Published by Granta
Badgerlands by Patrick Barkham is a richly descriptive work of nonfiction, reminiscent of Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest. However rather than a whole forest he chooses just one woodland inhabitant: the badger or meles meles, to use the scientific term. Barkham uses a mix of social history, evolutionary biology, geography, theories on animal behaviour and etymology to name but a few, all strung together with personal anecdotes. The charm of Badgerlands is that on one level it is a loosely defined collection of facts, some of them only dubiously connected to badgers. Barkham drops in little facts like a road near a significant badger set being called the Singing Way because monks on pilgrimage would burst into song when they saw Oxford in the distance. It doesn’t tell you anything about badgers but the book is infinitely richer for including it.
But Britain’s history with the badger is a long and bloody one. They were hunted in a long and drawn out process involving teams of dogs, men with pickaxes, rugs and a hearty picnic, an activity naturally reserved for the upper classes. They were also baited with dogs, much like bulls were at the time, in a blue collar equivalent which required neither rugs, pickaxes or picnic baskets but equal amounts of animal cruelty. Lest you think it’s all blood and gore, Barkham coaxes out a series of more symbiotic examples of British people and the badger. The Wind in the Willows is the obvious one and one that he credits with fostering a newfound national sympathy for badgers. There is also an Anglo Saxon riddle which praises the badger’s strength and stoicism: when attacked they will lead hunting dogs far away from their young and then fight them to the death in an attempt to eliminate the threat. Barkham also cites Mary Wollstonecraft who, writing in 1792, claimed that blood sports such as badger baiting were a natural result of social oppression, where the oppressed took their frustrations out on the only outlet they had available.
There are more touching anecdotes from the world of modern science: although not naturally affectionate they are one of the few animals to bury their dead and have been observed carrying badger corpses from the sides of roads. Although their lack of communication has led to them being labelled as unintelligent, other theorists have critiqued this as an anthropomorphic view which mislabels anything reminiscent of humans as intelligent and anything which is not as inferior.
It’s impossible to talk about Badgerlands without talking about badgers. They are so little known that everything about them seems fascinating and Barkham’s enthusiasm is infectious. Barkham talks in great detail about the political and scientific tangle of the badger cull, the feasibility of vaccinating badgers and cattle against bovine TB. He acknowledges that it is a difficult debate with no easy answers although Barkham points out that there is the no definitive scientific evidence which measures the extent to which badgers pass on bovine TB to cattle (cows are fair more likely to contract the disease from another cow, especially when raised in the cramped unsanitary conditions associated with factory farming) with one case where two different governments drew opposite conclusions from the same scientific study. Released during a national cull of badgers, Badgerlands is set to be controversial and timely book which reminds us that our centuries long history of cruelty is not as behind us as we’d like to think.