Badgers, Syria and democracy

By Andrew Gray (local userpage) (p1140372) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Andrew Gray (local userpage) (p1140372) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
I read an interesting blog last week by Matthew Taylor about whether ‘doing something’ is seen as better or worse than ‘not doing anything’.

I am emotionally a ‘let’s do something’ type of person.  If I see a mess I’d rather be doing something about it than not doing something – sometimes, even if I’m not sure what is the best thing to do, nor whether I am convinced that I can make a difference.  I can’t sit idly by very easily.

And so I can understand the position of a government faced with horrendous events wanting to ‘do something’.  In Syria the horrendous events are human suffering, and in the badger debate, the horrendous events are domestic cattle and wildlife suffering from a nasty disease.  You have to be pretty heartless not to feel the horror (different types of horror admittedly) of both situations. And so it is easy to feel that you must ‘do something’. In fact, whenever you hear either issue discussed in the media someone will be saying that – and often using just those words.

But we do need to do the ‘right thing’, not just ‘something’.  And that is, in both cases where it gets very tricky.  Will intervention in Syria make things better – or will it just make us feel better for a while?  Will culling of badgers reduce the incidence of bovine TB in cattle (or badgers) and if so to what extent?  I am not going to go into the answers to those questions here, and now, but no-one can say that the answers are easy to reach, and no-one can say that either is clear as day at this time.

Over 300,000 people stirred themselves to respond to an e-petition calling on Defra not to go ahead with a cull of badgers – they were, perhaps, the equivalent of a peace march. In fact the final total was 303,565 – an amazingly high total.

Some have said that government should listen to this epetition and change its mind but that won’t happen.  It won’t happen for a variety of reasons. First, this government has made up its mind that it has to ‘do something’ about badgers and it isn’t going to change its mind now.  Second, there wasn’t an e-petition where people could say they wanted the cull to go ahead so we have no idea whether that might have attracted even more signatures.  Third, although, in the scheme of things, 303,000 is ‘a lot’, it isn’t a very high proportion of our 60+million population.  And fourth, the Conservative Party said that it was going to cull badgers in their election manifesto and so they believe that they have a mandate (or at least an excuse) to do so.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I applaud the 303,000 (indeed I am one of them) – but I didn’t expect my signature to make a difference.  It was, in essence for me, a protest ‘vote’.

I wonder how many of the 303,000 voted Conservative in the last General Election? And I wonder how many people actually read the Party Manifestos before voting.  I can say that I did do the latter but didn’t do the former.

It’s time to be influencing the political parties’ manifestos for the next General Election now.  I’ll come back to that at another time but if you are a member of any political party and care about wildlife then please contact your party and tell them that you care.

A few years ago, before the last general election, the RSPB led a coalition of organisations and gathered over 200,000 signatures on bird of prey protection. We also achieved a high level of sign-up to an EDM on the subject (which attracted the support of Richard Benyon but not Owen Paterson or David Heath, I notice).  That seemed, at the time, to be a good line in the sand to draw before a Conservative Government might come into power – it hasn’t prevented ‘buzzardgate‘ or the imminent extirpation of the hen harrier from England, but it may well have prevented too much anti-raptor enthusiasm by the Defra we have today.  It’s difficult to know, but I’m glad that, to some extent, we set the agenda rather than followed it.

It’s not anti-democratic for the Conservative Government (which seems to have a few random LibDems in it too although I can’t see what they have achieved or are achieving) to do what it said it would do in its election manifesto.  It is very worrying that it seemed to be intent on muzzling NGOs in the year before any general election.  The Transparency of Lobbying Bill (which I haven’t read – but I will try to) sounded as though it could seriously reduce the ability for your favourite environmental group to campaign for a better deal for wildlife within a year of a general election.

Here are some things to read about it: Martin Harper’s blog, FoE website, and Miles King’s blog.

However, thanks to lobbying by charities (such as the RSPB) it seems as though the Government has realised its error.  Phew! That’s good.  So let’s chalk that up as another victory for the NGOs shall we? And I guess most readers of this blog didn’t even know there was something to fight for?

The author of this blog with the sexiest man in Wales (2005) - Huw Irranca-Davies MP (then a Defra minister).
The author of this blog with the sexiest man in Wales (2005) – Huw Irranca-Davies MP (then a Defra minister).






34 Replies to “Badgers, Syria and democracy”

  1. Whatever the problem, doing nothing can never be a helpful approach but not doing the thing that one or other group is currently insisting must be done is not the same as doing nothing. I find it a bit puzzling that a decision not to participate in the bombing of Syria is portrayed by many commentators as the UK giving up its position of influence on world affairs. It’s an odd sort of influence that only allows us to do whatever the US government wants to do.

  2. Hi Mark,

    I am glad you accept that the science behind the badger issue is complex and hard to fathom. Too often in my view it is painted by both sides as simple and straightforward this is a great disservice to the truth – whatever that may be and as with many issues we probably do not fully know.

    It’s an interesting point comparing the 303,000 petition to a peace march. I think there is a very important difference in that signing an e petition just takes a few clicks with a computer mouse and a few taps on a keyboard. Whereas going on a peace march takes far more effort. Hence I would say that a march of 303,000 would be massively more significant than 303,000 signing a petition on the net.

    Moreover as with any controversial and divisive issue you tend to get vocal minorities who wish to give their impression that they hold the vast sway of public opinion. The only poll I am aware of concluded I believe 34% against and 29% in favour of badger culling.

    What I think may potentially damage the anti cull lobby is the degree of criminality practised by some of their supporters. We have people living in remote ares being ‘phoned up and threatened in the middle of the night – some of them nothing to do with the cull. People are attempting to wreck tourist businesses in the area by leaving fake derogatory reviews on trip advisor – clearly deliberate libel – and “Biteback” magazine has published material it claims has been stolen from NFU mutual’s computer systems and claims sent credit card details of those in the cull to ‘carding’ websites so their bank accounts can be emptied.

    A lot of this activity seems to be being encouraged by the ‘stop the cull’ group – lead by Jay Tiernan – a Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty SHAC campaigner. For example they continually publish people’s names and addresses on the internet with comments like ‘please don’t phone these people up’.

    In my opinion ordinary peace loving law abiding opponents of the cull urgently need to distance themselves from the balaclavaed hardcore extremist element.

    1. Giles – I daresay a badger march of 303,000 people would be quite impressive too! It would, of course, include lots of children, friends, tourists and hangers-on who weren’t particularly motivated but merely dragged along by the hand or by curiosity. I am impressed by 303,000 – no-one has come up to me in the street and asked me to sign anything about badgers, no leaflet has come through my door – if I didn’t spend a fair amount of my time using the internet as a place to find news and write a blog then I would no about the badger issue but i don’t think I would be remotely aware of anyone asking me to protest about it. My Mum, for example, not having a computer, will not have had any knowledge of this e-petition at all. But do I take your point.

      The fact remains that there aren’t many epetitions that have done remotely as well.

      Breaking the law is rarely right – although you know, from your remarks on this blog, that people can be driven to do just that when they believe that the law is wrong or an injustice is being done. I have to say that I do recognise a difference between breaking the law for personal gain (eg stealing) and breaking the law to protest against a perceived evil. That is a general point, not specifically about this example.

      Your comment reminded me of a conversation I had many years ago, and I guess it was at a Royal Show or perhaps a Game fair, with a couple of ‘old boys’ who looked like farmers, sounded like farmers and told me that they were farmers (they may, or may not, have been farmers). These two took a certain amount of delight, it seemed, in telling me how many badgers they were killing on their farm and how i couldn’t do anything aboout it and they were going to carry on doing it because badgers were vermin. There is almost certainly law-breaking and appalling behaviour on both sides – there often is in any highly-charged conflict. That doesn’t mean that any of it is right.

      1. I do have a lot of sympathy with Giles’ views on this blog but I agree with your response, Mark. Giles says “The only poll I am aware of concluded I believe 34% against and 29% in favour of badger culling”. Without looking it up, that is probably about the same ratio on which the Government were elected.

      2. You are clearly correct that there is a profound moral difference between breaking a law for personal gain and doing so to protest against a perceived evil. I imagine that most if not all people reading this blog would agree with the principle that when a law is unjust it can be morally right to break that law – though I daresay there would be a great deal of disagreement about exactly which laws and when and how they should be flouted! We would probably all tend to agree, though, that the fact that someone perceives something to be evil or unjust does not provide justification for any and every crime that person does in response to that grievance – most would condemn the bombing of the Twin Towers (perpetrated by people who we must assume were acting in a sincere belief they were doing something righteous) and equally most would applaud the suffragettes for chaining themselves to buildings in their fight for the vote, or Ghandi passively defying the colonial authorities in India. In between there lie all sorts of less clear cut examples where it is hard to be so certain.
        In the specific case of the badger cull, I tend to agree with Giles regarding some of the uglier kinds of intimidatory tactics adopted by some in the anti-cull camp. Aside from the fact that such intimidation is deplorable in and of itself (and I condemn it when practiced by either side of the argument), it is actually likely to be counter productive and turn the sympathies of the public towards rather than away from the proponents of the cull.

        1. One who breaks an unjust law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

          Martin Luther King, Jr.

          Of course nowadays there are so many laws that often in reality one can break at least some of them openly and there is no penalty. There was a cannabis smoking protest recently in Exeter – no arrests made. The police said they respect the right to peaceful protest – what they really mean is that they respect the right to take illegal soft drugs in public.

  3. The phrase “Something must be done” has probably caused more suffering than any other four words in history. What good did it do to get rid of Saddam? People are still being killed in scores in Iraq on a daily basis. The weapons left unguarded after the fall of Gadaffi contributed directly to the devastation of Timbuktu. All we end up doing is to create more recruits for Al Qaeda.

    Going off on a totally different tangent however, why don’t we just round up a few thousand infected badgers, and release them in Mato Grosso?

  4. Because I don’t exist, I don’t sign petitions. But if I did, and I did, the most I would expect directly from a successful e-petition to gubmint would be a debate in parliament. That’s all that’s advertised on the can.

    I would expect a debate to examine the full extent of the issue including all the inconvenient truths – in the badger issue this would include the effect of increased badger numbers on the hedgehog population and the predation of ground-nesting birds like the stone curlew. And bumblebee nests. There are people who must know the answers – but they ain’t tellin’. Maintaining membership numbers and ideological stance is key – as they say.

    I don’t understand Peter Rafferty’s suggestion about Mato Grosso, but I did wonder recently – while re-reading “Not the Foot and Mouth Report – what the public’s response to an e-badger petition would be if our border controls on rabies were to be abandoned because they were too expensive.

    1. I am quite sure less badgers means more hedgehogs although there are many other reasons for hedgehog decline. Badgers like to roll hedgehogs over and snack on their soft furry tummies. Less badgers also means more foxes although badgers probably don’t kill and eat many foxes. More bears (or even some bears) would almost certainly mean less badgers and probably therefore more hedgehogs. So basically the more different species you have the more interactions you have and the more bio diversity you have – which is kind of obvious but the point I am trying to make is that not having bears – or wolves – or pine martins – or lynx – or hen harriers – can result in more biodiversity loss than just the loss of those animals.

      I think also these larger animals have a crucial effect because bio diversity is not just about more of everything it is about more variety. Where a bear is living creates an enclave around it where some animals simply aren’t which means other animals – and plants will be. The large herbivores would have done this too by getting rid of trees. Biodiversity is not just trees everywhere.

      So I’d hate to have no badgers but if there are some places where there are no badgers from the point of view at least of the ecology that might well be quite a good thing.

      PS Mark I’m completely against people illegally killing badgers and yes I am quite sure it goes on.

    2. Filbert,
      Haven’t our border controls for rabies be abandoned of sorts already with the introduction of the pet passport scheme, for example dogs coming in from USA for Crufts every year now don’t have to face long periods in quarntine now, also my mum has an Australian Shepherd [insert your own joke here] from Romania that never went into quarantine!

        1. Yeah there is no quarrantine of animals at all as long as all relevant documentation and jabs etc as pointed in the first link, how many people purchasing a dog/cat etc from an EU country can speak fluently in that language to check the documents, when my mum came back the friendly chaps at border control didn’t even ask her for documents etc for he dog?! The best line we heard from the Kennel Club was as long as there isn’t an outbreak of rabbies in domestic animals it’s ok and you won’t need to put dog in quarrantine….just as well rabbies can’t be passed from wild to domestic animals easily then?

    3. Actually hedgehogs are predators of birds’ nests, so badgers could be said to be doing the birds a good deed if they were eating the hedgehogs! Dr. Tim Hounsome’s empirical research studies for his PhD (‘as satirised on Mock The Week’) indicated that the single largest cause of nest destruction is cows.

  5. Numbers are always mildly interesting, and like most things in life, they appear differently to whoever receives the attached message, and f course their view point. I have no doubt that to most of us 303,000 people signing an E petition sounds a lot. As already pointed out, a click on the computer isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for the government to change its viewpoint. I’m sure we can all remember the CA events in London sometime ago. As I recall, and yes I was there covering the march, there was in excess of 400,000. A huge amount of ‘Active’ support and yet the government didn’t respond. Our local paper covered the recent anti cull badger protest in Gloucestershire at which Brian May turned up. By all accounts there was an audience of less than 50, hardly an endorsement from the public. Like most things scientifically based there are always two diametrically opposed schools of thought and little proof either way. In the badger debate anecdotal evidence from other countries suggest that culling does reduce the incidence of bTB, but by a small percentage. Owen Paterson made it clear in his interview for BBC recently that the government viewed culling as one tool in the box, the other eventually being vaccination of badgers and cattle. Currently vaccination is not acceptable to the rest of the EU, why? Well it might be that our current figures for bTB within our national herd stands at 6.8%, with only Northern Ireland in excess of 9.0% and Eire at 5.7% anywhere near us. The next nearest figure is Spain at 1.1%, such is our plight, whilst France and Germany weigh in at 0.1% and 0.01%. To fellow EU members it must seem that bTB is a very British problem and therefore why such they have to ‘Lower’ the bar for us. Of course you might ask why the rest of Europe has such low figures compared with us, do they have a fancy bio security regime or perhaps they monitor their herds more rigidly. The answer might be that for the rest of Europe Meles Meles is not a fully protected species and therefore their populations are managed. Interestingly it’s estimated that there are 1.2 million badgers within the EU countries. 600,000 of these reside in the UK and Eire.

    1. “600,000 of these reside in the UK and Eire.” which is especially interesting because we have less tree cover than almost any other EU country (I believe) and badger setts are often in woodlands.

      1. Giles, I’m not quite sure I understand your point. I suspect that is no direct link between badger populations and sett locations in wooded areas otherwise surely the dense wooded areas of Germany, France and Belguim would have the greatest EU badger populations. Could our high population of badgers in UK and Eire, in direct opposition to the rest of Europe, be because they routinely shot in other EU countries whilst here they continue to enjoy protected status? Of course one might also be drawn to the fact that high badger population appears to equate to high reactor percentages within national herds. I’m sure there are those who might feel that this is a debatable point or at best a coincidence.

        1. Hi Connor Mead – What I was trying to point out was that given we are one of the least wooded countries in the EU and also have the most badgers which generally have their setts in woods – our concentration of badgers in the woods is very very high in comparison to the rest of Europe.

  6. I don’t think I’m convinced that the gubmint (to borrow Filbert’s lingo) are really “doing something” to actually try to help cattle (farmers) and certainly not to help the badgers in their plight.

    I get the impression (I may well be wrong) that in line with our idea of short term politics, in our type of “democracy” the gubmint does things to try get itself voted back in after a few years.
    And that’s about that really.

    What we need is a dictatorship.

    1. ““democracy””

      Excellent use of quotes DMD. Yep, that really is all its about, and it often results in the gubmint trying not to do things.

      In the press today a definition: Milisecond – time it takes Dead Ed to cave in.

  7. Hi Mark

    That the badger is ‘vermin’, like fox, cannot be disputed

    (wiki: vermin are pests or nuisance animals, especially those that threaten human society by spreading diseases or destroying crops and livestock. Use of the term implies the need for extermination programs ….. )

    But what’s unique about the Badger TB situation is that the then incoming (Labour 1997) govt policy was bought for 1 million pounds by animal-rights organisations and was implemented immediately, ISG scientists were selected for their bias, the badger trials were fundamentally compromised and the ISG’s Final Report based on pseudo-science and represents Bliar’s other ‘dodgy dossier’ – and then so very many ordinary folk, otherwise good scientists (inc those of the ISG), vegetarians whatever – who want to believe ‘it’s not the badgers fault’ have been sucked in and were therefore prepared to click-on – via social media – the e-petition.

    A truly remarkable set of circumstances but none the less true – even very senior ‘govt scientists’ currently supporting the cull have naively swallowed all what’s happened – and ‘Badger TB: Unmasked’ will explain all !

    As to Mato Grosso (Brazil) – I believe they have a Bovine TB problem already thank you!

    1. Trimbush – that does seem like a very remarkable set of circumstances indeed. What is ‘Badger TB: Unmasked’ please?

      1. THE SETT* REPORT – BADGER TB: UNMASKED to get the whole truth about Badger TB and the ISG’s RBCT

        * SETT – Strategies for the Eradication of Tuberculosis Transmission


        1. Peter

          I’ve tried Google, the British library and WoS searching for a mention of this report, without success.

          Perhaps when its published, you could post a link?

          1. Andrew

            I’m currently editing it – but I can’t offer to beat Mark’s own end Sept availability for Martha


  8. Whatever this government do, they are the people who set the standard for every one else to follow. So, if a Minister, or his friend, decide to ignore a law then the government should not expect anyone else to abide by laws. The government of the day are our representatives and we follow their example. Is this not what is expected? Only an uncivilised society/person would disregard wildlife.

  9. Putin has come with an alternative idea – force the handover of chemical weapons. Kerry has latched onto it and is trying to make it sound like his own. What the hell, so long as no more kids are gassed or bombed. Amazing what can happen when some clever people get around the table and brain-storm solutions. Do you think they’re reading this blog?

    I’ve commented in the last entry on the other interesting points around the subject so can’t be asked to repeat. Other than keep it simple (I’m a pimple). Leave complexity to the bio-sphere – it understands it but then it should, how many aeons old is it compared to our 200k?

  10. As terrible as the chemical attacks in Syria are, can I just pipe up and say “depleted uranium” and “high rates of birth deformity of children in Iraq” if only we can impose an arms embargo on those responsible!!
    I find it also interesting how when several people on here asked their MP’s to sign EDM 603 the vast response was “they’re a waste of money and time” so quite surprised to see who signed the EDM you mention Mark.

    1. Are we not all affected by nuclear bomb “tests”? The pollution from these tests will be with us for centuries.

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