Badger cull: Are we silly to be so sentimental?

Clockwise from left: Beatrix Potter's Tommy Brock (copyright Frederick Warne and Co); a badger, from Autumnwatch Flickr group; illustration from Badger's Parting Gift Beatrix Potter's odious Tommy Brock (left), and Susan Varley's more sympathetic Badger (lower right)

Few subjects are likely to enrage British wildlife lovers more than the idea of a badger cull - yet it's something the government has been debating this week. Why do people have such a strong attachment to this scarcely-seen creature?

Rabbits, foxes and hedgehogs have their supporters, but the badger has traditionally elicited a unique mixture of fondness and respect.

"No animal enjoys better protection than the badger, though few need it less. Uniquely, it has its own Act of Parliament to defend its wellbeing, yet - unlike hundreds of much more poorly safeguarded species - it is not at all endangered," wrote environmental journalist Geoffrey Lean in the Daily Telegraph earlier this year.

And this despite the evidence that badgers are responsible for infecting cattle with bovine TB.

Urban badgers

Urban badger in Essex town, filmed foraging at night
  • Badgers almost certainly there first - they have strong territorial sense and like to stay put
  • So towns built up around existing setts, some 500 years old
  • Still occupy setts known since Domesday Book

One proposed solution to stop the spread is a cull of the creature - but this is highly controversial. This week Lord Krebs, author of a 1997 report that led to a randomised badger cull, questioned the effectiveness of widespread killing. In parts of Wales, the rural affairs minister has proposed a new attempt at a badger cull.

But the debate raises a wider question: just why is it that so many of us have a soft spot for the black and white striped digger who spends most of its time hidden underground?

It brings to mind the thoughts of Mole in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows:

"The Mole had long wanted to make the acquaintance of the Badger. He seemed, by all accounts, to be such an important personage and, though rarely visible, to make his unseen influence felt by everybody about the place."

Badgers may be a nuisance but the British public loves them regardless, says Jack Reedy, a spokesman for the Badger Trust.

"They occupy an important place in our hearts. Even people whose gardens have been torn apart by badgers have a grudging respect for them."

Find out more

Badgers emerge from their sett (by Clive Bushnell, from BBC Autumnwatch Flickr group)
  • Autumnwatch is on BBC Two each Thursday until late November at 2030 BST

Some find it hard to resist their striking black and white striped faces, comical gait and playful behaviour.

But there's also the wonder one feels at seeing them emerge from their secret subterranean society and showing what busy, resourceful animals they are, he says. So much so that enthusiasts like Mr Reedy will sit up half the night watching badgers from hides.

"One of them will poke their nose out of the sett, sniff around and go back inside. A few moments later it comes out with the other badgers as if it's told them that the coast is clear."

Once out of the sett, the badgers will roll around, grooming each other with teeth and claws, and in early spring the cubs have play fights, learning to defend their territory.

Start Quote

I give them parsnip peelings, tomatoes, a bit of chicken and bone from what we had for tea ”

End Quote Maureen Davies, who feeds badgers in Bristol

It would be wrong to call them cute though - badgers have a nasty bite and are the "biggest and best civil engineer" in the animal kingdom, he says.

"Their setts are like a parish - 200 yards of interconnected tunnels crisscrossing an area of 30m by 30m. And each sett will usually have 15 or 16 entrances and seven or eight living chambers."

In this and their housekeeping - changing the straw in the sett every month or so - we can see reflections of ourselves, Mr Reedy says.

Ratty to blame

For the National Farmers Union, this is all rather unfortunate.

"It is an image issue," admits Kevin Pearce, head of food and farming at the NFU. "A lot of farmers like badgers but we also want to control the disease. If your vector spreading TB was a rat, I'm sure that there'd be no problem for farmers in securing a licence to take action."

Beatrix Potter's bad badger

"Tommy Brock was a short bristly fat waddling person with a grin; he grinned all over his face.

He was not nice in his habits. He ate wasp nests and frogs and worms; and he waddled about by moonlight, digging things up.

His clothes were very dirty; and as he slept in the day-time, he always went to bed in his boots."

From The Tale of Mr Tod (copyright Frederick Warne & Co)

In New Zealand the TB carrier is the possum, which is considered both a pest and, worse still, Australian. "So the Kiwis have a different attitude and drop poison into wooded areas from helicopters and planes."

Our sentimental attachment to badgers may be a peculiarly British phenomenon. In Ireland culling has been taking place for several years with no public outcry. Because of that, many farmers would prefer if The Wind in the Willows had never been written, Mr Pearce says.

There's no doubt that anthropomorphic characters in animal stories have an effect, says the Times's children's book critic Amanda Craig. And yet, two giants of the genre - Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame - were "very divided" on the subject of badgers.

"Beatrix Potter cast the badger as one of the villains. In The Tale of Mr Tod, the badger and the fox want to catch and eat Peter Rabbit. As a farmer herself she saw these as the two main predators. She's on the side of rabbits and kittens - the small and fluffy v the large and clawed."

Badger talk

Ruth Badger, right, and Michelle Dewberry in The Apprentice 2006
  • 2006 Apprentice finalist Ruth Badger, right, calls herself 'the Badger' - and shares her animal namesake's combative qualities
  • Verb 'to badger' stems from sport of baiting badgers with dogs, banned in Cruelty to Animals Act 1835
  • The saying 'mad as a sack of badgers' derives from its ferocity when cornered
  • This fuels urban myths like Iraqis' belief that UK troops in Basra used badgers to tackle terrorists
  • 'We can categorically state that we have not released man-eating badgers into the area,' said Major Mike Shearer in July 2007

In contrast, Grahame's book presented a gruff, ascetic figure who doesn't suffer fools gladly. "Badger hates Society, and invitations, and dinner, and all that sort of thing," Ratty observes.

For book critic Craig he is the fearless moral policeman.

"Mr Badger is completely independent, ancient and lives in the Wild Wood, a place that the other animals are afraid to go. Nothing can stop him, he's the figure of authority, even the weasels and stoats are afraid of him. He's the animal version of God and squire mixed into one."

Craig is used to seeing badgers around her Devon home.

"We often see this enormous black and white bump trundling ahead of us in the headlights - they're utterly fearless. They're one of the largest wild animals left in this country and quite magical."

Unfortunately it's something city dwellers rarely experience as badgers hate noise, she says. Which perhaps explains why they have been eased out of children's literature by an "endless" number of books about foxes - a creature now happily ensconced in the suburbs and inner cities.

But there is one badger story that has caught on in recent decades.

Badger makes paper chain for mole (Badger's Parting Gift by Susan Varley, Andersen Press) Susan Varley's much-mourned Badger

Susan Varley's Badger's Parting Gifts, first published in 1984, has become something of a favourite at funeral services. Telling the tale of a popular badger who dies and is mourned by his fellow creatures, it seeks to help children cope with the idea of death.

"A badger seemed just right for the story," says Varley. "It's a strong, sturdy looking animal - perfect for the dependable, reliable character who was always willing to lend a helping paw. And their beautiful black and white striped heads were just made for pen and ink."

And yet her badger owes more to human traits than anything observed in the natural world.

"Badger's character has far more to do with my grandmother than a real badger's characteristics," Varley says. "She died shortly before I started the project and a lot of the book is based on the emotions that went along with that."

In short, the badger's purposeful and private way of life offers writers the chance to debate very human concerns.

Join the conversation

  • Send a comment using the form below
  • We'll also pull in tweets so add @BBC_magazine
  • Or comment on The Magazine's Facebook page

At a time when the idea of culling or shooting badgers is gaining ground, the animals' supporters must hope that Mr Badger's prediction proves accurate.

"People come - they stay for a while, they flourish, they build - and they go. It is their way. But we remain. There were badgers here, I've been told, long before that same city ever came to be. And now there are badgers here again.

"We are an enduring lot, and we may move out for a time, but we wait, and are patient, and back we come. And so it will ever be."

(Frederick Warne & Co owns all rights, copyrights and trademarks of Beatrix Potter character names and illustrations)

Below is a selection of your comments

I'm 21 and I've never actually seen a badger in real life, except as almost-unidentifiable roadkill. All I know about badgers are what I've read in children's books (I do have fond memories of Badger's Parting Gifts - it taught me how to tie my school tie).

Jenna, Bath

In Wisconsin, we have a very special place in our hearts for badgers. The roots of this infatuation are a bit strange. In the early 19th Century Wisconsin attracted settlers, some of whom were lead miners. To protect themselves from the harsh winters, they would burrow into hillsides creating makeshift homes, thus receiving the nickname "badgers". Later on, the University of Wisconsin adopted "Buckingham U Badger" as their mascot ("Bucky" or "Bucky the Badger" for short). It is also the nickname of our state, "The Badger State". However, I have never seen a badger. I read that in 1998 only about 130 badger were sighted by observers in Wisconsin. So, to live up to our namesake please send your badgers to Wisconsin. We will gladly take them in, there's no need to shoot them.

Jason, Milwaukee, WI, USA

As a wildlife photographer, I'm lucky enough to spend a good portion of my time observing the wildlife of this country. Nothing - and I mean NOTHING - is as magical to me as the moment, after much silent waiting around in cold, damp woodland, that the first badger tentatively emerges from its sett, shortly followed by the rest of its family (presumably once the "all clear" has been given). I've often been so transfixed just watching them interact and play that I forget to take photos.

Michael S, Lancashire, UK

For my age group (I'm 25) the wizened advisor in The Animals of Farthing Wood deserves a mention as a source of our affections. And what about Rupert's less impulsive best friend Bill? Another sturdy character adding to the perception.

Nick Toner, Dundee, Tayside

Badgers now seem to be completely out of control in parts of the country - building setts in the centre of villages, causing damage to property and killing pets. And this, despite the fact that the village in which I live is surrounded by plenty of woodland and fields that should be very attractive to badgers. So why the problem? People feeding them in their gardens, because they like to watch them. Stop being so selfish and think of the people who have to deal with the consequences of your actions once the badgers decide to move closer to their new easy source of food. If those people who feed badgers are so keen on them, they should go out and observe them in their natural habitat instead of from the comfort of their armchairs.

Anon,

The Combe by Edward Thomas: "The Combe was ever dark, ancient and dark/ Its mouth is stopped with brambles, thorn, and briar/ And no one scrambles over the sliding chalk/ By beech and yew and perishing juniper/ Down the half precipices of its sides, with roots/ And rabbit holes for steps/ The sun of Winter, The moon of Summer, and all the singing birds/ Except the missel-thrush that loves juniper/ Are quite shut out. But far more ancient and dark/ The Combe looks since they killed the badger there/ Dug him out and gave him to the hounds/ That most ancient Briton of English beasts."

John Price, Cheltenham

We need to get a logical, rather than emotional, balance on our wildlife strategy. All protection strategies are well meaning but are not always logical or correct. Some protected species have run amok, the badger is one. None of the UK is "natural" in that it has been managed by man for centuries. Randomly giving up this management of some but not all species makes poor sense.

Frank Dernie, Wantage, Oxon

I must attribute my fondness for badgers to the character of Mr Badger, since I have never seen one in the flesh. While I can understand the motivation of those in favor of culling these animals, I cannot agree with this practice. Here in the US, we have lost so much of our wildlife to People With Guns who think it is a "sport" to shoot animals. Government approval and/or encouragement only provides individuals with more license to be destructive. Badgers carry diseases? Really? It sure is a good thing we humans are so pure and are always doing our best to keep the world a clean and safe place.

Darryl Blankenship, New York, US

The resistance that a lot of people feel toward culling badgers is not so much that badgers are cute and fuzzy, as that it hasn't been established that a) badgers are a major vector of bovine TB or b) culling badgers will actually help.

Mushroom, Cornwall

This makes me wish US badgers weren't so mean and ugly, or that we had UK badgers.

Amelia Freidline, via Twitter

The Protection of Badgers Act 1992 makes it a criminal offence to interfere with badgers or their setts. I regularly inspect my garden to check that it is safe for my young children. If we owned a small dog, I would be prohibited from allowing it in our garden as it might harass the badgers. I hate badgers.

Philip Goldring, Slough, Berkshire

The comparison with the possum in New Zealand is a bit tenuous. It came over from Australia and carries TB, as you say, but in NZ it has no predators and it is a prolific breeder. It also eats fruit, vegetables, eggs, baby birds (including Kiwi), small indigenous mammals and strips young shoots and bark from trees. It can exist happily on the ground and up in the highest trees. I lived in northern NZ from 2003 to 2010, on a five-acre mini farm, and we had a constant battle with possums, as do most country living people there. After a holiday, it was not unusual to do a night patrol and shoot six or seven in the first week, until balance was restored. It is expected that you will "do your bit" by killing those that you can, by traps or shooting. The alternative - aerial spraying with 1080 by the government agencies - is highly controversial.

Martin West, Jacksonville, Fl, USA (ex-Yorkshire)

Badgers are great animals but they do carry disease. Our opinions about animals are formed through books and cuddly toys plus we anthropomorphise animals. If you want milk, you have to protect cows from TB and have a surplus of calves - it doesn't come in a bottle from the shop.

Cheryl Dash, via Facebook

I have a soft-spot for badgers - they are one of the most endearing animals that we have in this country. A couple of years ago I looked into going badger-watching and went to see some badgers with a guide from Worcestershire Badger Society. It was definitely worth a trip to the countryside - they are such beautiful animals and wonderful to watch, especially the young cubs.

Rebecca, Birmingham

The badger has as much right to the land as we do. What makes us so special as to make decisions as to whether to cull a load of badgers for the sake of profits? If badgers were as common as the rat then maybe that would be a different story; but we should protect our wildlife.

Alexandra, Herts

The point about being opposed to the badger cull has nothing to do with badger being "cute and cuddly". It's do with having respect for the wildlife of this country that we have so arrogantly and wantonly abused for centuries. There was a time when wolves and bears lived in Britain, only for us to wipe them out because we deemed them "pests". Now I'm not saying the cull will threaten the badger with extinction, but it's pretty galling to think that there is hardly a single large mammal in this country that isn't persecuted in some shape or form.

Michael, Bristol

I have a grudging respect for them. I see them lumbering across the road sometimes and one has completely trashed my mum's garden. But the people that anthropomorphise animals don't seem to realise they are a pest. Not only do they carry TB, they've been known to kill or seriously injure chickens too. And they really aren't endangered, unlike most garden birds.

Nix,

One powerful argument for retaining the protection which hasn't been mentioned is that, whilst it will never stop it, the badge of illegality limits the activities of the lunatics and thugs who go out in the dark 'badger baiting', getting fun from digging out the setts (usually trespassing on other people's land) and beating the brains out of the terrified, clueless animals with spades.

Jeremy Mansell, Doncaster

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.