Badgers' fate influenced by books, research discovers

Portrayals of badgers in literature from The Wind in the Willows to Beatrix Potter linked to UK's conflicted attitude to culling

From the kindly old Badger of The Wind in the Willows to the murderous Tommy Brock from Beatrix Potter, the proliferation of literary depictions of badgers through the ages has dangerously coloured the debate around whether to cull wild badgers, according to new research.

Dr Angela Cassidy, a fellow with the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme, says the UK's conflicted attitude to badgers is "rooted in history", with literary representations of badgers dating back to an Anglo-Saxon poem from the 11th century, showing a noble creature defending its family from attack. The deep-rooted place the creatures have in our past has influenced the "violent" debate around whether or not badgers should be culled to control the spread of bovine tuberculosis, she believes.

"Old Brock" is often shown as a heroic creature, as in Kenneth Grahame's children's novel, with human characteristics such as loyalty, bravery and strength, writes Cassidy in her paper Vermin, Victims and Disease, which has just been published in the journal Sociologia Ruralis. They are also, she said, seen as "mysterious, nocturnal creatures that are symbolic of the natural world and British countryside".

The poet John Clare wrote about "the badger grunting on his woodland track / With shaggy hide and sharp nose scrowed with black" in his 19th-century sonnets about badger baiting, a topic also covered by Edward Thomas in his 1916 poem The Combe, which describes the badger as the "most ancient Briton of English beasts". TH White included a badger in his Arthurian novel The Sword and the Stone, and a more martial version of the creature can be seen in CS Lewis's Prince Caspian and Brian Jacques's Redwall series.

Cassidy says that the "bad" badger is also evident in literature, although less common, with Potter's The Tale of Mr Tod telling of the badger Tommy Brock, who kidnaps a nest of baby rabbits and keeps them in his oven for his dinner.

"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 bovine tuberculosis 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."


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Cull could wipe out badgers in some areas
Government wildlife advisers warn that plans to shoot the creatures to tackle bovine TB may break the law

Damian Carrington

11, Mar, 2012 @12:07 AM

Article image
Badger cull: Spelman dodges bullet, badgers do not | Damian Carrington

Damian Carrington: Plans to curb TB in cattle by shooting free running badgers are careful enough to avoid political flak, but legal challenges and protests may yet kill the culls

Damian Carrington

19, Jul, 2011 @3:24 PM

Article image
Slaughtering badgers is not the answer to bovine TB | Patrick Barkham
Patrick Barkham: Bovine TB causes farmers real misery. But shooting badgers is just a cheap way to spread the disease

Patrick Barkham

15, Dec, 2011 @7:30 PM

Article image
Time runs out for badgers in the culling fields of England
Many farmers blame badgers for the spread of bovine TB, and a landmark ruling could soon seal the fate of thousands

Ed Vulliamy

07, Jul, 2012 @9:41 PM

Article image
Bovine TB not passed on through direct contact with badgers, research shows
Contact comes through contaminated pasture and dung, with significant implications for farming practices

Damian Carrington

05, Aug, 2016 @6:05 AM

Article image
Tracking badgers - in pictures

Little is known about badger-cattle interactions. As a cull of badgers intended to curb TB in cattle begins, scientists are working to find out more

Damian Carrington

03, Jun, 2013 @3:13 PM

Article image
Do we have to shoot the badgers?
Patrick Barkham: The government is 'strongly minded' to cull thousands of badgers next year, but there may be a less bloody way of stopping the spread of bovine TB

Patrick Barkham

05, Aug, 2011 @11:12 PM

Article image
Illegal snaring of badgers rising, report finds
Cull policy demonising species and making killing the animals more acceptable, says Badger Trust

Damian Carrington

02, Oct, 2014 @4:46 PM

Article image
Culls risk illegally exterminating badgers, animal expert warns
Campaigners for badgers are mobilising to disrupt night-time shoots, as the 1 June start date approaches

Damian Carrington

27, May, 2013 @1:19 PM

Article image
What the 70s can tell us about culling badgers | Matthew Kelly
Matthew Kelly: 'A pogrom against the badger' was initially averted but gassing of badgers followed eventually, despite a troubled relationship between science and policy in government

Matthew Kelly

03, Jul, 2014 @11:10 AM