We Relearned To Love Nature In Lockdown, But Our Government Isn’t Protecting It For Us

Plans for yet more ineffective badger culls prove our leaders see wildlife as totally expendable, writes Steve Backshall.

In lockdown I turned into a regular wildlife peeping Tom. With remote cameras all around the farmland I’m lucky enough to live on, I spied on the swallows fledging under my deck, the fox that owns our local lanes, and the swans nesting in my neighbour’s garden.

My obsession, though, was our badger sett. Almost every day I’d take my little boy to wander round the bluebells and beech trees, setting up cameras to pry into their secret world. The following day we’d wake up like it was Christmas morning, and catch up with our badgers as they got bolder and hungrier. We gasped together with joy when two cubs finally emerged.

This little monochrome clan became an extended part of my own family. On nights where one cub didn’t show we’d be distraught, desperate to find out no tragedy had befallen them. Badgers have it pretty hard in the British countryside. They’re about to have it a whole lot harder.

Despite the British government’s March commitment to end the controversial culling of badgers in favour of vaccination programs, they have now reneged on that promise, granting licences for thousands more badgers to be killed. As president of my region’s Wildlife Trust, I think it important to clarify why so many are vehemently opposed to this new cull.

First, it’s not because I’m a precious environmentalist snowflake who doesn’t understand how the countryside works. Granted, the fact I consider four local badgers that I’ve only ever seen on CCTV as family may mark me as a sentimentalist. But let’s talk about why it’s important to have them in our countryside.

“Blasting away at any visible badgers hoping they’re infected just makes the problem worse. Transpose this methodology to a certain human disease and you’ll get a sense of quite how bonkers this is.”

The definitive study on badgers and bovine TB is the 196-page Krebs report. It was carried out with data collated from the Randomised Badger Culling Trial 1998-2007, by an impartial group headed up by top Oxford professor Lord Krebs – at a cost of £50 million to the taxpayer, and involving 11,000 badger kills. Certain facts about badgers and bovine TB (bTB) are not in dispute. Badgers are definitely a reservoir of the disease in the wild, with 4.05% being infected, and they can transmit this disease to cattle. Completely eliminating badgers from an area, can result in a significant decrease in new cases of bTB in cattle. However, even if you could wipe out all of our badgers, a total eradication of the species from our shores will not end bTB for one simple reason: almost every other animal in the British countryside is a vector of the disease – moles, foxes, mink, rats, ferrets, all our deer species, even us. If we wipe out our badgers, we will still have to address the problem of bTB.

What’s more, we know culls don’t even reduce new cases. But taking out a few badgers from an established population does change the behaviour of the survivors. When you start shooting, badgers get out their backpacks and take a hike. This dispersal puts diseased badgers into contact with more healthy ones, and more cattle too. In a nutshell, unless you kill every single badger, the survivors move around more, and new cases of bTB increase.

All this means those shoddy ‘pilot’ culls combined have killed an estimated 170,000 animals by end 2020, of which 157,000 were healthy. That’s about 35% of our badgers, with no noticeable positive effects on bTB. Wandering about the British countryside blasting away at any visible badgers hoping they’re infected just makes the problem worse. Transpose this methodology to a certain human disease and you’ll get a sense of quite how bonkers this is. Now there’s been a move to cage trapping for culling (though some free shooting remains), it’s just as easy to administer an injection to the thigh of a trapped badger as it is a shot to the head. How about rather than paying for pointless persecution, we roll out vaccination schemes across the country?

“These ill-thought out, rushed pilot culls are solely designed to placate powerful lobbying groups.”

The real reason that those working in conservation are so unsettled by the cull is that it shows our government’s true prerogatives when it comes to the countryside. That in their eyes wildlife is totally expendable. A thorough study clearly showed a cull would not work, so it was swept under the rug, and we keep shooting badgers so the government can be seen to be taking action. These ill-thought out, rushed pilot culls are solely designed to placate powerful lobbying groups. Despite the pilot culls showing no demonstrable benefit to TB levels in cattle, these culls continue and further culls have subsequently been rolled out into new areas year after year.

If there was one thing I learned throughout lockdown, it was that there are millions of British people who really value what wildlife we have left. In the odd days of this spring and summer people treasured their time outside, spent more time in their gardens, discovered wild wonders they never knew existed on their patch. So many people found solace in nature, in their local countryside, in the secret animals that lived there. They wanted to know what they could do to practically help their furry and feathered neighbours.

Well, what we can all do now is let our local MP, and our government, know that even in troubled times, we love and value our wildlife. We can demand that its treatment be based on evidence, not some weary whim. With badgers it really is all black and white.

Steve Backshall is a writer, broadcaster and naturalist. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveBackshall


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