Driving home past the Earl’s Court Road the other night, I came across a large advertising hoarding with the sad, striped face of a badger and the slogan “Save Me”. I’d never realised that there was an Earl’s Court badger community before; I’ve never seen any of them in the Three Kings and you don’t come across them at the 24-hour Tesco for supplies. But perhaps I am being obtuse; perhaps it is not the presence of badgers in Earl’s Court, but their absence, which makes us west London commuters a fit target for such emotive lobbying. After all, if we were more familiar with the worm-guzzlers, we might feel less sympathetic.
In the slow crawl of traffic there was time to discover more. It turns out that David Cameron is planning to slaughter thousands of badgers which, given the mess he made of the recent reshuffle, seemed to show a degree of ruthlessness he’d been unable to display towards Conservatives, surely a more butcherable breed.
It got worse: it isn’t just any old badgers the government is set to kill – it is “thousands of British badgers”. British badgers, do you hear? That puts a different complexion on it. These aren’t your eastern European badgers, the ones who pop out at you at junctions and try to wash your windscreen. They were not even those Eurasian badgers studying at London Metropolitan University. Oh no, these were good old, salt-of-the earth, stripy British badgers in Killer Cam’s sights. Surely a government with the interests of its citizens at heart should not be killing its own. It should be finding British jobs for British badgers. This, then, is a masterful appeal to tender-hearted members of the English Defence League. The poster is the work of teambadger.org, a collection of animal rights activists including Queen guitarist Brian May, who has compared his allies to Nelson Mandela and William Wilberforce.
At the root of this issue is the proposed badger cull – a ruthless pogrom of the large, striped weasel that stands accused of spreading tuberculosis among the nation’s cattle. Being a townie I’m instinctively sympathetic to badgers, which look cute and one of which played a central and heroic role in the liberation of Toad Hall. In fact, again I suspect like most townies, the only opinions I have of badgers are those formed by The Wind in the Willows. Actually, I might also have seen one on Springwatch; it had a brown beard and was a friend of Tim Brooke-Taylor – or maybe that was Bill Oddie, now I think about it.
What is beyond dispute is that the badgers are running a highly effective communications campaign. Not only did they land the plum role in a children’s classic, but the striped ones have also recruited some powerful celebs to their cause.
Not just Brian May, but Sir David Attenborough, Twiggy and even Joanna Lumley. There is also the provisional wing that murmurs about violence and reprisals against farmers who cull.
It must be said that the science behind the cull does not seem to be conclusive. There are some decent arguments for it. Bovine TB is a serious problem for farmers, and the cull is being piloted in two areas before it goes nationwide. But observers more expert than I would argue that the case is not proven, and that while culls can be effective in reducing TB in cattle in the immediate area, the disruption can cause badgers to spread their territory and so the disease. Even some advocates argue that the proposed implementation is likely to be ineffective.
So yes, the doubts have pushed me into the corner of those opposing the cull. But what grates – apart from the company this requires me to keep – is the certain knowledge that even were the science beyond dispute, the same emotive arguments would be deployed, and the same “Save Me” poster would be staring mournfully out at the Cromwell Road traffic. Had the beast had the decency to be warty and unappealing, we’d have been scraping them off the green and pleasant land long ago. Such matters ought to go beyond animal aesthetics and the prominence the creature played in a childhood classic. Still, thank heavens they aren’t after the water rat.