This week's topic is about two animals of relatively similar body size albeit that one has short, fat, hairy legs whilst the other is rather more 'leggy' and decidedly more agile. But they are animals, which may seem on the one hand to have contrasting fortunes, yet on the other, not dissimilar fates. One, in parts of England, has a death sentence hanging over its head while the other is apparently a candidate for resurrection!
Badgers have been with us for something in the region of half a million years, whilst lynx have been absent from these shores for around 1300 years. And badgers have a curmudgeonly reputation among wildlife enthusiasts and generations of children. They have often been cast by writers, usually of children's fiction, in this anthropomorphic role, as for instance in "Wind in the Willows". Of the lynx we know relatively little. Our lack of first hand experience, not least because it has been absent for so long, means it is something of an unknown quantity. It is thought that this bob-tailed wild cat became extinct in Britain through hunting and the loos of its natural habitat of forest and woodland, as our landscape was stripped of trees and farming developed.
Now of course, because of the spread of Bovine TB, the badger has become the target of marksmen in certain parts of England and seems to have become public enemy number one with cattle farmers. Suggestions that lynx should be re-introduced to parts of Northern England and Scotland, may yet set sheep farmers on course to become 'anti lynx'! Those supporting the re-introduction of lynx claim that they will help to control 'out of control' deer numbers and will largely feed on a diet of deer, animals such as hares and rodents and some birds, presumably among them game birds. Thus, their return may not necessarily be to everyone's liking. Sheep farmers will naturally be suspicious. If lynx are able to take animals as large as red deer, what price their sheep?
There is already conflict between modern day shooters and hunters on one hand and raptors and carnivores on the other as witness the recent disappearance of golden eagles and hen harriers under what can only be described as suspicious circumstances on an estate in the North of Scotland. War is constantly waged against foxes and even pine marten for the self-same reasons, despite laws to protect the latter. Sea Eagles are accused on the West Coast especially, of killing large numbers of lambs. There is no shortage of conflict. However, the war on badgers, declared by the Westminster Government, seems to defy all logic. Independent advisors to the Government are firm in their assertion that the cull began in parts of the West Country of England a couple of years ago, has had no effect on the incidence of a disease which by definition is a disease of cattle. Indeed, the slaughter of infected cattle continues to rise in and around areas where the cull is taking place.
The first evidence that badgers could also catch Bovine TB and perhaps, transmit it was discovered in the 1970s, although it is known that other wild animals may also transmit the disease. The disease has long been endemic in the South-West of England, which is where the cull is being carried out. However, the cost to the taxpayer of this killing spree has now been estimated at an incredible £7000 per animal. Several thousand badgers, young and old, have already been killed. Astonishingly not one of the slain badgers has been examined to see if it had TB so it can safely be assumed that many of them were entirely free of the disease. Furthermore there is growing evidence that many of the marksmen's victims die a lingering and thus cruel death.
Contrast this with the decision of the Welsh Government not to go down the badger killing route but instead to test all cattle on an annual basis and furthermore to impose much tigheter restrictions on the movement of cattle. The incidence of Bovine TB in the Principality has accordingly already fallen by some 14 per cent. In Wales, there is clearly recognition that the disease is inherently a disease of cattle and is most likely to be transmitted by cattle to cattle. Here in Scotland we are happily declared to be Bovine TB free. Thus, the only way it is likely to appear here would be through cattle from an infected herd, being transported into Scotland from elsewhere in the UK...unless an infected badger from say Cornwall, was to take a holiday in the Highlands!
Meanwhile, the proposed release site for a new generation of lynx in Britain is the Kielder Forest, an area, which of course straddles the border between Scotland and England. Lynx have been re-introduced to parts of France and there they are doing especially well in the eastern part of the country. They are also thought to have always been present in the Pyrenees, albeit that their numbers in that area are minuscule. However, there is some unrest among sheep farmers and some sheep have been killed resulting in the apparent shooting of lynx by unknown assassins in some places!
This is why I feel impelled to re-visit the whole question of re-wilding. Whilst I would love to see lynx in this country from a purely aesthetic point of view, one danger is that this could be the thin end of the re-wilding wedge. My goodness, Britain has changed beyond all recognition since lynx last stalked their prey in our forests, let alone when wolves roamed our forests and bears lumbered through them. Purists may allege that our landscape has not changed for the better and that man's incessant development is the culprit. That may be but nevertheless those changes are irreversible. You can't turn the clock back.
But the authorities need to get their act together. It is said that the Government's decision to expand the cull of badgers is a purely political expedient. If that is so, then it is a disgrace and a complete negation of the responsibility we have for the conservation of the wildlife with which we share this planet, let alone the respect we should surely show to our fellow creatures.
A curious tale then of two creatures, one of which, if the evidence is sound, we are persecuting unnecessarily; the other I suggest, representing a possibly perilous step into the unknown!