It was always the same! Every Christmas morning as soon as my eyes were open, I would leap to the foot of the bed and plunge into the pillowcase my parents (or was it really Santa?) used as the main container for my much awaited presents. Always, the first thing I sought would be a square parcel in which was concealed the latest edition of the Rupert Bear annual. Not especially exciting you might think, yet because it was there every year, it gave me great re-assurance. Soon I could be found enveloped in the fictional world of Nutwood and in particular to the activities of Rupert's bosom friend, Bill Badger.
I don't know what particularly sparked off an interest in Bill Badger but he was always my great hero. I also remember listening avidly to a radio serialisation of Kenneth Grahame's immortal "Wind in the Willows," put out on the BBC's splendid "Children's Hour" as I recall. My hero in that too was the avuncular badger, a kind of father figure, respected by all if perhaps sometimes known for his slightly truculent approach to life. Perhaps there was something in him, vaguely reminiscent of my own father?
Grahame, I always thought, was the master of anthromorphism, simply because he had clearly got to know the real characters of the creatures he would transmogrify into human characters. He didn't just stick human names on his animal characters and expect us to assume they were now human. It was all done with a subtlety, which somehow made the stories he told all the more believable.
Therefore, in my mind, the badger remained a friendly, benign character, rumbustious at times, yet wise, and when it seemed necessary, serious, always with the community's interests at heart. The only unsociable anthromorphism in terms of badgers, I can recall, was Tommy Brock, Beatrix Potter's creation and one, which of course, came from the pen of a farming landowner. Potter was always suspicious of natural predators anyway!
Long after Rupert Bear annuals had been swapped for meatier material, my enthusiasm for badgers remained high. Yet I had, throughout those early years of my life, never been in a position to see a live badger. Indeed, that was a treat I had to wait many years for in order to enjoy. Furthermore, that first encounter of a furred kind was in itself quite bizarre. It was a bright summer's day and remembering that by reputation, badgers are by nature, creatures of the night, seldom to be seen out and about in broad daylight, that first encounter initially at least, seemed possibly to be of a dead badger!
There he lay, in the middle of this field, utterly inert. Carefully approaching, I duly investigated its prone body, to realise that the badger, a substantial boar, was in fact having a very deep siesta, its sides heaving gently as he slept! I cautiously leaned down and touched the wiry fur on the animal's flank at which point, with a very loud grunt, he woke, sprung to his feet, looked around and then trundled off, presumably in high dudgeon at having his beauty sleep so rudely interrupted. He was probably gobsmacked. I certainly was! I must say that I later made up for the time lost to enjoy many a badger-watching evening, an experience which was both fulfilling and richly rewarding.
Indeed, I'm quite sure that to this day, badgers, remain fervently close to people's hearts, for it wasn't until 1971 when the dark clouds associated with one of the most virulent diseases around was first associated with badgers. Since then badger/bovine TB and the controversial question of badger culling have unfortunately made headlines on a regular basis. Until then it is likely that the attitude on the part of the farming community to most badgers was indeed entirely benign. However, 1971 proved to be a massive turning point - a watershed - which has seen the badger's popularity in the farming community wane rapidly and change from being a perfectly acceptable character to an absolute pariah ... now hated by most farmers, to some, the devil incarnate!
It was a situation which in my view, was grossly mishandled from the very beginning, the process of deadly, cross-fertilisation accelerated when some farmers chose the bizarre action of tipping slurry into badger setts. Since then, the authorities have fiffed and faffed with the result that now a cull is being carried out in various parts of the country, which, very predictably, so far has not produced a reduction of the incidence of the disease. All the evidence points towards the likelihood that the continuation of culling will instead probably stimulate extra badger movement - empty territories and other badgers will immediately begin the process of re-colonisation. No solution whatsoever!
A far better, more frequent testing regime and vaccination, as is being practised in Wales, would seem to be a much better proposition. All the scientific evidence suggests that this approach is working. I doubt if any single issue has ripped a much wider, bitter division in the rural community than the issue of badgers and bovine TB, especially when the topic of culling is introduced. There are many very active badger groups up and down the country, whose members are dedicated to the welfare of badgers clearly now bringing them into conflict with those who advocate culling.
I do not in any way downplay the enormous pressures bovine TB place upon the farming industry. It devastates; it bankrupts; it ruins lifetime's work. That is why I believe Government has let both farming and our badgers down; why there is such an animated divide between different parts of the rural community. Much more needs to be done. Much more must be done. At least, here in Scotland, we can, whilst remaining ever vigilant, be comforted by the fact that we are officially bovine TB free. There is thankfully no culling here.
That situation should remain providing the checking and movement of cattle remains really efficient. A recent outbreak of TB in Cumbria (a bit too close for comfort) caused some concern but the fact is that unless some infected badgers decide to take their holidays in Scotland, we are for the time being at least, safe from the scourge of this dreadful disease. More importantly, so too are our badgers. Badgers and farmers here at least, can live in harmony without the threats of culling or herd destruction hanging over them.
Thus does it seem entirely appropriate for me to kindly remember those favourite badgers from my childhood, Bill and of course, Badger himself, who set up all my early Christmases for me. So many of my Christmas mornings were shared with badgers and this despite the fact that in reality I had never had real contact with these characterful creatures. In more recent years I have shared many, many magic moments with badgers. In short, they have fulfilled those early Christmas promises. You may not be surprised, when I think back to my badger-ridden early Christmases, that I therefore long for rather more in the way of 'Goodwill to All' and sometime soon, a halt to all such culling. That would make a very happy Christmas! ... just as I wish all readers a very special Christmas!