Going to War over Badgers

The Journal (Newcastle, England), May 9, 2012 | Go to article overview

Going to War over Badgers


Byline: Tony Henderson

THERE is the gruff but kindly Badger in The Wind in the Willows. Then there is Beatrix Potter's Tommy Brock - a badger "not nice in his habits" who kidnaps a family of baby rabbits.

Academic Dr Angela Cassidy says these two characters sum up conflicting, centuries-old attitudes to badgers which are resurfacing in the controversy over plans to cull the animals in a bid to reduce bovine tuberculosis (bTB).

Dr Cassidy is an interdisciplinary fellow with the Research Council's Rural Economy and Land Use Programme, which is based at Newcastle University.

She says that clashing emotions about badgers go back well before arguments about their possible role in spreading bovine TB among cattle.

Dr Cassidy argues that these ambivalent, but often deep-rooted, feelings about "Old Brock" are still colouring today's debate over bovine TB.

There are dignified depictions of badgers in heraldry, and an early version of Mr Badger even crops up in an Anglo-Saxon poetic riddle, as a noble creature defending its family against attack.

Dr Cassidy says that we are familiar with the idea of badgers displaying characteristics that we like to think of as both human and laudable, such as strength, bravery and loyalty, while also being mysterious, nocturnal creatures that are symbolic of the natural world and British countryside.

However, the "bad badger" is also in evidence throughout history.

In the 16th Century badgers were legally designated as vermin for which bounties were paid and badger baiting was considered a normal pastime until it was outlawed in 1835. It continues illicitly today.

The "bad badger" is in constant conflict with people, and current bovine TB debates often include references to unwelcome behaviour such as crop-raiding, digging and hunting other animals, says Dr Cassidy.

She maintains these rival attitudes have made it more difficult for policymakers to find a way forward.

She says: "From the early 20th Century depictions of the good badger became dominant, but more recently the verminous and diseased bad badger has resurfaced.

"It is noticeable how the two sides have harnessed the language of war to bolster their arguments, with quite violent rhetoric being used in an increasingly polarised public debate.

"The concentration on badgers, particularly in the media, has also meant there has been less room for discussions of other aspects of the bTB problem, such as the roles of TB testing or preventative measures in cattle management, or about the broader issues involved with human beings and wild animals living side by side. …

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