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I Spent a Night Trying to Stop English Farmers Blasting Badgers to Death

Roaming the countryside with animal rights activists.

Drew, badger bodyguard

A war is being waged in the heart of the English countryside. On one side stand a bunch of people who love badgers; on the other, a group of rural folk who hate the omnivorous two-tone vermin and want to blast them out of existence with 12-bore shotguns.

Since June, Somerset and Gloucestershire have been testing grounds for a badger cull, which the National Farmers' Union (NFU) argues is essential to prevent cows from being infected with tuberculosis – a disease that badgers carry. NFU-hired marksmen have been roaming the two counties, trying to shoot as many badgers as they can. If it's successful, the cull could be rolled out across the country.


Unsurprisingly, animal rights activists haven’t taken too kindly to this. They don't seem too convinced by the argument that badgers must die to save the lives of cows, and have vowed to go to extraordinary lengths to protect their little mates. One such activist is Drew, who kindly agreed to lead me out onto the front lines of Gloucestershire's killing fields.

Drew picked me up at the local station and drove me towards his base camp. On the way, we came across a group of middle-aged and elderly people in hi-vis jackets. Drew and his militant saboteur friends had come to know this smiley lot as "the wounded badger patrol".

"They’re Middle England," said Drew, half-dismissively, explaining that the troop take it upon themselves to walk about all evening, shining torches on public footpaths in the hope that the light will scare badgers back into their setts and away from the gunmen's bullets. It’s a simple and legal way to fight the cull, and I suppose it must also be fairly effective. After all, if anything's sure to cause more of a PR shitstorm than systematically shooting the skulls off cuddly animals, it's catching a Daily Express reader in the crossfire.

That said, throughout the night, veteran hunt saboteurs spoke warmly of how many "ordinary" members of the public were getting involved. Everyone I spoke to believed that public opinion was on their side, referencing a petition against the cull that has surpassed 300,000 signatures. I wondered how the public opinion polls might look if you counted every burger sold as a tacit vote in favour of the beef farmers, but thought better of floating this idea with the sabs.


Debbie (left) and Chrissie

We eventually reached the car park of a church that was to be our HQ for the night. While the activists were milling about getting organised, I spoke to an activist named Debbie, "a passionate vegan and animal rights activist". She said that the public should not scapegoat badgers, but push for a widespread vaccination of cattle instead. “Vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate all the way through,” agreed her friend, Chrissie. "Think of The Wind in the Willows – it’s an iconic animal that we’ve always had." I took her point, but then Wikipedia reckons The Wind in the Willows also featured a "vagabond seafaring rat" named "The Wayfarer". I haven't seen one of those in the English countryside for ages.

I then spoke to a woman named Sue, who seemed particularly angry about the cull. She brought up the work of Lord Krebs, who conducted a report for the government when a badger cull was mooted in the late 1990s. “He came back and said, in his opinion, that there is no evidence to suggest that the slaughtering of badgers will reduce TB [in cows] by more than about 16 percent over nine years. Well, if I was a farmer, I would say, 'If it’s only 16 percent, what’s causing the other 84 percent?'"

I dunno, smoking?

Dusk began to settle. The Saturday night air was clear after the previous day's torrential downpours, which gave the surroundings that beautifully serene feeling I imagine Sting pined for as he wrote "Fields of Gold", perched in a bay window of his Tuscan villa, contemplating how much simpler life had been as a bus conductor back in rural Northumberland.


According to the activists, it was also the perfect weather for shooting badgers.

Everyone got their torches out and huddled around maps that had little red crosses printed on them, marking out the locations of badger setts that had been meticulously researched over the last couple of years.

It was important that we worked out where we were going. If you were to stray from the public footpath on any other day, the worst you might end up with is an aggravated farmer, angrily telling you to stay off his land. In this case, however, we also ran the risk of bumping into armed badger death squads and tired, over-zealous cops, desperate to collar known troublemakers for aggravated trespass.

We separated at this point and made off in different directions. Our car was part of a convoy heading towards a badger sett where shooters had apparently been spotted loitering over the last couple of weeks.

Jumping out of the car, we walked along under the light of the moon, dodging thistles and trying not to sprain our ankles in rabbit holes. We heard an owl-like noise and the activists suspiciously stopped to listen to it, trying to work out if it was – in fact – an owl, or a group of shooters fiendishly using owl calls to communicate.

As we walked on, I started to realise that as long as people like Drew and his activist friends were out here standing guard by setts each night, the gunmen would have a pretty tough time hitting their death targets. I asked about the possibility of efforts to kill the badgers being ramped up. Would the farmers get desperate and start resorting to different methods?


Everyone agreed that gassing the badgers, which had been considered, would be a pretty hard sell to the public. As for trapping the badgers and then shooting them? “If they [try to] lay traps, we’ll find the traps. It’s the easiest thing in the world to spring a trap,” said one of the activists.

Eventually, we came across the badger sett. This is what one of those looks like, in case you were wondering – basically a big hole in the ground. You get about ten badgers living in a hole like this, I was told.

We scoured the ground for peanuts, which shooters lay around the setts as bait to lure the badgers out into the open. We didn’t find any here, but if we had, we would have sprayed them with dog repellent to make the otherwise tasty snack disgusting to the discerning badgers, teaching them that there's no point in leaving their homes to inspect the area for treats.

I bet you're wondering why we couldn't have just picked up the peanuts, aren't you? "Apparently, if we take the peanuts, that’s considered theft," one of the activists explained to me.

Half of the group agreed to hang around this sett for the night. The bread and butter of this activism is sitting and waiting, because – for fairly obvious health and safety reasons – if any humans are around, shooters can’t shoot. If activists see badgers and they know shooters are around, they make as much noise and possible and flash their torches in order to freak the badgers out and make them scurry away to safety.


I didn’t particularly feel like sitting in a field all night, so I followed the other half of the group on their way back to base-camp. During our walk back, we heard about five shots over the course of ten minutes or so, somewhere in the distance. We picked up the pace and wondered out loud whether other activists were tearing down the country lanes towards the source of the gunfire.

On the way back, we had our first sighting of the police, who animal rights activist types generally don’t like very much. I asked Drew if there had been much police activity and he let out a hearty laugh. "I’ve been stopped by police six times in a night," he said. Continuing, he told me he reckons that he’s been stopped 26 times by the police over the course of the cull and knows somebody who got stopped for speeding while travelling at five miles per hour.

The cops pulled over and asked us how we were doing, which was kind of them. It was then that I realised that the scene of the cull has formed its own weird little ecosystem: the shooters sneak around trying to kill the badgers, the activists follow them around making sure they don't kill the badgers, the police follow them around making sure they don't attack the shooters.

There are three rungs to this food chain, all conspiring to create deadlock.

When we got back to the car park, some of the activists were complaining to police liaison officers that they had just been tailed by a police car for 90 minutes while driving around and looking for shooters, which they claimed was harassment. To be fair, it was a little pot-calling-kettle-black, since the saboteurs had recently released the names and telephone numbers of anyone they suspected to be carrying out the cull.


The police, for their part, insisted that the car was under suspicion of previously being involved in criminal activity. I was later reliably informed that this was not the case.

I went to talk to the police who had been doing the tailing, but they clammed up as soon as I asked them for a chat.

Then the guy confusingly wearing both a camouflage jacket and a hi-vis bib started asking them to justify their actions on camera, so they did what you'd expect of anyone entrusted with the power of arrest and hid in their car.

We soon both drove off in opposite directions, our car cruising around and scouring the road for people who looked like they might be in the business of shooting badgers. But despite the apparently perfect shooting conditions, the gunmen were nowhere to be seen. Even the shots we'd heard earlier in the night turned out to be lampers – decent folk who drive around catching animals in their headlights and then shooting them for sport when they're too petrified to move – who were unconnected to the cull.

As we drifted along the lanes, Drew genuinely began to wonder if the shooters had given up. The cull doesn't finish until October, but already it's being seen as a failure, with the shooters seeming as elusive as the badgers themselves. It's been reported that, in Somerset, only 100 badgers have been killed so far, falling well short of the 500 target.

One thing is certain: animal lovers aren't going to stop wanting to save badgers from the marksmen's guns, and luckily for them, it seems like it's remarkably easy to disrupt the cull without even breaking the law.


Follow Simon (@SimonChilds13) and Kieran (@Keyranoceros) on Twitter.

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