Saturday, 21 January 2012

Badgers versus Cows: A Modern Fable

The state-funded Arts and Humanities undergraduate is not the only species endangered by the current government’s insistence that everything must create revenue. Another familiar inhabitant of our landscape facing extinction because it is unprofitable is the common British badger (meles meles).  

Badgers are blamed for wrecking the profit margins of cattle farmers. Badgers, allegedly, spread bovine TB (although this is scientifically disputed, and the cattle may be infecting the badgers).  As any University Manager could assure you, a caged cow which produces profitable milk is preferable to a stripey member of the weasel family which has roamed freely and enhanced British life since the last Ice Age. So this week David Cameron endorsed a controversial 'pilot' badger cull in order to keep his farming voters sweet. 

We are assured that the heroic defence of the Bovine Lactation Business will not entail the actual torture of badgers by the laying of traps:  I heard on Farming Today that specially trained and highly skilled marksmen, excitingly, will use firearms to perform a finely judged reconfiguration of the badger portfolio. 

Now I am neither an animal rights extremist nor in any sense an enemy of the cow. But the European badger is an ancient and historic animal which has been evolving separately since  the end of the Pliocene (some 2.4 million years ago), contributes a great deal to biosphere in terms of moving seeds around, and does nobody any harm. In fact, by predating on rabbits, it helps to keep the numbers of another foe of the British farmer under control. 

I feel the same about state-funded Arts and Humanities undergraduates. Some of them enhance the country by acquiring intellectual skills and cultural values, and they cost remarkably little to maintain in comparison with state spending on e.g. defence. The very existence of people being trained intellectually because that is inherently sensible, rather than  because it generates income for sharks (more animal fable) in the education business, helps to maintain humane values and keep the country sane. 

As it happens, badgers share several characteristics with undergraduates: they are nocturnal, emerge in the evenings to look for food and sex; they can be promiscuous and carry on mating sessions for several hours. They are highly social, often overnight in each other’s setts, and tolerate large amounts of mess and discarded bedding at the entrances. Some badgers stay with their parents as adults, especially if food is short, while others live and forage independently. They are partial to peanut butter and custard cream biscuits. The basic number of communicative sounds or 'words' they use is 16 (bark, chirp, chitter, churr, cluck, coo, growl, grunt, hiss, kecker, purr, snarl, snort, squeak, wail and yelp), which is about the same as many first-year students.

The British Badger Trust’s manifesto is to ‘promote and enhance the welfare, conservation and protection of badgers, their setts and their habitats for the public benefit.’  It costs £24 a year to support, and I am about to join, partly out of guilt because I killed one in my car two years ago. Perhaps we need to found a similar organisation in support of the state-funded university student, with free custard creams for all.


  1. Nice post. Badger setts tend to be "inherited properties" hundreds of years old (and beyond!)... you never know, there might be a few left today that the Romans marched past. It would be a shame to lose something that old.

  2. Thank you! I never knew that my love for badgers corresponded with me being an old student of the humanities:-) Even though, as an archivist, I am not considered profitable for our new- liberal/ conservative age, I really like the idea of belonging to an old endangered spieces, gives more courage to fight back! Lovely similarities
    between badgers and young students too;-) Aren't they charming?