'Heroic' Mr Badger has clouded TB debate, research concludes

DEEP-ROOTED cultural attitudes towards badgers, reinforced through literary works like ‘The Wind in the Willows’, have clouded the debate on controlling bovine TB (bTB), according to new research.

Dr Angela Cassidy, of the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme, has examined cultural attitudes towards badgers throughout history.

She has found a range of literary depictions dating back over 1,000 years, extolling the ‘good badger’ on one extreme and vilfying the ‘bad badger’ on the other.

These representations have played a big part in shaping the current ‘violent’ and ‘polarised’ debate on whether badgers should be culled to control bTB in cattle, according to Dr Cassidy.

Dr Cassidy’s research dates back to the ‘dignified depictions’ of badgers in an Anglo Saxon poetic riddle from the 11th century, which describes the animal as a ‘noble creature defending its family against attack’.

More recent ‘heroic appearances’ in children’s literature are common, with the best known being Kenneth Grahame’s Mr Badger in the children’s novel ‘The Wind in the Willows’.

“We are familiar with the idea of badgers displaying characteristics that we like to think of as both human and laudable, such as strength, bravery and loyalty, while also being mysterious, nocturnal creatures that are symbolic of the natural world and British countryside,” Dr Cassidy concluded.

She noted, however, that the ‘bad badger’ is also in evidence throughout history and in literature.

In the 16th century badgers were legally designated as vermin, and badger baiting was considered a normal pastime until it was outlawed in 1835. Tommy Brock in Beatrix Potter’s ‘The Tale of Mr Tod’ is depicted as an ‘unpleasant, sly, dirty creature who kidnaps a nest of baby rabbits’, she said.

“The ‘bad badger’ is in constant conflict with human beings, and current bTB debates often include references to unwelcome behaviours such as crop-raiding, digging and hunting other animals,” Dr Cassidy said.

Dr Cassidy said these often deep rooted, feelings about ‘Old Brock’ are ‘still colouring’ the bTB debate and influence how it is covered in the media. The way the debate has been framed has been ‘unhelpful and has made it more difficult for policymakers to find a way forward’, she said.

“From the early 20th century depictions of the ‘good badger’ became dominant, but more recently the verminous and diseased ‘bad badger’ has resurfaced. It is noticeable how the two sides have harnessed the language of war to bolster their arguments, with quite violent rhetoric being used in an increasingly polarised public debate,” she said.

“Perhaps if we could recognise that the current bTB debate is actually partly about human relationships with badgers, and that both the ‘good’ and ‘bad versions of the badger are exaggerated, this could help move policymaking forwards,” she said.

She added that the concentration on badgers, particularly in the media, has also meant there has been less room for discussion of other aspects of bTB, such as TB testing or cattle management.

·        The research is published in Sociologia Ruralis volume 52, Issue 2, 192-214 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9523.2012.00562.x/abstract

·        The Rural Economy and Land Use Programme is an interdisciplinary collaboration between the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), with additional funding provided by the Scottish Government and Defra. See www.relu.ac.uk

Readers' comments (13)

  • What a load of cods wollop.

    FG Im disapointed, this is just propaganda-you seem to take any one as not a farmer to think nature is full of beatrix potter creatures. Would you like to challenge me on natural history and wildlife knowledge?

    Print news and facts not this tripe......pathetic

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  • You also have to look at this one from the other side. Whilst you have the positive aspects of the badger being portrayed triggering emotive responses from people who know very little of the problem we also have the negative aspects of farming being portrayed. With the same kids books portraying the farmer as being mean, uncaring and rich etc. These stereotypes always seep out in this debate. Seems to be people take literature a bit too literally these days and unable to understand the deeper points behind it.

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  • Okay Codswollop, I'm calling you out on your challenge. Enlighten us with your superior knowledge of the Giant Weasel (Meles meles).

    I'm happy to go head to head with you if you think you're man enough.

    I absolutely agree with this article. I think that the vast majority of the public read story books and watch the telly, get sucked in by the wildlife propaganda on it and think they are expert.

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  • This is an interesting article. People's perception of the badger (good and bad) has influenced the debate too much.

    @ Newt. Can I just say your comments have been spot-on lately!


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  • I agree about the "vast majority of the public". They seem to be educated now by soundbites and headlines. Those of us who go behind that are not taken in by good/bad badger stories, except.... the worst evidence I've seen that people have been sucked in by the bad badger has been by those shouting for a cull. If policymakers are sucked in too, what hope have we got for a sensible outcome (and I don't mean by culling badgers - waste of time and money)

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  • Aren't all animals, including us both good and bad.
    Badgers are a truly wild animal, our largest carnivore. Should they go the way of the wolf and the bear.
    Should our lives be ruled only by man's need..
    Bovine Tb has infected the badger population, not the other way round. Should we not try to find a solution to stop all the suffering of animals as we have in humans.
    As our world changes we need to find better scientific approaches for all concerned. Than shooting high velocity rifles and paying farmers endless compensation..
    As I am sure Pasteur would agree

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  • Once again we see the two sides opposed when there should be a common target. That target should be the disease itself. It does not matter that the disease is called Bovine TB. It affects far more than only bovines even, as we sadly see in another article, humans.
    Just as one does not need to be in Schmallenberg to get that virus and Asian Flu is not confined to Asia Bovine TB is not confined to Bovines. The Cull of badgers and affected animals/livestock needs to be done from all sides, all animals, all species. only once the existing reservoir has been minimised can we look further into ways of keeping the reduced instances low.

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  • The Peasant
    @ Anonymous | 24 April 2012 1:24 pm
    No one want the badger to go the way of the wolf and the bear, and only the insidious spread of TB (see Southern Skye above) will make that a possibility. There are still large parts of the country where badgers and cattle are free of TB, and culling badgers in the areas where they are known to be harbouring TB is actually in the badgers best interest.

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  • I frankly couldn't give a monkey about good badger/bad badger. I grew up in badger country. . The woods were always full of their bones. . A badger's skull was part of my childhood 'treasure chest' . The gypsies were regulars making clothes pegs (and probably eating them). . But I was 40 before I actually saw one other than in car headlights! . . Now the damn things are everywhere and the novelties worn off.

    So lets first get shot of bTB. . Close down all the infected infected setts humanely, and try and establish a healthy population of them again that we can all enjoy!

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  • Sir,
    A trial of Badger culling should be implemented in a high risk area which can be closely monitored, and the result checked against bTB in the herds close proximity to the cull.

    The badgers should be gassed humanely in their set to make sure a sow is not shot that has young, which would leave them to starve to death in the set.

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