Tuesday, 6 October 2015

National Badger Day 2015: Another Problem with the UK Cull

Today, 6 October 2015, is National Badger Day in the UK. It's a day dedicated to this wondrous nocturnal mustelid, its symbolism and cultural significance, its important ecological role, and its continued struggles, especially in the anti-science/pro-agribusiness context of the Cameron government's explicitly anti-wildlife policies.

Although the situation in the UK is particularly bad for badgers, it's worth keeping in mind that anywhere you can find badgers, you'll find that they're in trouble. Honey badgers are killed by beekeepers, ranchers, and poachers; North American badgers are killed by ranchers, landowners, "varmint" hunters, and automobiles, and their habitat continues to diminish to industrial and residential development; hog badgers are threatened by habitat loss as well, and human activities from deforestation to hunting are having an increasing impact on their numbers. Like all wild creatures, badgers suffer from human indifference and malice alike.

The controversial badger cull is a case in point. In response to the continuing impact of bovine tuberculosis on cattle populations, and at the urging of the UK dairy industry, the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) has included the culling of targeted badger populations as part of its bTB reduction strategy. As I discuss in my book, and as is demonstrated by the vast majority of the available scientific evidence, culling badgers to combat bTB is a short-term solution at best, ineffectual or actually counterproductive at worst. (A great 2007 article on how culling can actually increase the problem can be found here. Illegal badger persecution has also added to the problem, as noted in a recent piece in the Irish Times.) Since I addressed the scientific discussion in Chapter 4 of the book, my interest here is to consider something less often considered: namely, that the cull and the UK's badger populations are part of a much larger contemporary context of ecological diminishment, and that healthier attitudes and policies toward wildlife are inevitably compromised by this context.

Badgers evolved as one predator species among many. Historically, bears, wolves, lynx, and other "charismatic megafauna" were native to what is now England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, and all would have lived alongside and occasionally preyed on badgers. (Other animals no longer found wild were part of that system, such as beaver, although recently news reports about wild beavers returning to England give hope that these ecosystems may be returning to health.) Without these predators, who were vitally important to the ecologies of the UK and Ireland for thousands of years, the health of the land and its various species has inevitably declined; the heavy increase of monocultural agribusiness in the countryside has also put enormous pressure on the land and its denizens, to such point that the diverse plant and animal species that nourished one another for the longest part of the land's history have also declined, with animal (and human) health, capacity, and well-being inevitable casualties. (Hugh Warwick's splendid The Beauty in the Beast and Patrick Barkham's Badgerlands offer important and beautifully written analyses of these ecological complexities.) Although badgers have managed to do fairly well alongside other smaller carnivores such as foxes and various weasel kin such as otters and stoats, a diminished landscape means that their natural behaviours from hunting to digging to breeding are compromised from the outset by human interference. They evolved to be badgers in a world where their badgerishness was part of a wider network of relations, but those relationships have now been deeply ruptured through human activity.

In the end, the cull has very little to do with badgers. It has much more to do with human priorities, and it reveals a great deal about the extreme alienation of humans from the land and its health. Melicide--the murderous persecution of badgers--has a long and inglorious history in the UK, but primarily in "sport" such as the cowardly custom of badger-baiting. Its more recent manifestation as official government policy is embedded in a deep cultural suspicion of and disregard for the wild places and wild beings of the world, a longstanding fear of difference and the deeply embedded presumption of and desire for human domination over nature. And it's no surprise that as melicide becomes official government policy, badger persecution and wildlife crime have dramatically increased.

The cull is a symptom of failed human relationships and diminished human imaginations. Rather than encouraging wildlife and farming practices that expand the diversity and health of the other-than-human lands on which we all depend for life, and which make place for the carnivores and other species that evolved to inhabit and strengthen a richly diverse landscape, the Cameron government and NFU continue to push for perverse practices and policies of ecological and imaginative diminishment. Theirs is a philosophy of suspicion, a privileging of an inevitably impoverishing but superficially coherent monoculture (mirrored in other Tory policies, especially around immigration and human diversity), a commitment to exploitation and corporatization at the expense of the most vulnerable. What they are culling, then, is not a vector species for bovine tuberculosis, nor a genuine threat to the increasingly corporatized dairy industry, but their own deeply implicated disdain for and fear of a world where they're not the sole species of significance. But they can't kill their way to supremacy--all they can do is destroy yet more of an already deeply imperilled world, and diminish their own futures, and ours, as a result.

On National Badger Day, and on all days, let's work against the UK cull and all wildlife policies that insist on false choices, false fears, and false ideologies of exploitative supremacy. The cull is a failure, not simply because it's based on bad science and even worse cultural biases, but because it's a lazy evasion of responsibility for generations of failed lands policies. These policies are what should be culled, not badgers.