December 20, 2013 6:29 pm

A busy year for badgers – and the Chipping Norton sett

UK ministers claim the stripy population has ‘moved the goalposts’. The truth is far more disconcerting
An illustration of badgers©James Ferguson

The great British badger cull ranks second only to the Labour government’s attempt to “digitalise” all NHS patient records. Only half of the intended slaughter of badgers in Gloucestershire was actually carried out and even that half depends on believing statistical “projections” of the total stripy population. Even if the total had been attained, it is uncertain it would have eliminated the carrying of tuberculosis to herds of cattle. Hedgehogs may be carriers too. Imagine the national outcry if a decree went out from the coalition that all our fuzzypegs should be slaughtered on sight.

Throughout the farce we have been told by government ministers that the badgers in Gloucestershire have “moved the goalposts”. The truth is far more disconcerting. My garden is near to the borders of Gloucestershire but also within walking distance of the notorious “Chipping Norton set”. On one side lives a Murdoch, ensconced in a fine former garden in my nearest shopping town. Over the hill and not so faraway lives the tabloids’ “tangerine dream”, Rebekah Brooks herself. These neighbours may think, or deny, that journalists ever mastered the dark art of phone hacking, but they are late beginners in a much older game. The animal kingdom was there so long before them. Years before Twitter floated, the interception networks of Animal Twitter were making GCHQ look like a novice.

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Robin Lane Fox

Facts in my own garden suggest this truth. No sooner had the government announced its cull than the path through my copse became churned into pits by badger activity. Badgers galore were scuffling the leaf mould from the belated crop of leaves. They dug deep pits into the lawn wherever a plantain might be sheltering a beetle. They even assaulted their former sett, the hole which was annexed by foxes after I offered Prozac in peanut butter to its previous badger inhabitants. They all moved under my garage flooring to be nearer to a second dose.

This renewed badger activity is not random. It is surely linked to the timetable of the cull. Dozens of migrant badgers have abandoned the killing grounds of Gloucestershire for my Oxfordshire safe haven instead. They have put a second “t” into the phrase “the Chipping Norton Sett”.

This exodus has to have been co-ordinated. The Animal Twitter network first came to humans’ notice in Dodie Smith’s classic children’s book, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, in 1956. In its great scene of “Twilight Barking”, the dogs of England transmitted news of the Dalmatian puppies’ whereabouts all the way to London on a network of animal intercommunication.

One of my friends assures me that a similar twilight network is active between us humans. It accounts for that mysterious process whereby couples, after the briefest of meetings, leave an office Christmas party as if by mutual agreement and go home together for the night. Nowadays, we humans have digitised our animal receptors. Until now, nobody had realised that the animal kingdom has long since done the same.

Forewarned by Animal Twitter, the targeted badgers moved east and came to live with me. On arrival they dug up so many of my spring bulbs that they threw up inspection trenches in several of the flower beds. They have obliged me to hire my own counteragent, a cute little gentleman in black velvet, my busy local mole, Molecaire. It is amazing how deftly he can hack into the animal network in return for a can of worms. He pirates the messages which badgers interchange. He is not in the least surprised that the much-vaunted cull was a flop. Gloucestershire’s badgers had heard all about it before the night-time marksmen had even loaded a rifle. They had been forewarned by blogs on that popular Chipping Norton waveband, the News of The Woods.

On Boxing Day, Molecaire now warns me, the badgers are planning a lawn meet at the nearby farm of Charlie and Rebekah Brooks. This weekend, the news is really dire. They have all been tweeted to warm up for Christmas on my front lawn. They are planning to play badger football, the pre-Roman game which badgers know as “brocker”. Their fabled goalposts are coming with them.

All week long, beside my bonfire, I have been puzzled by tattered fragments of the daily newspapers, none of which are printed on pink paper. I now realise that the badgers have been reading the law court pages in the surrounding press. This accounts for the chorus of amused growling I have been hearing at midnight among the gusts of high wind. According to Molecaire, they have already held match trials for what they have nicknamed “Team Cupcake”. One side will be playing as Toffs, the other as Plebs. Unlike our policemen, badgers know that “plebs” is a collective Latin noun and that the word “pleb” has no classical justification.

The Match of the Season is alarmingly well-planned. Badgers will be playing 12-a-side. having moved their goalposts beneath the wisteria arches on my lawn. There will be a minute’s silence before kick-off for the late Margaret Thatcher. Badgers regard her as a patron saint because she did so little to enrich the countryside. We humans may wonder if the cull would have been such a farce if she had been put in charge.

By targeting some famous phones, the badgers claim to have lined up a most remarkable cast. According to Molecaire, the Reverend Paul Flowers has been contacted to lead the preliminary hymn, “Brock of Ages”. The England cricket captain, Alastair Cook, has been named as referee because he no longer seems to keep his eye on the ball. I particularly fear the half-time arrangements. Our national “Domestic Goddess” has been invited to come on to the pitch with her cookbook’s legendary recipe ham cooked in coke. The fee, Molecaire tells me, is an assurance that she will be invited to the proposed new garden bridge across the Thames and asked to declare it open as London’s High Line.

In games of “brocker”, the referee has to be equipped with a mobile screen so as to rerun cases when an animal grabs another by the snout. Here, I am intrigued. The referee tonight will be equipped with the nation’s most wanted computer tablet, the one recovered last year by badgers from a nearby dustbin on the road to Chipping Norton. As Molecaire assures me, it is amazing what government emails have not been deleted from it since Sarah Brown’s invitation to a Downing Street sleepover several years ago.

If these hacked-on rumours are true, I am not going to have any pre-Christmas sleep. The one unsolved problem is what the two teams should wear. Badgers come in Fifty Shades of Grey but, two stripy teams for “brocker” will easily become confused. I thought I had given Molecaire the answer. In places like London’s Notting Hill, cinemas have been packed for the film Blue Is The Warmest Colour . I have even been thinking of writing a new-year column in sympathy, featuring blue delphiniums and warm blue Salvia patens. Could not the badger Toffs wear a warming shade of blue? I can hardly describe the look on Molecaire’s face. “They are not overheated females,” he snubbed me. While the male badgers get “sett” for the game of their lives, Blue is clearly a movie which we innocents need to see before the new year.

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