'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