildlife Trusts cite changes in farming practice and habitat loss. All media reports seem to be based on one or more of these organisations.

So I turned to the Skylark Warrior website written by Robin Page, who tends to run contrary to the accepted ‘wisdom’, and who lives and works in the countryside as opposed to an office. He is not a favourite of the BBC.

A scientific report in 2017 estimated the number of badgers in England and Wales at 485,000, an 88 per cent increase since the 1980s. Page says (and I can think of no reason why he would make this up) that a Defra civil servant gave him a figure of more than a million in 2014, an increase of 2,000 per cent since the 1970s, when legal protection started. He believes that the conservation bodies are deliberately concealing the scale of damage to other species by badgers. (I presume this is because everything has to be the fault of man, either his farming practices or his heating of the atmosphere of an Earth which has been oscillating in temperature for about 4.5billion years.) He says that ‘dreamers and delusionists’ (among whom he names the BBC’s wretched Chris Packham) claim that the main diet of badgers is worms and rabbits, but says that the RSPB has carried out ‘little publicised’ work showing that badgers are serious predators of skylark nests and of other ground-nesting birds in decline. He says that this could easily be proved if post-mortems were carried out on culled badgers, but this is not done. (Badgers are also implicated in the decline of hedgehogs and I will go into this in another article.)

Page sums up: ‘With such a population increase badgers are causing a serious conservation crisis  . . .  with our major conservation bodies choosing to remain silent.’

Surely not!

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I once saw the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, and they played a sort of tune on a hosepipe. I thought that was the most entertainment you could get from a hose but I was wrong. After my last hose succumbed, like all its predecessors, to permanent kinks, I saw a Yoyo in action and I had to have one. It is made of red rubber and it is physically incapable of kinking. The best thing is that when you turn on the tap, it expands to twice its length as you can see in this video

(Bingo the dog makes a cameo appearance), then contracts when you turn it off. I am not involved in any way with the manufacturers, an Italian firm called Fitt, but I had to share the joy of a kinkless hose that makes you smile. I got mine from Amazon, about £34 for 7.5metres which extends to 15m (whatever that is in English).

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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