On 12 November 2012, Panorama broadcast a programme investigating the issues surrounding the Government’s drive to cull badgers. Within a couple of minutes, Tom Heap, the presenter, is floating down a river in a boat gently reading aloud from Wind in the Willows. He explains how the book has captivated readers over the decades especially “dear old badger, kindly, wise and gruff.” Tom concludes, “An animal few of us have ever seen gets a big, noble personality and enduring love”. And this, we are told, is the root cause of why so many people find the idea of a badger cull preposterous.
Panorama wasn’t alone in using this children’s book to explain why so many people like or indeed love badgers; Countryfile did the same, and so did Newsnight. I heard reference to Kenneth Grahame’s classic on radio and read it in many a broadsheet and tabloid article. Some academics have even studied the subject.
Without a doubt, Wind in the Willows changed the perception of the public towards animals back in Edwardian days. But does it still colour our thoughts about badgers today to the exclusion of all else? Or is this simply lazy thinking where one person follows another without thought, much like wildebeest crossing a river?
I read Wind in the Willows as a child and remember, most of all, feeling unsettled about Toad and his pompous delight in material goods. But even at a young age, I was aware he was fictional and that toads probably don’t aspire to own flashy motorcars. The characters of Ratty and Mole gave me a sense of pleasure in the idea of mucking about in boats, feasting on picnics and a joy in companionship. I also felt a shiver at the thought of getting lost in the Wild Wood but, to be honest, I barely remember Badger.
There are many other books that have probably done far more to influence my attitudes towards real animals than Wind in the Willows – and I can’t believe that I’m alone in that. Thirty years before Kenneth Grahame put pen to paper, Anna Sewell helped change Victorian attitudes towards the treatment of carriage horses with her best-selling book, Black Beauty. She lifted them from being seen as expendable commodities to intelligent animals that also experience pain and terror, deserving both our respect and better treatment.
Much later, Joy and George Adamson wrote about wild lions, helping to change perceptions of these big cats from mere trophy animals to be shot and displayed on walls and floors into something much more special: creatures that are fascinating in their own right and that should be conserved for posterity. Gerald Durrell brought a grin to my face and caused millions of people to chuckle worldwide with his descriptions of real, wild animals that showed us that every one is an individual, brimming with personality and life. There was also Sir Peter Scott who wrote about the marvels of kingfishers and the beauty of greylag geese as well as the animal behaviourists such as Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz, who studied wild animals, rather than captive ones in zoos, and discovered much amazing social behaviour that they could share through popular writing as well as more academic channels.
That was in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. Since then, innumerable perceptive writers all over the world have continued to challenge our relationship with the landscape and the environment revealing the planet to be a rare and special place with an evolutionary history that stretches so far back as to almost defy comprehension. Meanwhile biologists such as Cynthia Moss, Katy and Roger Payne, and Robert Sapolsky, have shown how other species from elephants to whales and baboons are so similar to us in their behaviour and social organisations that it almost hurts.
The world of badgers was explored too. I soon discovered Earnest Neal who revealed, to my delight, the fascinating ecology and behaviour of badgers in his book, Badger, in the New Naturalist series. Then I read The Darkness is Light Enough in which Chris Ferris uncovered the terrible world of those who dig up and attack badgers for sport. The book is as gripping as any thriller, exposing the almost unbelievable world of secret terror that stalks the British countryside and that shockingly is still a reality in many parts of the country.
All these authors and so many more have contributed to the evolution of new thinking on our relationship with non-human animals - one that many agree should be based on co-existence rather than confrontation. With each passing week we learn more about the intelligence, individuality, ingenuity and more worryingly the capacity for pain (and fear) in all manner of other living animals.
Badgers are no different and it is clear that a lot of people find the government’s plans to cull badgers unacceptable on many levels, not least the questionable morality of removing large numbers of badgers through free-shooting, an untested method that is likely to cause needless suffering, that too when many leading scientists have said that badger culling has no meaningful role to play in cattle TB control in Britain. These concerns should not be treated lightly for good policy must be informed as much by ethics and morality as by science and economics. And they certainly cannot be dismissed as a sentimental irrational fondness for badgers created by one charmingly eccentric book written for children back in 1908.