It was a sunny evening with swifts flying around the Norman church tower in Carhampton as two hundred people, some holding dogs on leads, crowded into the village hall to enjoy the typical cup of tea allied with trusty biscuits before setting off to ramble in the beautiful countryside of Somerset. In many ways it was a quintessential English scene yet all was not as it seemed.
The first clue was that a few people were wearing rather cute badger masks. The second was the briefing that was held about safety and the need to respect the law - for this was the chaste face of Middle England in an uproar. At some unknown point, maybe even within the next day or two, dozens of badgers would be killed or wounded in the fields, hedgerows and woodlands around the village; several thousand elsewhere. Or maybe it was happening already – no one knew.
There were all ages and kinds of people present; these were not the activists that mainstream media sometimes portrays as the sole representatives of public opinion against the cull. Everyone there wanted to reinforce to the Government, if they care to see, that many people are opposed to the cull not out of sentiment but based on the science and concerns that badgers will be killed inhumanely, as a recent document released by Defra seems to suggest could happen.
The people who gathered for the Somerset Nightwalk had signed the petition, written to their MPs, read the papers and come to their own conclusions: the Government’s policy to cull badgers as a means to control TB in cattle is flawed. The majority of independent scientific opinion appears to be against it and, as a result, every major wildlife conservation group in England has also stated its opposition to it. It is, we are told, essentially a political decision so why, people wondered should thousands of badgers be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency? We all agreed that while we sympathise with the farmers who struggle with bovine TB, that Owen Paterson’s recent call to arms in the Sunday Times to ‘hard cull badgers for 20-25 years’ is no way to go. Would there be any space left for wildlife, we wondered, if we take this approach whenever there is a conflict between a particular economic interest and nature?
We split into two groups; one took the high road up into the hills and the other the lower route that meandered along the footpaths and byways of rural Somerset. As we walked along in the glorious golden light, the tragedy about to unfold became more real.
People talked about the strain of losing valued friendships as arguments become more polarised between those who support the cull and those who do not. The licence to shoot badgers came had come into force on 1st June. One lady related how she’d been walking on a footpath through a woodland one evening a couple of days after that as she’s done for the last 12 years when she heard a kerfuffle not far away. Her heart, she said, nearly stopped as she thought she was about to be hit by a high-velocity bullet. Since no one knows where the shooters will be or when, tension is high. People wondered whether it would be safe to walk alone in cull areas at night in the coming months to watch wildlife or walk their dogs or whether they would only be able to do so in a group such as ours.
We crowded together on a footpath underneath the bright green hazel leaves to marvel at a spoil heap from a badger sett. So much earth had been excavated that it seemed like a castle rampart, a testament to decades if not centuries of use; a bastion for badgers that would soon to be under threat like never before. These are no idle words: in July 2011, Natural England, the Government’s own advisory service, pointed out that,
“Reducing the badger population to the extent and on the scale permitted under this policy has not previously been sanctioned for any protected native mammal species in modern times.” As we peered further into the tangled darkness of the huge rambling woods, the policy described by Lord Krebs as ‘crazy’ seemed more like sheer and utter madness. How would anyone be able to monitor anything going on at night? The Government’s plans for a thorough, independent assessment of the humaneness of shooting free-ranging badgers seemed a mere pipe dream.
More night walks in Somerset are planned and I, for one, will be there.