'The Fate of the Badger': the great badger scapegoating conspiracy

Cover shot of trapped badger used for the new edition of 'The Fate of the Badger' by Richard Meyer, published by Fire-raven Writing.
Cover shot of trapped badger used for the new edition of 'The Fate of the Badger' by Richard Meyer, published by Fire-raven Writing.
Thirty years ago, there was no evidence that badgers spread bovine TB among cattle, writes Lesley Docksey. Nor is there now. Yet badgers are still being slaughtered in a futile attempt to control the disease. This timely republication of Richard Meyer's 1986 book reveals the belligerent ignorance of the officials, politicians and farmers driving the failed policy.
Having become so entrenched in its anti-badger stance, will governments ever admit that the bovine TB problem can only be tackled through cattle-based measures. How can they admit their badger-centered policies are based on a myth of their own creation?

The Fate of the Badger was first published thirty years ago and sadly failed to achieve the wide circulation it deserves.

Now republished on its 30th anniversary, with an added chapter to bring readers up to date, it will be a very welcome addition to the knowledge needed to oppose the culling of badgers.

The second paragraph of the Introduction told me the author is a man after my own heart, and surely this book will reach out to many readers in a similar way:

"Man has fabricated a world of illusion and self-deception for so long that he now truly believes he has dominion. The world exists for him; its precious treasures are his to squander; its land his to appropriate; its wild inhabitants his to manipulate, control, exploit and, if the whim takes him, destroy.

"Because its other life-forms cannot speak his language, he assumes they have no soul. But if a cow could talk, would the slaughterman hesitate ... ? Maybe he would hesitate for ever."

A committed defender of badgers

The author, Dr Richard Meyer, has had an interesting career; one could say 'chequered' except that all the different components make for a very connected whole.

He is an accomplished artist and author, a naturalist and ecologist and has, among his forays into public service such as teaching and working for a County Council, long been a defender of badgers.

He also - prior to writing The Fate of the Badger - represented the National Federation of Badger Groups on the government's Consultative Panel (CP). This gave him an inside view of the bias against and blaming of badgers when trying to find a policy to control bovine TB.

One would therefore expect a high degree of scientific argument, perhaps challenging for non-science readers. But it comes tempered with an artist's eye, a writer's ability with words and a passionate dislike of humanity's desire to control the wild.

Tuberculosis, the 'killer disease'

In the chapter on the 'Killer Disease', Meyer takes us through an explanation of tuberculosis and scientists' difficulties in fully understanding TB in cattle and humans, citing Dr John Grange - who carried out a thorough reappraisal of TB in 1982 - as a rare voice of truth in the wilderness:

"[I]t is surprising, in a climate of general apathy towards the worldwide tuberculosis situation, that the unfortunate badger is receiving so much hostile attention. Although there is no doubt that tuberculosis occurs in both cattle and badgers in the West Country, the evidence for its transmission from one to the other is purely circumstantial."

Than, up pops fascinating work by David Kissen. Starting in 1951, he investigated the various links between tuberculosis and emotional stress. It turns out that while most people will unknowingly fight off TB infection, emotional stress is a hugely significant cause of a body falling victim to TB. It seems loss of those one loves, being exiled from one's home, one's land is far more important in the development of TB than simple poverty.

Having become so entrenched in its anti-badger stance, will governments ever admit that the bovine TB problem can only be tackled through cattle-based measures. How can they admit their badger-centered policies are based on a myth of their own creation?

Dr Meyer then asks the question: what of the stress to badgers, the damage to their family structure and across the wider badger community, caused by culling? Badgers are a both a social animal living in small, tight-knit groups and whose territorial borders are far more elastic than supposed. There already is a fair amount of natural 'perturbation'.

The 1998-2006 Randomised Badger Culling Trials found that perturbation of badgers due to culling was followed by an increase of TB. The assumption was and still is that already-infected badgers fleeing the area take the disease with them. What if fleeing badgers are actually carrying high levels of stress, of loss and grief that open the door to the development of TB?

Perhaps we should also be studying the stress suffered by cattle due to modern farming methods, and how that might be causing TB to develop among the herds.

'The badger has no other enemy. But maybe one is enough'

Is work done 30 years ago still pertinent? What will surprise and infuriate many new readers is that, despite the science having been argued and investigated years back, and conclusions drawn, Defra is still ignoring the results. How many times do you have to prove the earth isn't flat before a government department can admit to the truth?

Just one example: pro-badger people have been cheered by the recent news that Professor Woodroffe's latest study showed that badgers and cattle avoided each other. This confirmed findings in a County Wicklow study of 2 years ago. But Dr Meyer mentions Dr Paul Benham of Reading University who was researching the known 'mutual avoidance' of badgers and cattle when Dr Meyer was writing his book 30 years ago.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s it was known, by Defra's precursor MAFF, vets and farmers, that spreading infected manure and slurry onto pasture would increase TB in cattle. It was known that double fencing between fields would help prevent cattle-to-cattle transmission of TB, as would other bio-security measures and controls.

It was known because it was due to these and other measures that TB in cattle had been reduced to a tiny percentage.

Then they forgot, because in 1971 they found a badger with TB and the myth began.

The whole sorry history, as laid out by Dr Meyer, demonstrates all too clearly how a myth can be embedded into public thinking. The badger had, for many years, been a victim of man's inhumanity. But now farmers, many of whom disliked badgers anyway, were able to use the badger as a scapegoat, the sole reason their herds had TB.

Despite having gained some legal protection, badgers were gassed and gassed again. They were trapped and shot. Rural thugs went on baiting and digging, believing they now had some sort of permission. Every mention of bovine TB had 'badger' attached to it - a point that Dr Meyer made then which, thirty years later, is being made by the Badger Trust's Dominic Dyer.

And MAFF set up study after incompetent study, trying to prove the badger was to blame. Incompetent? How's this for an example:

"Concerning the Woodchester Park ecological study - without doubt the most important project yet devised by MAFF on this programme - it is dryly stated that 'up to 31 July 1976 one badger, 2 jays and one pheasant were caught in 64 trap-nights'."

Which only goes to prove that jays and pheasants like peanuts as much as badgers.

'Scientific conviction, not appeasement'

The whole issue, as the book illustrates, comes down to the government promoting the myth rather than the science, caving in to the farming lobby - something they are still doing today. Let farmers have dead badgers instead of making them comply with more regulations.

It is disheartening to realise that we are still fighting exactly the same battle with dishonest and spineless politicians as people like Dr Meyer were, thirty years ago.

Much of the book deals with the political mishandling of the problem, cherry picking and distorting what science the officials chose to look at while burying and forgetting all the rest. Given the public outrage over the gassing of badgers and the failure of several reports and 'scientific projects' to convince them that badgers had to be culled, the subject became so toxic that minutes of panel meetings were secret and subject to the Official Secrets Act.

Knowing that all of this was due to government wanting to please the farmers rather than cure the problem led David Coffey, a respected ex-MAFF veterinary surgeon, to ask for "scientific conviction, not appeasement."

But how do you 'appease' those who do not want to listen to science? Just as Professor John Bourne was told, years later, by a government minister, you offer them the carrot of dead badgers.

The chapter on Rural Terrorism and the horrific details of badger digging and baiting is painful; it makes one want to cast the book aside, until ... Until you read of the female badger whose sett was dug, cubs killed and she pulled out to face the dogs. She escaped, rushed back into the sett, grabbed her one remaining cub and ran to another sett a quarter of a mile away - a sett in rocky ground among the trees, where she and her baby would be safe from digging.

How can you not salute such a brave, resourceful animal? How can you not step in to protect badgers?

Thirty years on, the fight continues

Yet here we are, thirty years later, still fighting the same battle. In his final chapter, written for today's readers, Dr Meyer writes:

"The utterly enervating badger/bTB saga, as mindlessly unreal and endless as The Archers or Eastenders, was described by EFRA as 'foot and mouth in slow motion'. The obfuscation is so old it has become fossilised with the permanence of a T. Rex dug up in America and stuck for evermore in a museum in Montana ...

"There are those who would sooner this was not so. They bring to this opinion not the logic or rationality of science, or the compassion of civilisation, but the consequences of indoctrinisation. Intellectual heirlooms regurgitated over decades into a myth.'

He engages in a damning critique of the political mess that successive governments have made of the problem of bovine TB. Looking back at his time on the Consultative Panel, he mentions a 2009 paper Intractable Policy Failure, written by Professor Wyn Grant, in which Grant cites several pronouncements by government ministers. To quote:

"One, asserting that the CP 'plays a major role in allowing us to demonstrate that all shades of opinion on badgers have been taken into account before we kill them' is chilling".

Being able to make use of the record of the past political failures recorded by Dr Meyer, and lay them side by side with the current failure to honestly address the cattle-to-cattle transmission of TB makes this book essential reading for all badger and wildlife groups. For here is the problem we have to solve:

Having become so entrenched in its anti-badger stance for so many years, it is difficult to see how governments can ever admit that they were wrong, that the bTB problem can only be tackled through cattle-based measures. How can they admit their badger-centred policies are based on a myth of their own creating, without losing face?

And it is not surprising that, when remembering his time on the Consultative Panel trying to defend badgers thirty years ago, Dr Meyer's reaction is: "fat lot of good that did then!"



The book: The Fate of the Badger by Dr Richard Meyer is available from the publishers Fire-raven Writing


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