Since I have been reading Patrick Barkham’s Badgerlands; courtesy of my dear boyfriend, I’m rediscovering my inherent love of the countryside. Badgerlands certainly captures the romanticism synonymous with the English country; in particular the woods at night.
As a little girl I would watch the tales of Beatrix Potter on VHS. Before the story begins an actress playing Beatrix delivers letters, poised impertinently in her horse and carriage to greet the obscenely cheery town’s folk. Naturally I wanted to be Beatrix in her country village almost as much as I wanted to be one of her fuzzy characters pottering about in their cosy, underground dwelling.
Unfortunately life is not so simple as the nostalgic projection implied by cheery village scenes. Even Beatrix’s own stories were often fabular, riddled with themes of social politics, the domestic hierarchy of the Victorian middle class and the oppression by such. Something that didn’t necessarily translate to me through the pastoral illustrations and soft toys I collected with my VHS vouchers.
Although equality and independence are much more prevalent among humans today, the same can’t be said for man’s treatment of animals as nothing more than commodities or pests by default.
From the charming anecdotes of badgers and accounts of romantic forest respite, Badgerlands takes an incongruous turn in the third chapter which describes in explicit detail, the sadistic and barbaric past time of badger baiting.
So brutal was this chapter, my heart pounded and my mouth was dry, reading tales of badgers being torn apart at the throat by aggravated terriers, people plucking them from their tunnels with tongs, removing their jaws and being subsequently amused by the helpless badger’s futile aggression. This would be a communal event, often carried out in the local pub courtyard; ruthless entertainment to accompany a derisive, inebriated crowd.
Such hobbies were, according to Patrick, encouraged by parliament who passed several ‘vermin acts,’ subjugating many species widely regarded as pests. This ignorance appears to reflect today’s badger cull expansion; the government’s response to complaints from farmers and largely contrary scientific evidence, which seems to say “we don’t care anymore, just do your worst.”
Like many, I wonder if this is the government’s reaction to pressure to provide a more immediate solution to tuberculosis, sadly rife among many cattle herds in Britain. As such their ignorance on the subject provides leeway for the cheaper method of ‘free-shooting’ also known as the ‘less humane’ way to KILL a badger (as opposed to capturing them in cages first) giving them a chance to escape and potentially prolonging their pain should they get hit.
And all this without knowing whether they even have the disease.
It’s been acknowledged that badgers and cattle pass this disease between each other, and that previous culling trials only reduced the disease by 16%. Ecologists are currently investigating how the disease is transmitted and subsequently if there’s a more ethical and cost efficient way of avoiding transmission.
Barkham on a piece for ‘The Guardian’ in 2015 suggested that the cull is a way around the legal protection of badgers and fox-hunting outlaw, the latter still opposed by many conservative MPs.
As a child I was captivated by the idea of the forest creatures living their happy little lives in the woods, a concept that was further projected by my obsession with Sylvanian Families which I played with until I was 13. Thankfully by then I’d realised that a badger sett is no more than a series of earthy tunnels, that rabbits don’t drink camomile tea, and toads don’t wear galoshes.
But despite my diversion from fiction, what I like about Badgerlands is I find myself captivated by Barkham’s description of a more real magic; the magic of a completely wild and natural environment. A place (bar Patrick himself) without humans.
I went badger watching once with my cousin in The Lake District and although we didn’t spot any, as dusk deepened to dark, the forest did indeed come alive around us. We heard various rustling and scrabbling from pools of dark forest floor, flutey notes of owl conversation and a kind of intermittent chuckling from what my cousin suggested, may have been a fox litter. It was like this whole world that we weren’t a part of, like we were imposters on someone else’s turf. It was back then I began to think a little differently about the world. I was only just vegan, I knew what went on behind the scenes in dairy and factory farms but it wasn’t a way of thinking I’d yet surrendered to; that humans aren’t at the centre of the universe.
Yet somehow humans have taken up role of dictator with no regard for the beauty and complexity of what we destroy in the name of convenience.
Barkham calls this the ‘modern condition.’
Since I’m no longer in The Lake District, I love living vicariously through Patrick Barkham’s descriptive nightly vigils. His ability to illustrate the changing sky, the earthy smells, the charcoal stare of a tawny owl and the peculiar opalescence of a glow worm, makes me want to return to that wood and snatch another slice of a life that humans but for a few hours, don’t dictate.
At least the badger cull continues to be a sensitive subject for many. Perhaps its their elusiveness that makes us keen to spot them or perhaps as Patrick suggests, authors such as Arthur Grahame may be responsible with the humanisation of his Badger character. Whatever the reason we should be grateful that badgers still have the support of so many humans.
Below are some links to a petition and other ways in which you may be able to add your voice to the campaign against this cruel and cowardly solution by an idle and somewhat sadistic government.
To find out where you can write to your local MP:
Find out first if your local MP is for or against badger culling:
A list of active campaigning groups across the UK:
The petition against the badger cull: