Badgers: Splitting public opinion for more than 200 years

The common badger, a nocturnal animal of the otter and weasel family (c. 1850)

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When it comes to a cull of badgers, it seems no amount of science will resolve the arguments.

A researcher who studied their role in popular culture has warned that politicians have not grasped the true nature of the cull controversy.

Dr Angela Cassidy from Imperial College London researched discourse on badgers from the end of the 18th Century.

She told BBC News that they have consistently divided opinion, with farmers wanting rid of them and animal lovers seeking to protect them.

Dr Cassidy said that bombarding people with science about TB in the animals would fail, as the debate was really about emotions and values.

"The sides have a very different understanding of what the countryside is for and how we should treat animals," she said.

"That's why I think one of the reasons why the focus on the evidence isn't getting us that far is because it can be interpreted in different ways and what we have to acknowledge is that there are different values going on, and this is a very political debate."

Pest or pet?

A Defra source told BBC News that some civil servants working on the badger issue acknowledged that people had very different views of whether farmers had a right to control badgers, or whether wildlife was in some way "owned" by everyone.

Start Quote

People not liking badgers talked about them being dirty and disruptive. It's the same now”

End Quote Angela Cassidy Imperial College London

Dr Cassidy discovered a divide stretching more than 200 years in the columns of The Times.

"Every so often I found these little flurries of correspondence between people arguing whether badgers were pests or likeable animals. This sort of thread pops up every 20 or 30 years.

"There's a link consistently about how people were talking about badgers then and now. When people were talking about liking badgers they would talk about them being clean domestic animals, very houseproud and family-oriented.

"People not liking badgers talked about them being dirty and disruptive. It's the same now."

She says the defining characterisation of the animals in the 20th Century was framed by Kenneth Graham's classic The Wind in the Willows with its gruff, wise, brave Badger.

The book was last made into a movie in 2006 and Amanda Craig, children's book critic for The Times, told BBC News that it has been massively influential for generations.

'Bunny eaters'

"Badger is the ultimate moral authority, portrayed as a rough but very kindly Tory gentleman. He has this speech about how badgers always endure - people come and go," says Ms Craig.

"You think of Badger a bit like an ideal father - someone who's going to protect you; a great comfort figure as well as an authority figure.

"You are likely to encounter Wind in the Willows somewhere between four and eight years old, so these creations are really important and influential - they really affect how we feel and see animals."

Dr Cassidy said a rare counter-example exists in Beatrix Potter's Tale of Mr Tod, in which Brock the badger plans to eat Benjamin Bunny's bunnies (bunny-eating is a genuine badger trait, as Potter - a countrywoman - would have known).

"This stands out because it's the only fictional portrayal I could find that has much in common with the older narrative about badgers as vermin which goes back to Tudor times," she said.

The most recent depictions have mostly been comic portrayals in cartoons, computer games and music videos like the 10-hour Badger Song, reputedly appreciated by students under the influence of substances.

The Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has accused people opposed to the cull of being seized by a "Wind in the Willows sentimentality".

But Dr Cassidy said it would be a mistake to confuse sentimentality with values.

"We have to take note of these cultural influences," said Dr Cassidy, whose research was funded by Nerc, the BBSRC. and the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme, which is itself part-funded by Defra.

"Both sides in the... debate use scientific argument to make the other side look bad. The values debate and the science are inextricably linked."

Follow Roger Harrabin on Twitter: @RogerHarrabin


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  • rate this

    Comment number 366.

    as per my post 338 badgers are meat - lets farm them too.
    Wouldn't suggest farming but seems a shame to waste the product of the inevitable cull.
    Sporrans? Shaving and paint brushes.
    And since we've all been been vaccinated during our teens, those posting pro badger cull due to bTB can have tasty badger burgers for free.

  • rate this

    Comment number 365.

    For the people on here saying this is about townies versus farmers, sorry but no it isn't. My family have been in farming for generations and I am totally against a cull as are ALL the farmers I know. This decision to cull is going against science, animal welfare, public opinion AND many farmer's wishes. It is a disastrous decison even by this government's standards.

  • rate this

    Comment number 364.

    I've recently just completed a masters on environmental management and we had a number of presentations by DEFRA on this issue, as well as having a lecturer heavily involved in some of the research. Both parties suggested culling isn't the answer, as this will only lead to a small reduction in TB cases and will in fact promote the movement of badgers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 363.

    Has anyone spoken to the Scottish farmers that used the vaccine? Perhaps the farmers themselves could convince their colleagues south of the border that the vaccine is an effective way of controlling bovine TB, rather than pointlessly killing healthy & unhealthy animals.

  • rate this

    Comment number 362.

    Badger badger badger badger badger badger badger badger badger badger badger badger

    mushroom mushroom

    Badger badger badger badger badger badger badger badger badger badger badger badger

    mushroom mushroom

    a snake, snake, a snake....

  • rate this

    Comment number 361.

    Meat is necessary , badgers, against this fact are not.

    1) 70% of arable farming is to produce animal feed to produce meat for a species that is Omnivorous - We need a bit less meat in our diet and a bit more greens - obesity is not from veg

    2)as per my post 338 badgers are meat - lets farm them too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 360.

    347.Opondo - "Badgers are disease carrying, aggressive vermin......."

    No, they carry no more disease than all othet animals do, and probably less than the average human does.

    Camage they do? Under mine the odd stretch of old hedgerow which are mostly trashed anyway due to too many people flaining them rather than maintaining them to traditional way......I live in rural Devon by the way...

  • rate this

    Comment number 359.

    "A cull is needed. I'd wager that the folks objecting to the cull haven't ever actually had contact with a badger, nor the damage they do."

    One very bad snowy winter, I found a badger in our hen house - it had killed a chicken. I didn't then come to the conclusion that badgers were a menace and didn't begrudge it a chicken to help it survive. After that, we left food out for it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 358.

    The real issue is the movement of TB infected cattle in dirty transport! The farmers do not clean and sterilise their vehicles after transporting and evidence points towards farm-to-farm infection by dirty vehicles and a complete lack of any contaimination containment.

    Culling badgers will not work.

    Boycott products from those areas involved in a cull, we have alredy made that decision.

  • rate this

    Comment number 357.

    If you had animals of your own you'd have a different view.

    They may look 'cute' but they are vile in every sense of the word.

  • rate this

    Comment number 356.

    @347. Opondo

    Many humans can be described as disease carrying aggressive vermin.

    I have seen badgers - they were not aggressive, just minding their own business, and when I approached a little closer they just disappeared into the undergrowth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 355.

    337. JJComment

    Vaccines are only 50% effective -

    as opposed to the 16% effectiveness of culling ??????

    Your logic makes perfect sense ...NOT.

  • rate this

    Comment number 354.

    Tb is the problem, 5%of that problem is the badgers. Cull the badgers and the best you get is a 10% drop in TB.

    So that would make 95% of the problem our food industry, farmers and cattle so our govt decides to tackle the 5% issue instead of the 95% - sounds about right for this bunch of charlies.

    Lobby groups, food and farming industry consultants & party contributions must be involved.

  • rate this

    Comment number 353.

    Do we need more scientists in government ?

    Shouldn't the energy minister know about Joules, Newtons laws, Thermodynamics and a little about entropy ?

    Shouldn't the Chancellor know about "e" and logs ?

    How can anyone really make full use of scientific advice without a basic grounding in the subject ?

    Perhaps all MP's should require at least A-level maths, one science and a language ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 352.

    Something gets in our way, we want to kill it.

    Are we really that up our own backsides, that we feel that is ok.

  • rate this

    Comment number 351.

    Unfortunately the safest,most cost effective and simple option is to cull.Meat is necessary , badgers, against this fact are not. The times of plenty are over ergo , silly trends and halfhearted lukewarm attempts to pretend people care about an animal that the vast majority never ever encounter should stop.

  • rate this

    Comment number 350.

    @347 - I am opposed to the cull. I was once lucky enough to live next door to a badger sett. Wonderful creatures.

    So your supposition is incorrect.


  • rate this

    Comment number 349.

    Lynn from Sussex
    badgers..... ".....have no natural predators and need managing in order to retain a healthy population"

    Why do people think they know better than nature? Top predators populations are naturally regulated by how much food there is for them

  • rate this

    Comment number 348.

    So there is a vaccine but you want to kill badgers instead even though killing them won't solve the TB problem. Well that makes sense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 347.

    Badgers are disease carrying, aggressive vermin.

    A cull is needed. I'd wager that the folks objecting to the cull haven't ever actually had contact with a badger, nor the damage they do.


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