Culling squirrels last weekend on a Norfolk estate I couldn’t help but despair at the amount of destruction being carried out, unchecked, among the woods and coverts when no-one is around to protect the land. The hooliganism has reached a massive scale and always happens at night. Nor is it localised. The reprobates have spread right across the thousand acre manor. Tree guards have ripped away and newly planted saplings torn out by their roots. Mature oaks, beech and ash have been undermined and unbalanced … toppling under the pressure of winter gales. The vandals make no attempt to hide their activity, in fact quite the opposite. Long trails wind hither and thither across the woodland floor, flattening the snowdrops. Follow these trails and you will find small pits full of excrement. Latrines. Have these offenders no shame? All along the runs you can see where they’ve dug and delved, expertly snouting out grubs and earthworms and retrieving them with their powerful, clawed paws. Oh … you’ve figured it out now? Badgers. Dozens of them. In fact, so many setts exist here that I fear the whole estate might disappear into a huge hollow one day.
The badger has been in the news a lot over the past year, the DEFRA approved badger cull causing the usual division of sentiment between those who really understand wildlife and those who purport to, but actually don’t. Decisions around wildlife management would be doomed to constant failure if they were based on emotion instead of practical, scientific consideration. Don’t get me wrong, I love badgers as much as I love all wildlife, but un-natural interference with Nature by man (in the form of ‘law’) can cause as much imbalance as the inexcusable and random pogroms carried out by Edwardian and Victorian hunters when firearms first became accessible in the UK. In an attempt at defending the Wildlife Acts at least we can say they curbed the awful practises of badger baiting, cock fighting and other unacceptable sporting activities. Yet you only have to walk the woods I do and look at the road-kill badger corpses lining our roads and motorways to see that (like the fox) this handsome, nocturnal mustelid is breeding beyond healthy and sustainable numbers. Putting aside TB or the threats to that other declining native mammal, the hedgehog, it can’t be good for the species meles meles to over-populate to this extent. Competition for territory, food and mates is always balanced by Natures intervention. Sometimes in an environment devoid of natural alpha predators, as with deer, that intervention needs to be by the ultimate predator. Man.
DEFRA have tried to cull badgers, to protect cattle herds. It has been marginally successful in the areas targeted. Most countrymen or women would find it hard to point a rifle at a badger. I mean emotionally … not just because it’s dark. Sometimes we should accept that the old ways were the best ways. Gassing over-populated setts was always effective many years ago. Yes, there is a risk to other species squatting in a badger sett but that really is unlikely given the omnivorous diet of Old Brock. And let’s be clear here. Elimination is not an option. The badger is an iconic British animal, like the red squirrel. Now there’s a rub? The same people who would stop a grey squirrel cull and ignore the dire plight of the native red squirrel are the same misinformed individuals who campaign against badger culling to stop cattle infection. They don’t realise that Nature dictates which species should gain or lose to balance her accounts. Nor do they understand that we, mankind, have the mandate to oversee that or we wouldn’t have adapted so strongly? Sure, we’ve abused it in the past but now mankind has a pretty level view on species management. We beat ourselves up daily, challenge old conventions, fight illegitimate practises like poaching or exploitation of animals and we constantly set new standards. The responsibility for wildlife management lies firmly at our feet.
While looking over the setts, the inhabitants slumbering beneath my feet, I chanced across an old skull dragged up from the depths by another recent excavation. A large skull, probably a boar. Did he die of old age? Or was he gassed as he slept peacefully many years ago? We will never know.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, March 2015