Tuesday night was interesting. I had been invited to talk to a public meeting organised by Devon and Cornwall Against the Badger Cull – about hedgehogs.
I was, to be honest, apprehensive. I know that some badger lovers can be quite defensive about their beasts. And while I have been very clear – in The Beauty in the Beast – of my love for brock (nearly got a tattoo of one) – I have also had to contradict many badger-fans who think that they would never eat a hedgehog.
My companions on the panel were Dr Chris Cheeseman (ecologist and expert on bTB) and Dr Mark Jones (vet working with the Born Free Foundation). I was to speak last – following their detailed look at the failings in the management of this disease – and deal with a question that is thrust at campaigners many times – ‘what about the badgers eating all the hedgehogs?’
One of the reasons that this annoys me is that it is clearly nothing to do with the badger cull. A cull that was set up to protect wildlife would need an entirely different research base on which to justify it. The call to protect hedgehogs is often coming from people who have only recently discovered how much they love them (because they can be used to beat up badgers) – it is a deeply cynical move.
The cull is supposed to be helping control the spread of bovine tuberculosis from badgers to cattle. From the words of both Chris and Mark it is clearly doing nothing of the sort. The highly respected and extremely detailed Randomised Badger Control Trial showed how, with an exacting set of protocols, it was possible to gain a 12-16% reduction in the incidence of bTB in cattle over 9 years (5 years of culling, 4 years of extra surveying) if badgers were killed at a rate of 70% in the clearly identified zone.
Culling in a different way will produce different results and the scientists are sure that what is happening now will generate far less in the way of benefit to farmers and cattle. In fact it is quite possible, probable even, that the current action will be making matters worse as the perturbation effect will cause infected animals to move far greater distances.
The evidence is clear, the cull, as it is being done now, will not benefit farmers or cattle. Yet despite the case being put with thoroughness, the farmers in the room would not hear it … despite seeming to acknowledge many of the most important facts.
Two things were clarified for me during this discussion. First – the only way to survive the extremely hard work of farming is to be bloody stubborn – to be as obstinate as the most recalcitrant bull. Farmers tend to be friends with farmers, so the stubbornness rarely gets challenged. The conservative view of the world this engenders does not react well to outsiders coming in and trying to change how things are done. Therefore it is up to us, critics of the cull and elements of industrial agriculture, to find better ways of communicating.
The second point I realised is that when we get hung-up and defensive about the messiness of ecology we quickly lose focus. Yes – badgers do have a population level impact on hedgehogs. But the cull has NOTHING to do with hedgehogs – the cull, in its current form, is nothing more than a carrot being offered to the farming community.
If we want to see more hedgehogs in this country there are ways we can make it happen without resorting to the gun. For example, where there is Higher Level Stewardship of the land (part of the Agri-Environment Scheme), there are more hedgehogs. The more of this ecologically aware farming that goes on, the more food there is in the environment for both badgers and hedgehogs and the greater complexity there is in the landscape.
Lets not scapegoat the badger for our own failings – and remember, it is ours – we are the people (apart from my vegan friends) who demand cheap food and are unwilling to pay the real price at the till. If we don’t pay a decent price for our food there will be payment taken from the environment – and if we don’t want that, we need to change the way we shop.