A visit to see the badgers at Fingringhoe Wick in Essex is a joy for any nature lover but in many places in the UK the animal’s future is less than certain.
I was at Essex Wildlife Trust’s Fingrinhoe Wick reserve, sat in a hide overlooking a badger sett.
Before long, three badgers were in clear sight – the time was 7:45pm so visibility was good. The large boar was on hind legs, leaning into some brambles to take the blackberries. Fully-extended, the sheer size could be appreciated. He must of stood nearly one metre tall and erect like this, resembled a bear.
Despite being part of the Mustelidae family, which also includes otters, weasels, martens and minks, one thing that struck me as I watched the badgers forage was how unlike any other native animal they are… but at the same time how much they display characteristics of other creatures.
Snuffling around, snout to the ground, searching for food and whatever else might come their way, there was something porcine about their behaviour. However, the low-arched back and closeness to the ground reminded me of an armadillo. At one point I dropped my phone and it hit the cabin floor with a crash. Immediately the badgers stood alert, their snouts pointing in my direction like gun dogs.
I was fascinated by their stark facial markings – the white head with two black stripes coming over the eyes to the ears. No-one is sure why badgers possess these high-contrast patterns. Some propose they help these fascinating creatures to recognise each other. It is also thought that they serve as a warning to potential predators, which historically would have been wolves, that badgers will give as good as they get if confronted or cornered.
The badger’s ferocity and toughness is the stuff of legend. In the poem The Badger by nineteenth century East Anglian Romantic John Clare, the creature is depicted as taking on all comers, dogs and people alike, as it is cruelly baited and tortured: ‘When badgers fight, then every one’s a foe’ is one line.
Maybe this fighting spirit has something to do with why the badger has been persecuted down the years.
In Suffolk, badgers were on the verge of extinction within the county by the turn of twentieth century while according to Essex Wildlife Trust’s mammal expert, Darren Tansley, in the 1800s, the badger’s presence in Essex had been reduced to a small population in Epping Forest. The past 100 years has seen numbers recover across East Anglia, helped by the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, which gave the animal legal protection, and recent milder winters, which have boosted breeding productivity.
But today, a new threat faces the badger in the UK, as it is culled in its thousands in an attempt to prevent the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB), a highly infectious disease of cattle, which devastates thousands of farming businesses annually and which the badger is believed to spread.
According to the Wildlife’s Trusts, last year more than 32,000 badgers were culled across 32 cull zones predominantly in the west and parts of the north of England. Most recently, the organisation is opposing an application to start culling badgers in Derbyshire. The Trusts’ position is that badgers are not the primary cause of the spread of TB in cattle and that cow-to-cow contact is the main route to infection. The organisation has called for cattle to be vaccinated and for a more “robust” analysis of whether the badger cull is having the desired outcome of slowing the spread of the disease.
So far, the badger cull has not reached East Anglia and the Essex Wildlife Trust had hoped to pre-empt any such initiative by introducing a vaccination programme for badgers in the county. Mr Tansley has been trained in vaccinating badgers but an application to start the programme was turned down by Natural England in 2014.
“We feel that culling has been shown to be detrimental in the long-run,” he said.
“Culling disrupts badger social groupings, who then move around more and potentially spread it [TB] further to locations where it wouldn’t have been.”
Mr Tansley continued: “Vaccination prevents outbreaks by immunising badgers, so they can’t be vectors for spreading the disease, and it’s not as expensive as culling.
“It is not possible to vaccinate all badgers in one go, rather you vaccinate a good proportion in one year and repeat the process over a number of years. In that way, you build up a herd immunity with some dying and others being born with immunity. It vastly knocks down the chance of having a badger out there with TB.”
Mr Tansley believes the cull is designed to show action is being taken against bovine TB but says the data as to its efficacy has not been forthcoming.
“The science is playing second fiddle to the political expedience,” he added.
Back at the sett, we move away slowly after a wonderful hour watching the badgers. They are at peace, preoccupied with searching for food and totally oblivious to the battles being fought by men.
This article was first published in the East Anglian Daily Times in August 2019.