On most weekday nights at 2am I am usually tucked up in bed, but this one was different - I was walking around the countryside in the pouring rain, armed with just a torch and some maps doing what matters - protecting British badgers.
It's now the third year of the hugely controversial and scientifically flawed badger cull in the South West of England. The cull somehow got permission again to continue this year, and indeed be extended further to Dorset, despite a wealth of evidence to date suggesting that killing badgers en masse will make no significant difference to the issue of tackling bovine TB, and despite the fact that both previous culls over the last two years had failed (even by the Government's own measures). In fact, they had officially been deemed both ineffective and inhumane.
I had joined the Gloucestershire Wounded Badger Patrol, a volunteer group that patrols nightly to help any badgers wounded in the cull. The add-on benefit is that this completely peaceful and legal patrol movement also acts as a deterrent and saves badgers each and every night, as shooters are not allowed to shoot when people are present (owing to the obvious safety risks).
What struck me most about the people taking part, all giving their valuable time for free to protect the badgers, was the real mix of people. The team, led by Olivia (by day a mild mannered professional (by night a guardian of our wildlife coordinating teams and planning routes and operations with military precision), consisted of students, retirees, teachers, IT professionals and more - all united for wildlife.
What struck me most about the cull itself was the absolute distinct lack of cattle in the areas where we patrolled. One licensed cull area that we patrolled is on the edges of an apple orchard, another area was pure agricultural fields. Wherever we walked we saw no cattle. I know that the area does have dairy farms but the indiscriminate nature of the cull seemed even more ridiculous from out in the field (literally!).
I also got to witness first-hand some real issues too; things that went against the government's portrayal of this cull as something they'd like the public to think of a service, taking out some kind of badger zombie army of TB ridden, disease-spreading badgers wandering amongst cattle.
The truth is that everything I saw suggests the exact opposite, indiscriminately targeting likely healthy badgers, many miles from the nearest cow.
I saw many baiting holes where peanuts are left to draw out badgers to their untimely and ungainly death. If this isn't barbaric enough, I was shown a whole series of baiting holes that backed onto hedgerow, which backed on to a public footpath where people could be walking behind directly in the line of fire! This had been reported by the patrol team to Natural England (the government agency issuing the cull licences).
The other issue is the hostility and risk that these peaceful patrols face nightly. At exactly 1.29 a.m Olivia's phone ringing broke the deep silence of the countryside. She let out a huge gasp... a retired couple who had come all the way down from Yorkshire to help the patrols had returned to their vehicle to find it vandalised - all four tyres had been slashed! The couple were now stranded in the dark, wet and cold and miles from anywhere, and worrying about the personal costs to replace their tyres. To think that all they had done was legally walk along some public footpaths one night! It was unbelievable that some people are so hell-bent on killing badgers that they will stop at nothing to make this happen.
Olivia and others went to join them, taking cups of tea and sympathy, whilst waiting for the police to attend. Typically, in this coalition of badger protection groups, the Official Gloucestershire Badger Fund immediately said it would pay the cost of four new tyres, so the couple would face no personal expense.
I also heard about a badger family that had been recorded one night playing by their sett. The next night all that remained of one of these badgers was blood stains on the corn stumps. It was clear that it hadn't even been a clear kill as the blood trail went some distance. It was utterly saddening to hear such stories.
The dedication and passion of all the volunteers was moving. IFAW has helped equip, train and promote the wounded badger patrols and I was honoured to be part of one.
With just a few weeks to go all the wounded badger patrol teams desperately need more volunteers. It may seem like a hassle, and it may be a lot less comfortable than an early night and a TV dinner, but trust me - it's a lot more rewarding and in the absence of strong progress in Westminster in getting this cull stopped, it could be the thing that makes all the difference. If you help just one badger that night then you'll know you've done your bit.
The couple who had their tyres slashed are already back patrolling undeterred. If you don't help, who else will? If you would like to volunteer for the wounded badger patrols in Gloucestershire (or either of the other two cull areas of Dorset and Somerset where help is much needed), find out more at:
Gloucestershire Against Badger Shooting - http://www.glosagainstbadgershooting.org
Dorset For Badger and Bovine Welfare - http://dorsetbandb.org
Somerset Against The Badger Cull - http://www.somersetagainstthebadgercull.org