To Know the Countryside, You Must Live in the City: Country Folk, Tradition Has It, Are in Tune with Nature. Wrong. They Have Long Shown Woeful Ignorance of Everything from Worms to Badgers and Foxes

By Nicholson-Lord, David | New Statesman (1996), May 10, 2004 | Go to article overview
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To Know the Countryside, You Must Live in the City: Country Folk, Tradition Has It, Are in Tune with Nature. Wrong. They Have Long Shown Woeful Ignorance of Everything from Worms to Badgers and Foxes


Nicholson-Lord, David, New Statesman (1996)


In his book Badgers, the naturalist Michael Clark describes surveying the animal back in the 1960s. Calling at a farm cottage, he asked the occupier--an old country man--whether he knew of any badgers living nearby. "What's badgers?" came the reply. The countryman, Clark writes, "genuinely did not know of the species"--even though, as the author subsequently discovered, there were three colonies living within a mile of the cottage.

You can be a "countryman", it seems, and know little of the country. To anyone acquainted with, say, Cold Comfort Farm, this may come as no surprise. But the countervailing wisdom, which depicts country folk as being in tune with the land, still holds sway. They live there, don't they? What can to wnies, penned up in offices and housing estates, know of the "ways of nature"?

This assumption infects much of our culture and politics. It underpins the operations of the Countryside Alliance, for example, which are predicated on the existence of a clear division between town and country. It enables the rural lobby to characterise itself as an embattled indigenous culture, its "native" traditions and pastimes (hunting, shooting, fishing) threatened by an oppressive urban majority. It puts the politicians on the back foot--witness the delays in implementing the promised ban on fox-hunting. Indeed, the rural lobby's pro-hunting campaign has been remarkably successful in switching the debate away from concerns about cruelty and animal welfare towards one that combines civil liberties, employment and rural autonomy. The underlying message is that the countryside is best managed by country people. After all, they know about such things ...

Unfortunately, too often, they don't. As the historian Keith Thomas showed in his classic study Man and the Natural World, the growth of our knowledge about nature has come by rebutting the "vulgar errors" of country people. And although Thomas was writing about the period between 1500 and 1800, that process continues today--what country-dwellers take to be self-evident is still being confounded by the careful observation of reality.

This month, the government is to start killing badgers again as part of a project-cum-experiment stretching back three decades to prevent the spread of bovine TB (bTB) in cattle. Despite the extermination of roughly 30,000 badgers at a cost of [pounds sterling]7m a year, the policy has, by most measures, failed. The incidence of bTB in cattle has continued to rise and we still do not know to what extent badgers are responsible. Worse, there is powerful evidence that the culling policy may actually be causing this increase.

The badger culling saga is an object lesson in why we should be wary of the wisdom of country folk. In the 1960s, there was much puzzlement as to why bTB was persisting despite supposedly rigorous testing and slaughter policies. The discovery in 1971 of a dead badger infected with bTB convinced farmers that badgers were to blame. And while the National Farmers' Union, abetted by the now-defunct Ministry of Agriculture, became a vehement proponent of badger culling, many farmers took the law into their own hands--as dramatised on Radio 4's The Archers last year, when David Archer shot a badger he blamed for infecting his cattle.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The result was a hopelessly skewed research agenda, focusing on badgers at the expense of many other possible causes. We now know, for example, that tests "clearing" cattle of bTB are inaccurate. The 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic proved that long-distance, unregulated transport of cattle is commonplace. Most livestock spend their lives in overcrowded conditions ideally suited to cattle-to-cattle spread of bTB. The most likely explanation for the growth in bTB is the way cattle are kept, moved and managed. Badgers are some way down the list of culprits.

Compounding this mess was the finding last year that killing badgers in areas where bTB had broken out among cattle--so-called "reactive culling"--led to 27 per cent more cases of bTB in cattle.

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To Know the Countryside, You Must Live in the City: Country Folk, Tradition Has It, Are in Tune with Nature. Wrong. They Have Long Shown Woeful Ignorance of Everything from Worms to Badgers and Foxes
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