The badgers and the bees: not a love story
Call me paranoid, but I'm beginning to think farmers are becoming, more than ever it seems, political pawns – Aunt Sallies for all and sundry to have a shy at.
So I want to make a plea for one or two other organisations, not least in the conservation arena, to speak up for what's right rather than politically expedient.
It's a real dilemma for us.
While all we really want to do is produce the good, wholesome British food consumers tell us they want and, in so doing, shape and manage a beautiful, wildlife-rich landscape – we find ourselves thrust into the maelstrom of political polarisation and the activism it has spawned, particularly over issues like bovine TB and badger culling. Now I'm not going to go over all the animal health and welfare arguments relating to this most vexatious issue yet again, because they have been aired exhaustively, but I do want to explore a wider perspective which is worrying me and a lot of other farmers in the South West, and that's the sheer numbers of badgers and the adverse impact this is having way beyond TB.
It is, potentially, a very prickly subject for Wildlife Trusts who, in some instances, have campaigned vehemently against touching so much as a bristle on a badger snout. Uncomfortably perhaps, for the trusts, which use brock for their logo, he has been upstaged in the nation's affections by the hedgehog, which has taken pride of place in a national poll run by the BBC Wildlife Magazine to become Britain's favourite species. This accolade won predictable applause from the British Hedgehog Preservation Society whose chief executive, Fay Vass, said: "We are all thrilled... it could not have come at a better time; hedgehog numbers are in decline so they need all the help they can get."
Alas, all too true but we are illuminated further by another item on the society's website – a study entitled The state of Britain's hedgehogs 2011. It pulls no punches about the impact of "more intensive" agriculture, not to mention the trend to fence gardens rather than hedge them and the huge death toll on the roads so we may all, to a greater or lesser degree, be culpable. But it also has this to say about Mr Brock: "Badgers are a natural predator of hedgehogs and hedgehogs actively avoid sites where badgers are present in high numbers. When the habitat provides sufficient cover and good foraging opportunities, badgers and hedgehogs can coexist, but when there is no safe refuge and the prey that the two species compete for is scarce, hedgehogs may be in serious trouble."
Even a Wildlife Trust website says: "Badgers will prey on hedgehogs and also compete with them for prey such as slugs and worms."
But it doesn't stop there. Apparently, according to an email sent to one of the NFU's South West horticulture board members, the Bumble Bee Trust revealed that badgers are, along with the wax moth, at the top of the predatory tree in terms of their destruction of bumble bees and that "in some areas of the UK where the badger population has exploded we (the trust) are concerned about what effect this will have on bumble bee populations". And nowhere has the badger population exploded more than here in the South West according to my own observations and those of many other farmers.
The Bumble Bee Trust's fears may well be justified – our hort board member has observed a "learned" behaviour among his local badger population who would visit his garden specifically to dig out bees' nests in tree roots, with catastrophic consequences for the insects whose larvae the badgers, pretty much impervious to stings, had acquired quite a taste for. This is a big issue for the RSPB, too, because wild bumble bees are one of the primary hedgerow pollinators producing so much of the larder of berries etc, which sustains so many birds, and the RSPB is still inclined to be awfully coy about badger predation on ground and hedgerow nesting birds' eggs and offspring, too, not to mention waders in wetlands.
The Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management says that the badger, a species without natural predators, is a classic example of a population out of control which "urgently needs to be brought under control for the sake of the badgers themselves (over population, among other things, leading to disease, loss of territory, fighting and starvation), cattle and cattle farmers, other wildlife and, not least because of the hazard from TB to man and other wild and domestic animals."
So I am challenging the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and even, dare I say it, some of those at Natural England, to work with us. Stop prevaricating and lend your significant influence to achieving a worthwhile objective – a restored natural balance, including a healthy badger population in a healthy countryside where all species can thrive.