GLOUCESTERSHIRE, UK — Snub-nosed, perky-eared and rarely seen outside of their underground lairs, Britain’s badgers are the unofficial mascots of this nation’s countryside.
But today, badgers are big trouble. Their habitats have become ground zero for a battle stretching from Westminster to the hills of west England.
For the first time in 40 years, the UK government has authorized the killing of badgers — a move it says is necessary to protect the nation’s farming industry.
This summer, the government began a pilot cull of badgers aimed at controlling the spread of bovine tuberculosis, a disease carried by badgers whose most recent outbreak has forced the slaughter of more than 200,000 cows and devastated British farmers.
With their distinctive striped heads and starring role in children’s classics like “The Wind in the Willows,” badgers have secured a special place in British culture and law.
Since 1973 it has been illegal in England or Wales to kill a badger or to disturb their setts — the underground tunnel networks where they live. There are now an estimated 300,000 badgers across the UK.
But some of them carry TB, and are spreading it to cows through feces and fluids left on the land where cattle graze.
Shooters are trying to kill 70 percent of the badger populations in two zones in Gloucestershire and Somerset, a move that will claim an estimated 5,000 animals.
If the trials prove successful in cutting the rates of TB among cattle, badger culls could begin across affected areas nationwide.
By day, the cull is the subject of a passionate debate between politicians and farmers — who say it is utterly necessary to protect British agriculture — and scientists, activists and other opponents who decry the cull as scientifically and ethically unjustified.
At night, it’s an all-out war.
Since the badger shooting began in August, protesters from across the country have descended upon the farms and fields where the culls are taking place.
Some of these activists diligently confine themselves to public footpaths and the rules of an injunction brought against them by the farmers’ union, in the hopes that their mere presence will deter shooting.
Others say they are willing to do whatever it takes to protect badgers, and will stray beyond the law to achieve their aims.
There have been tense and hostile clashes in pitch-black fields between farmers and campaigners, with both sides accusing the other of hurling abuse and threats.
And all the while, the government’s trained marksmen are peering down from the hills through night-vision gun sights, trying to pinpoint an animal whose retiring nature and low-slung anatomy makes it exceptionally difficult to kill.
Volunteer group Wounded Badger Patrol takes pains to respect farmers' rules while they look for injured badgers.
Campaigners say they are not deterred.
“I’d feel absolutely awful if I missed a night because I was a little bit scared,” said Alisanne McIntosh, 23, of the Wounded Badger Patrol, a volunteer force. “I couldn’t sit at home and do nothing.”
At 2 a.m. on a recent night, a group of masked and hooded men and women clustered near the graveyard of an old stone church in the quiet English village of Eldersfield. They spoke in low voices of things like breaking traps and guarding setts.
For some of them, the night was just beginning.
“I wouldn’t call myself an animal rights activist, but I know right from wrong,” said Gail, a woman with fiery red dreadlocks. “And I like badgers.”
The people gathered in this churchyard insist they will stop at nothing short of physical harm to protect the furry, burrowing creatures.
“I wouldn’t hurt anyone. But above and beyond that — if you’re talking trespass laws, I don’t care, really,” said a man named Drew. “We may not be in the legal right, but morally we’re 100 percent right.”
Some of the gathered proudly identify themselves as hunt saboteurs, or “sabs” — a subculture dating back 50 years in Britain of people who oppose all hunting and use sabotage tactics to disrupt a sport enjoyed primarily by the landed gentry.
“It’s quite anarchic here. It always has been,” said Gail of the rural west countryside.
“People with not too much respect for people who want to lay down rules for them.”
Sab websites offer tips on quasi-legal ways to disrupt the current cull. A site called Badger Killer instructs men to urinate on badger traps to warn off the animals (a woman’s urine, it says, will not work).
Hunt "sabs" have little regard for laws they find unethical.
Though trapping badgers is illegal under English law, protesters say they’ve found cages and traps in the cull zone, apparently set by farmers. Drew said he’s aware of some 70 traps that have been tampered or absconded with by people opposed to the cull.
“The chaps who have been putting these cages out have been careless with where they put them,” he said.
The sabs’ primary tactic is to simply sit by the badgers’ setts to deter the government’s marksmen from shooting.
“To me, if I saw somebody committing a rape, it wouldn't make any difference to me if they were on a footpath or not. I'd act,” said a woman named Mercy as she prepared to hop a fence to get to a sett.
In the dark, Mercy and two men kneeled by a hole in the earth that marked the entrance to a badger's underground lair.
Though the badgers have never surfaced in the activists’ presence, they’ve become quite attached to the animals after so many nights of listening to their subterranean activity.
Earlier this month, environment secretary Owen Paterson announced that the cull in Somerset would be extended by another three weeks, as only 850 of 2,000 targeted badgers had been killed. A similar extension is expected in Gloucestershire. It’s not clear when the shooting will be finished, and the government isn’t telling.
A spokesman for the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) insisted that protest activity has played no part in the culls' missing their targets.
But in the darkness, the sabs agreed that if the culls keep going, they will, too.
“We will stay as long as it takes,” Mercy said. “We will never stop, as long as they keep doing this.”
On his 260-acre cattle farm near the Gloucestershire town of Cirencester, farmer David Barton stood inside a grassy enclosure while his herd of beef cattle looked on. At his feet was a saucer-sized hole in the earth where badgers surface at night in search of food.
“What you’ve got here is these animals in their natural environment,” he said, gesturing to his cows before pointing his hands imploringly at the ground, “and these animals in their natural environment.”
With the high rate of TB infection among cattle, farmer David Barton sees no choice but to cull badgers.
In the last two years, Barton has lost one third of his 150 cattle to TB.
The disease has been financially and emotionally devastating, he said. At one testing session alone, 34 of his cows were found to have TB. It took three trucks to transport the animals to their deaths. Many of the heifers were pregnant. Overcome with emotion, Barton called a neighbor to load the last truck for him.
“I’ve got nothing against badgers at all,” he said. “I am an animal lover. My whole life has been looking after animals.”
“I understand the passion people have about culling animals, but it has to happen. You can’t continue with this ridiculous cycle of culling cattle, culling cattle, but not dealing with the wildlife. What can I do? I’m between a rock and a hard place.”
Some opponents of culling are die-hard animal rights campaigners who decry the beef and dairy industries and profess no sympathy for people who raise animals for food.
Others say they have no opposition to the concept of a cull, but reject the science behind this one.
“It would be a joke if it wasn’t so tragic for the farming industry. The result of all this is it will make [TB] worse,” said Chris Cheeseman, a biologist and former head of wildlife diseases at the government-run Central Science Laboratory.
Cheeseman participated in a 10-year government study on badgers and TB. Its 2007 report found that reducing the badger population in a given area by at least 70 percent cut rates of bovine TB by 23 percent.
Yet TB rates on land immediately outside the cull zone actually rose by 25 percent, the study noted, as agitated badgers fled to new territory.
Biologist Chris Cheeseman says culls actually encourage the spread of bovine TB.
“I am not a bunny hugger,” Cheeseman said. “I’m a carnivore. I eat meat. All sorts of meat. I’ve even eaten badger, back when it was legal to shoot them. I don’t have any problem at all with killing animals for good reason. But in the case of TB culling, there is no scientific justification. And for me, that’s the end of the story.”
Defra, the environment department, has been tight-lipped about the cull’s operations, saying only that it’s part of a 25-year strategy to combat bovine TB.
"The badgers moved the goalposts,” Paterson said when asked by the BBC why the government was shifting its targets — a statement that has been widely mocked since.
So a controversy rolls on through England’s green and uneasy hills. Meanwhile, nestled in earthy lairs beneath a pale moon and fading stars, the badgers burrow on borrowed time.
Additional reporting and all images by Greg Brosnan.