The fate of the badger

| 25th March 2019
Badger
What can pride and prejudice teach us about the fate of the badger?

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Hundreds of thousands of badgers have been killed in Great Britain since the 1970s, accused of spreading bovine tuberculosis (bTB) to cattle. More than 30,000 were killed in 2018 alone. 

Confronted with an injustice that defies reason, one can protest and investigate. The systematic slaughter of a 'protected' species demands a strong foundation in science, and an awareness of the ecological consequences, as well as an emotional response. 

Any government which institutes such a campaign must answer serious questions, such as: is it legal? Is there a consensus of expert opinion? Is the thinking joined-up? What are the costs and benefits, checks and balances? Who will physically carry out the policy? And, what is public opinion?  

Failed experiments

Not one of these has been answered satisfactorily. Albert Einstein reputedly said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result”. No scientist can waste time repeating failed experiments. Likewise, George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. And here we are. 

Conventionally, to test a theory, one tries to disprove it: fail, and it is deemed ‘acceptable’, at least until disproved.

In the eighties, I spent five years testing my hypothesis that Cornwall could support the return of its national bird, the Red-billed chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax. When the species did return and, more critically, stayed to increase its numbers, the hypothesis was accepted. 

At that time, the poor circumstantial evidence behind the eradication of our largest surviving terrestrial carnivore appalled me, as it did many other naturalists. The more I looked into it, the more alarmed I became.  In fact, it made me a scientist. 

We formed BROCK (Badger Rights of Cornwall - Kernow) to scrutinise ministry activities. Surely only through science could this be challenged. I worked for WWF liaising between farming and conservation interests, and served on the Government’s Consultative Panel for three years while writing The Fate of the Badger, published by Batsford in 1986.

Unchecked pride

Today, the badger is still being killed officially in huge numbers: encouraging rural thugs to flout the law, claiming, “If men in suits can kill it, why can’t we?”.

So, how has this happened? A ministry scientist told me: “In my department, the top priority is to protect the Minister from any possible embarrassment”.  

He also told me that No.10 Downing Street took the decision to kill badgers. By then Mrs Thatcher had infamously claimed: “The lady’s not for turning”. Once a leader makes a decision, he or she feels compelled to defend it, even in the face of contrary evidence.

Humans dislike being corrected, admitting failure, or asking for help; we resist advice and prefer revenge to forgiveness.  All these traits are based on pride – a weakness associated with denial; at an overweening level it causes mistakes, setback and failure. The maxim, ‘Pride goes before a fall’ has its origin in the Bible: “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs).  In 1813 Jane Austen wrote a novel in which the chief protagonists had to overcome pride and prejudice in order to find happiness. 

Writing at the end of Word War II, Bertrand Russell stated in his History of Western Philosophy: “The Renaissance restored human pride, but carried it to the point where it led to anarchy and disaster”.  He also observed: “When the check upon pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road to madness – the intoxication of power [my italics] ... to which modern men .., are prone”. He concluded: “this intoxication is the greatest danger of our time, and [increases] the danger of vast social disaster".

Regaining hope

Now, in the twenty-first century, wildlife has its own war.  But, as the brilliant Greta Thunberg has told us, it never tops the News agenda. There is no single villain to blame or confront; no national / party politics; and it only indirectly concerns economics.

To attack it, is to attack ourselves. As Robert Frost, the American poet wrote in 1914: “And nothing to look backward to with pride / And nothing to look forward to with hope” – which are rather my sentiments now.

Badger cull politics have become self-evident: wildlife genocide dressed up as a cull to give the impression of rational science removing unwanted animals.

The tactics were and remain shameful. Since the early 1970s, successive governments have tried gassing, snares, poison, clean-ring exclusion zones, and cage trapping.  

Strange measures to deal with a mycobacterium. So, what do humans do when faced with a difficult animal?  They reach for a gun. 

Origins of error

All these policies rested on a false premise. This self-serving political decision was based on wishful thinking. Desperate farmers and vets grabbed the idea as if it were a £50 note in the gutter. One infected badger found in Gloucestershire in 1971 ‘cast the die’.  

Perversely, much had been gained before badgers were forced centre stage. The disease had been reduced post-war to less than 0.05 percent. However, after 1971, attention became fixed on the badger, reinforced in 1980 by Lord Zuckerman’s grossly opinionated report.

Following that political decision, all was lost. One calamitous error diverted the tried and tested strategy of strict whole herd testing, and a mycobacterium seized its chance. The national incidence of bTB rose to 10 percent. 

What error? To confuse ‘infected’ with ‘infectious’ is foolish, as any medical student knows. Given how and where they feed, the route of transmission from cow to badger is obvious, but transmission the other way has never been demonstrated; it defies natural science.  But no leadership can ever admit such an expensive catastrophe.  

After so long, costs are way beyond retrieval but must run into billions. The Randomised Badger Culling Trial (1998-2007) alone cost £50m. A decade later, in one year, bTB cost £100m. Every badger killed costs us about £7,000. Compensation to farmers is colossal.

Expensive myth

These economics disregard ecological costs, notwithstanding the cruel persecution of an iconic and harmless wild species that we should be protecting and cherishing. 

Scientists know the right course to take but pride and prejudice have blinded governments - urged on by farmers - into believing a myth implanted in their minds for two generations.  

The Government still desperately paddles a lifeboat riddled with holes, going nowhere. An inability to learn from history is why, after 30 years, we were in the utterly bizarre position of being able to republish Fate, with additions, but without needing to change a single word of the first 1986 edition. 

All we seem to have learned is that it is easier to deceive people than convince them they have been deceived.

This Author

Dr Richard Meyer is a naturalist, writer and artist with a long career in wildlife conservation. He authored many books as Richard Mark Martin before The Fate of the Badger. Richard tweets @DrRichardMeyer.

Image: Steve Clark. 

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