Wilder Future: a badger's view

Badger. Strong defiant, paternal, the only animal that the weasels and stoats won’t dare to cross. It is badger who the other animals turn to when things go wrong, the reluctant leader who steps in at moments of chaos to return things to the old order. Of all the characters in Wind in the WiIlows, it is Badger who most demands our respect.
Wind in the Willows badger

Badger would hate to admit it, but he’s actually more closely related to weasels and stoats than any other mammal.  But badgers are a diverse group, with 11 species across the world, including the Honey badger, the Ferret badger and the intriguingly named Stink badger.  With his squat body and strong front paws, he is perfectly adapted for digging.  In fact, many believe the name Badger comes from French word becheur (digger). 

Badgers no longer have any natural predators in the UK – since we’ve wiped out the bear, wolf, lynx and anything larger that is.  But 50,000 are killed by cars each year.  While classified as a carnivore, Badgers are in fact omnivorous.  Their favourite meal is earthworms, but they will also eat a variety of plants, slugs, snails, eggs and occasionally small mammals.  The European badger is a social and territorial animal, and family groups live in extensive burrows, or setts.  They are extremely clean, seldom if ever taking food into the sett, and they get rid of their waste in special latrines at the edge of their territories.  Built more like a wrestler than an athlete, they can nevertheless run at nearly 20 miles per hour in short bursts.

Why have so many of us got it in for poor old Badger?
Wind in the Willows characters

Of all Kenneth Grahame's characters, Badger is the most safeguarded in law and yet attracts by far the most controversy. Protected in Wildlife & Countryside Act, the Protection of Badgers Act.and the Convention on Conservation of European Wildlife & Natural Habitats (the Bern convention), Badger should in theory have the securest future of any of our native mammals.

That hasn’t stopped us from treating them with scant respect though.  Badger baiting was a popular sport for centuries.  Normally docile by nature, badgers will fight ferociously if cornered.  A breed of dog – the Dachshund – was bred specifically for hunting badgers.  Gassed in the 1960s and 1970s to control rabies and subsequently to control bovine TB (until the practice was outlawed in 1982) badgers have been subject to an ongoing cull since 2013. 

Why have so many of us got it in for poor old Badger?  Two reasons stand out.  First, they are charged with spreading bovine TB.  Second, they are accused of targeting other rare wildlife, most notably the hedgehog.  That Badger has a role in both is beyond doubt.  But there is scant scientific evidence to suggest that he is anything like the most important factor in either.

Badgers do eat hedgehogs it’s true, but no study has found this prickly prey make up more than a small part of their diet.  Recent studies show that in most cases where there’s a healthy population of one species there’s a healthy population of the other.  Most likely, badgers prey on hedgehogs when other food is scarce, and this usually happens because of something else, such as habitat destruction.  

But it’s badger’s much disputed role in bovine TB that has got him in the most trouble.  The only reliable scientific evidence we have suggests that badgers are responsible for at most 16% of the spread of this dreadful disease, and few scientists believe the cull to be effective.  But whatever your views on culling badgers, two things stand out.  First, despite the huge costs and practical difficulties, it’s striking how easy people found it to call for the cull but how difficult it proved to agree to any other measures that were so obviously needed in a sensible strategy to control bovine TB – better biosecurity, vaccination, cattle movement controls, more accurate TB testing.  Second, in spite of the uncertainty, government has stubbornly resisted gathering the evidence that could prove so vital in telling us whether the cull was proving effective.  Too difficult or expensive perhaps?  Or might there be a danger of exposing an inconvenient truth?  Sadly, we’re unlikely to find out any time soon, and none of this has stopped the cull being repeated year on year and rolled out to new parts of the country.

Perhaps more than anything, our difficult relationship with Badger is a tussle over who’s boss. We now occupy almost every part of the landscape, and the remaining crumbs are left to be divided among the wild creatures.

Badger is our largest terrestrial carnivore.  It’s easy to pick on the animal at the top of the food chain and blame it for whatever ills may lie further down.  It’s straightforward, helps us avoid difficult choices and plays to our British sense of standing up for the underdog.  The trouble is, in nature pretty much everything is both predator and prey.  Hedgehogs eat birds eggs too, and they don’t always distinguish between the rare and the common place.

But we love myths, and perhaps it’s fitting that a creature with such distinctive black and white facial markings so divides opinions among our society.  Badger the brave, beautiful, guardian of our woods and wild places. Or Badger the lawn wrecker, hedgehog muncher and scourge of cattle farmers.  In truth badger is neither saint nor devil, just a wild animal doing what it can to survive and rubbing up against human activities with increasing frequency as we come to dominate the landscape ever more completely.

Perhaps more than anything, our difficult relationship with Badger is a tussle over who’s boss.  We now occupy almost every part of the landscape, and the remaining crumbs are left to be divided among the wild creatures.  We’ve come to assume that our interests should always come first, whether it’s profit, convenience or aesthetics.  As Mark Cocker laments in his recent book ‘Our Place’, which documents the fate of nature over the last century, at every turn we’ve chosen ourselves.  But repeatedly putting our own interests before wildlife has led to extinction, climate emergency and nature deficit disorder.  Maybe Badger is challenging us to think differently.


Join us in our campaign for a Wilder Future for badger and us all