Written in response to the forthcoming badger cull in the UK (20th April 2013)

On September 12th 1803 the British settled in Tasmania. Over the following decades as more and more settlers arrived, fears of the strange beasts that inhabited their exotic new home quickly spread.

Tall tales, hysteria and superstition saw the thylacine – or Tasmanian tiger – the island’s largest predator, branded as something to be exterminated.

By 1820, Hobart was the second largest town in Australia and shifted its industry away from whaling towards farming.

As the new farmers rapidly cleared and altered the natural environment they viewed the indigenous creatures (and people) merely as an inconvenience to be swept away.

And this is what they did with ruthless efficiency. Once the land had been opened up, even more people came to settle with an eye to making money and, in 1825, the Van Diemen’s Land Company – a consortium of English businessmen – sent Edward Curr to obtain land and start farming operations for them in the Northeast of the island.

Curr was an experienced farmhand and soon became aware that much of the land he was expected to manage was quite unsuitable for sheep farming. His fears were proven correct as a combination of inexperienced stockholders (many were reprieved or recently paroled convicts) releasing stock onto land that simply couldn’t sustain them without any shelter combined with the unusually harsh winter of 1829 resulted in hundreds of sheep dying.

Facing charges of inefficiency, Curr needed a suitable scapegoat. The many attacks by packs of feral dogs (that were rampaging through the colony) gave him an idea.

In 1830 a private bounty scheme was introduced; “rewards for noxious animals”. These payments were paid for ‘native animals’ – not feral dogs. It would have been far too impractical to put a bounty on dogs’ heads in case much valued working dogs and pets were wrongly targeted so the blame was conveniently placed upon the thylacine. In 1830, the price of a thylacine scalp was five shillings for every male killed. By 1888, the Tasmanian government was paying 20 shillings per scalp.

Despite more and more people indentifying the feral dog packs as the real menace and the true cause of the crippling livestock deaths, the thylacine continued to be portrayed as the villain of the piece with the press and even children’s books delighting in adding to its supposed savagery and exaggerating its “blood-thirsty reputation”.

The tiny remnant population couldn’t cope with the continued brutal onslaught and a reduced gene pool probably also made them very susceptible to disease. In 1936, the last Tasmanian tiger died in captivity in Hobart Zoo – a tragic tale of man’s greed and stubbornness to accept the true facts and one best consigned to the history books.  Surely, in these more enlightened times of 2013, something like the tragic extinction of the thylacine could never happen again, could it?

Well, maybe, it could and not in some impoverished, third-world nation but, in green and leafy England. In June our government is set to implement its postponed cull of badgers.

Yes, dear old Brock, the stripy black and white faced star of ‘Wind in the Willows’ and various children’s stories, is facing the death penalty because of his alleged role in spreading Bovine Turburculosis – a horrendous disease that does indeed cost our much-beleaguered farmers dear.

But, and it’s a big BUT; there is no proof that badgers are the guilty party spreading this nasty disease up and down the country. In fact, the poor old badger could well be the victim and is catching TB from cattle!

But, our government (a government that in every other aspect pertaining to the British countryside looks upon it with derision, seeing it merely as a wasteland fit for nothing more than a place to build sprawling housing estates, shopping centres and windfarms) has, in its wisdom, decided to ignore reams of papers and scientific evidence defending the badger, from world renowned naturalists and scientists, and has decided to bullishly push through its plans to implement its pilot scheme to annihilate badger populations in Gloucestershire and Somerset. If we look around the world there are many countries with a Bovine TB problem for instance, New Zealand (where the introduced possum is alleged to be the transmitter) and in Michigan, white-tailed deer are implicated. Now, we don’t have possums but we certainly have deer – and lots of them. Who is to say they aren’t spreading it? TB is also said to be spread by mice and rats so, what do we do? Kill everything?

So, without any proof of guilt, ‘marksmen’ are set to butcher whole families of badgers (the families of which may have inhabited their setts for hundreds of years) all because of the need to be seen to be doing something.

In an interesting parallel to the tragic demise of the thylacine, many have called the badger a “convenient scapegoat” for what they say is a disease caused by mismanagement of the land. There are numerous cases cited where the movement of cattle has been ignored and, according to Prof John Bourne, “the government is going nowhere near far enough with biosecurity” and that “politicans are desperate and have hoodwinked farmers”.

So, because of their inadequacies, the badger has to pay – with its life.

Despite growing public objection and, flying in the face of expert opinion, Owen Paterson (the environment secretary) continues to insist that “evidence supports his policy” and describes any opposition as “sad sentimentality”.

A true reflection (I feel) of this government’s attitude to our wildlife and its people’s love of it.

We are an impoverished isle in terms of nature, especially so in terms of mammals. This is probably why we have so much affection for the creatures we do have. There are few other places in the world that would draw such large audiences for nature shows like Spring & Autumn Watch and that is very much to our credit.

Surely we of all countries should be leading the way in a more humane way to deal with problems in our countryside for, how can we ever lecture others on the need to protect their tigers and elephants when we go on to butcher our own wildlife? How hypocritical would we look upon the world stage?

This though doesn’t trouble our government who remain steadfast in the belief that they’ve collared their man and (after so many u-turns on other ill-thought out policies) are steadfastly refusing to change track terrified of losing face.

Will the British badger have to pay the ultimate price (like the thylacine) all for the puffed up egos of a few politicians and ill-informed farmers?

 

Remember to sign the petition if you haven’t already: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/38257

 

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