Going against a government-sponsored ‘cull’ of ‘undesired’ animals takes tenacity, organization, and heart. Kirsten Bayes brings us this exclusive report of the heroic efforts of activists against England’s badger cull.
A Tale of Badgers and Bravery
by Kirsten Bayes
Sounds in the night
“Somehow, you never think of them as making a noise,” said Cheryl.* We were perched on a hill in Gloucestershire, England, listening to the yowling of badgers playing in the woods below. Sitting out in the cold at three-o’-clock in the morning, our mission was to keep those badgers safe. Somewhere in the darkness, armed men were looking for them.
This is a story of Britain’s beloved badgers, a government-sponsored cull, and the activists who put themselves in the middle of a multi-million pound police operation.
Badgers and bovines
Badgers live in the woods and on the hills of Gloucestershire and Somerset in England (and elsewhere) in large underground complexes called “setts.” They search for food at night, following familiar “runs” in family groups.
The badgers have been here since the last Ice Age, and now share the land with humans and captive cows of the meat and dairy industry. They share something else with cows and humans, too: bovine tuberculosis.
Primarily a disease in cattle, bovine TB kills some 27,000 cows a year in the UK. Despite evidence to the contrary, the government believes that killing badgers will slow the spread of bovine TB. In 2013, the decision was made to shoot 70 percent of all badgers in trial cull areas in Gloucester and Somerset. If these measures were “successful,” badgers would then be culled in a dozen other areas.
Despite a furious campaign of marches, celebrity endorsements, and the largest ever petition on the government’s website, it was clear in August 2013 that the cull would proceed. Its start was heralded by … peanuts.
“Hand me the trowel, lovely,” said Liz*, as she knelt near several freshly dug holes. “Yep, it’s a bait point.” Hooded and dressed in black, on a path near woods in the Gloucestershire countryside, we found holes filled with peanuts.
Shooting badgers at night is hard, as they are shy, have very good senses, and can move swiftly. Shooters bury peanuts near the badgers’ runs, so that the animals must stop and dig to obtain their snack. The badger starts digging, a shot rings out. The badger is hit, screams — a blood-chilling cry — then is silenced by another shot.
After months of fieldwork, mapping and surveying, activists found many peanut-filled bait points. Calls were made, camps were established, and spare rooms were opened up. The shooters soon discovered that they would not have the countryside to themselves.
Rebecca*, one of the hunt saboteurs (or “sabs”), described her first encounter with shooters: “I was with a team of spotters, high up, scanning the area with a night vision scope.” (Expensive, somewhat tricky to use, the night vision scopes could spot the infrared lamps used by the shooters.) “As I looked at a nearby wood, pitch black to the naked eye, it was lit up like a festival site in the scope. Then we heard one shot after another.”
A shooter described the experience in the Farmers Weekly (July 6, 2014): “The sabs were totally dedicated, totally devoted to their cause… You’d shoot a badger and then have to carry it out of the field in front of them. You’d find yourself surrounded in the field in the middle of the night by protestors and you’d have to radio through to the police. It wasn’t good.”
The sabs clearly had an effect. Having failed to reach its targets in the six weeks initially planned, the government announced it would extend the culls for another three weeks in Somerset and six weeks in Gloucestershire. During this second phase, shooting declined but was replaced by a new tactic.
Don* pointed down the hill, “There, can you see them?” We stood on a path in the middle of a badger sett stretching fifty yards in each direction. “What am I looking at?” I asked.
“Cages. Going to take a look.” With that, he hopped over the fence. “Ha, well, it looks like the Pixies found them first. They’re all cut up.”
Because activists interfered with night-time shootings, cull companies resorted to cage traps. Badgers were trapped at night, only to be shot in the morning. Trapped badgers never stopped trying to escape.
The cages also met resistance, though. They were cut in half or crushed by people nicknamed “Pixies.” Policing became more aggressive. But despite cross-country pursuits, house raids, car searches, and several dozen arrests, few people were charged and even fewer convicted. The identity of the “Pixies” remains largely a mystery.
Not out of the woods
Due to these heroic activist efforts, the government’s goal of culling 70 percent of the badgers in the trial zones was not reached. Still, fatalities totaled 1861; 65 percent of badgers in the Somerset zone, but under 40 percent in the Gloucestershire zone. The total cost of the cull is staggering: some seven million pounds (ten million dollars).
The cull returned in September 2014. The government has not yet published the results, but good work in the fields has meant that lives have been saved. Activists will be working for as long as badgers are under threat. You can help by donating to the Hunt Saboteurs Association or by joining the campaign!
* All names were changed to protect activists’ freedom.
Kirsten Bayes is a veteran activist on peace and social justice issues. Her campaigns have been featured on the BBC, Russia Today, Al Jazeera and even Fox News. A marketing consultant by profession with some two decades of experience working for large blue-chip companies, much of her spare time is spent in the countryside watching animals, especially badgers. She has been involved in the campaign against the badger cull in England since it was first announced, both in the field and also lobbying Parliament.