Badger Bother

Some years ago while following a wide trail through a Yorkshire wood I came across a bunch of roughnecks in muddy boots who were offloading shovels and pickaxes from the back of a rusty van. Terriers were barking furiously in the back of an adjacent truck. I was surprised that none of the little dogs jumped over the tailgate because they have a reputation for valor, and they were there for a cruel ‘sport.’

I remember the confrontation, for which I was scolded later for being stupid. I asked one of the men, “You’re not digging for badgers, are you?” If he scowled after turning to his mates I couldn’t see, but his back made me feel uncomfortable.  There was no other reason why men who had come prepared for digging would be there, and a few yards away was the circumstantial evidence. Outside the yawning entrance holes of a badger sett there were fresh scrapings that proved it was occupied.

“’eck no!” he grinned when turned to me. “What’s yer business ‘ere? You’re no tyke (Yorkshireman)?”

I pretended the land owner was friend and wildlife lover who often watched these badgers. This confused the men who went into a huddle, but I took the opportunity to beat a diplomatic retreat.

I flash-photographed this English badger returning to its sett in 1968


Great Seal of Wisconsin, Badger State
Great Seal of the Badger State

The Eurasian badger (Meles meles) looks like a distant relative of the American species (Taxidea taxus) and though both have head stripes it is, I think, a more handsome beast. Wisconsin is known as the Badger State, although more for historical reasons than any special affection for the animal. Lead miners were called ‘badgers’ in the early days when they lived in caves cut out of hillsides. The nickname wasn’t a compliment, but much later on a badger was depicted on the Great Seal of the state over the shield and a pile of pig lead.

Badgers have rarely fared well when they encountered our species, but were probably better off in North America than in Europe where we have bothered these shy animals for centuries. Since 1835, badger baiting has been banned in the UK, and the species now has the distinction of its own law, the Protection of Badgers Act, 1992, which carries a maximum 6-month prison sentence for interfering with them. After digging an unlucky animal out of its sett, the badger men would put it in a pit with a dog to bet on which would survive the contest. Dogs were often mortally wounded because badgers are great fighters with a tremendous bite because their jawbone can’t be dislocated, but a winning badger was always dispatched by clubbing afterwards. Animal welfare organizations suspect badger baiting is on the rise again.

badger, Meles meles
Badgers have a mighty bite because the lower jaw is firmly articulated under the zygomatic arch and jaw muscles are attached to a thick sagittal crest

Although related to polecats, badgers are said to be tasty, which is another misfortune. Badger hams were served in West County restaurants (perhaps still are, covertly), and in some regions of France blaireau au sang is a sett menu.

For a species as nocturnal as the badger, it is currently getting a lot of limelight. Like foxes, white-tailed deer and many other mammals, it can be infected with the bovine tubercle bacillus, but badgers are disproportionately blamed for outbreaks of tuberculosis in English cattle herds. The story goes back to 1971 when the first case was reported, which was presumably because a badger had been foraging in a pasture where an infected cow was exhaling or voiding bacilli. From that time badgers have been blamed for outbreaks of tuberculosis in herds, and a tremendous economic loss for farmers. Infected wildlife suffers too, although the disease is chronic and mainly respiratory in badgers. Humans rarely develop the bovine form of TB because livestock that tests positive are slaughtered and our milk is pasteurized.

As an influential lobby, the farming community has been on the backs of the British Government to do something. Successive administrations set up inquiries which concluded that badgers are at least partly responsible through recycling the disease, and so began a controversial control program. In the first cull thousands of badgers were gassed in their underground homes with hydrogen cyanide, but after the practice was criticized for being inhumane they were shot. The cull outraged a nation of animal-lovers who hold the badger as an icon of the British countryside and voted it the first or second most popular native animal. Objectors petitioned the government to stop the killing, marched through farming country to protest, and formed badger patrols to find and care for animals wounded by marksmen.

Politicians and policy wonks plead that decisions guided by science must be rational, honest, and transparent. But if there is still leeway in data to argue different viewpoints about big issues like climate change, uses of antibiotics, renewable energy, and stem cells we might expect the same with badgers.

Science started commanding enormous authority in World War II, especially in the USA under the inspiring genius of Vannevar Bush (1890-1974), an engineering visionary who became presidential science advisor to FDR and the leading administrator of the Manhattan Project. In his book, Science, The Endless Frontier (1945), he wrote “…without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.” The physicist Robert Oppenheimer shared Bush’s optimism, but in hoping that scientists would keep control of discoveries, including the atom bomb, he became a symbol of how clever scientists can fall into folly. Over two thousand years ago, the philosopher-ruler was one of Socrates’ fine ideas but it fatally ignored realpolitik.

Some British scientists have felt a similar disappointment that politics has trumped scientific evidence in the Randomised Badger Culling Trial. They may design the trial and analyze the data, but don’t own the interpretation and can only complain when a government minister offers his explanation and justification for culling. One animal ecology expert was so exasperated that he mocked a ministerial announcement by paraphrasing it, “It is not scientific, we cannot conclude anything, but it is sufficient for policy…” When the minister was challenged in a BBC interview about the failure of the badger cull he famously replied that, “the badgers have moved the goalposts.” The Prime Minister replaced him last week and the cull has been trimmed down to a couple of counties.

So far as I understand, the results are ambiguous. Infection rates in cattle herds are lower at the center of a killing zone, but they are higher at the periphery. When setts lose their occupants they are quickly adopted by immigrating animals, which possibly carry TB, and so culling may aggravate the distribution of disease. Some people argue that improvements in health of livestock have happened too soon to be explained by reducing the badger population, and might be due instead to changes in animal husbandry that reduce cattle-to-cattle transmission. Differences in husbandry may indeed help to explain some of the regional differences in bovine TB. Overall, it’s a very confusing picture. For someone like me whose affection for badgers was nurtured by watching for hundreds of hours as they went about their private lives in the countryside it is a tragic destruction of life with no benefit to show.

Perhaps new attempts to create a more effective vaccine for both cattle and wildlife will bring a truce between warring farmers and conservationists, and cause politicians to sigh with relief. Under the full protection of law again, the police force may then be re-energized for prosecuting badger-baiters. And then badgers will have the quiet life again that they enjoy, as their friend Rat once described: “Badger hates society, and invitations, and dinner, and all that sort of thing” (Wind in the Willows, 1908).

Wind in the Willows
Rat and Mole visit Mr. Badger in the Wild Wood. From first edition of Wind in the Willows (1908)

Next Post: Here be Dragons


By Roger Gosden

A British and American scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology whose career spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. He married Lucinda Veeck, the embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. They retired to Virginia, where he became a master naturalist and writer affiliated with William & Mary.

1 comment

  1. Thanks – interesting post. I think another issue to consider in relation to the badger cull is the evidence on cost effectiveness. Although the RBCT did show some reduction in TB in the cull zones, the costs of the cull were so great that it’s just not cost-effective. That’s why the pilot cull has used a different method (free shooting) from the RBCT (cage trapping) – it was thought to be cheaper. But it turns out free shooting is just not good enough at killing badgers, so they ended up resorting to cage trapping again, increasing the costs. I wrote a piece about the evidence to policy issues around the cull
    You are right – the cull is a political decision, rather than an evidence-based one.

Your Reply is Appreciated