Now don’t get me wrong. When I steal Malvolio’s thunder (after all, he stole Maria’s) and say that some have greatness thrust upon them, I don’t mean that the New Forest Badger Group was a reluctant hero to host the Badger Trust’s 2012 National Conference, but we rose to the challenge with the success that gave the delegates an experience that, hopefully, they will relish for many a moon.
And those delegates truly represented every corner of the country. With over 120, you might just lose a bit of interest if I listed them all regimentally here, but I have in mind, especially, groups in areas of the country where the welfare of badgers is a constant battle against cruelty and suffering, despite protection in current law, and where cruelty and suffering hangs like a cloud that has been seeded by Government politics.
Of course, this year’s Conference comes at a time, not just of increasing activity by those who persecute and kill badgers for their idea of fun, but also amid the Westminster Government’s dogged determination to ensure the rural vote at the next General Election with their cull, bizarrely so bereft of underpinning scientific evidence that it has had to endure expensive litigation in the High Court and forthcoming scrutiny of its conduct contrary to the Bern Convention. Not even written condemnation by the country’s leading scientific minds seems to sway it from the essential demand to secure those safe seats which might get them a Majority in the House next time.
David Williams, Chairman of the Badger Trust, opened the Conference with crucial reports updating us on the courageous efforts of the Trust to stop the Government’s culling plans by legal action. We know the Court’s decision, but the fight must go on. And David gave a stark warning on another matter which has a chilling consequence of its own, for now there is a risk that the Government intends to dilute the legal protection of badgers against wider cruelty and suffering. Yes: Dilute.
Somebody has got to be just as determined to stand up and be counted. So it might as well be us; and you, Dear Reader, are one of us.
That was at the very core of the keynote speech by Chris Packham, wildlife presenter and New Forest local, whose study of badgers has been a specialisation both at University and beyond. We took away from his speech the urgent and invaluable message that, amidst political strategies to dilute Government protection for the badger, the worst problem now facing us is public complacency. That, indeed, must guide our actions now; after all, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing (there I go, dropping quotes again – William Burke this time).
Ian, an RSPCA Officer, explained more about the Society’s incredible work to investigate and prosecute offenders whose cruelty towards badgers was sickening. The evidence might lead many to turn away in despair, but Ian and his team have the task, and the will, to continue the fight against them. And it is not just animal welfare crimes which are revealed, for the evidence inescapably shows that offenders frequently are involved in many other activities, involving criminal gangs and the very worst crimes that make decent people shake their heads and say, “Something ought to be done about it.” Animal cruelty needs people, like Ian, to say, “I’ll do something about it.” And to be determined, despite the risk to themselves. Ian was very modest and did not dwell on the point but I am going to make it, nevertheless, for wildlife protection can be a dangerous job when you see the atrocities committed by the psychological types who are convicted, both on their own and in organised gangs. It is a timely reminder to us all that, on the other side of the Atlantic, less than two weeks ago on the 2nd October 2012, Christopher Johnson was convicted of murdering wildlife conservation officer David Grove, on a rural road near Gettybsurg, Pa, who had caught him red-handed poaching deer.
Joe Duckworth, Chief Executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, took the subject of criminal activity further when he spoke on the vital subject of Catching the Cruel Criminals and the importance of partnership working on the ground. It is heartening that NGO’s such as the RSPCA and the League Against Cruel Sports are doing such vital work to prevent cruelty and suffering, but the costs which they incur staggered me. Maybe, when the nation considers Children in Need, it spares some thought to Animals in Need. Donations are the blood of these organisations and no amount of vocal applause for their work will pay their bills.
The New Forest Badger Group’s Secretary, Martin Noble, joined the Forestry Commission in 1973 and eventually was promoted to Head Keeper of the New Forest in 1986. While the Group’s associations with the Forestry Commission became somewhat looser in recent years, Martin still steers us through all the rocky shoals that inevitably confront us, some coming up on the radar, some emerging more unexpectedly. Martin took the Conference on a tour de force of the Group’s activities for the protection of badgers here in the largest expanse of lowland forest in North West Europe. And I, personally, owe him a great deal, for he introduced me to the New Forest Badger Group.
New Forest Agisters are responsible for overseeing the welfare of the ponies, cattle, donkeys and pigs which roam the Forest. There are six Agisters in all, each having their own section of the Forest to cover. In overall charge, is Head Agister Jonathan Gerrelli, whose lively talk gave an insight into the New Forest and the ancient laws of the Verderers Court. What Jonathan modestly did not mention was his horsemanship, the finest horseman Martin has ever met. And that’s saying something.
Richard Higgins, an agricultural researcher and farmer, explained something of his research into the work of Sir Albert Howard, founder of the Organic Farming Movement in the nineteenth century, and asked the question, What’s gone wrong in farming? The relevance to badgers is significant, because the process of organic farming that dispenses with chemicals naturally encourages population growth in earthworms, the principal food source of the badger. This bore an interesting relevance to important work forming the substance of some PhD research by speaker Andrew Robertson from Exeter University, whose talk, Sett Menus – Investigating individual foraging in the Eurasian Badger raises the fascinating possibility that we are now witnessing behaviour that offers evidence of the timeless process of evolution. With the badger, a woodland animal, adapting to open arable land as well, as evidenced by its food resourcing, we might one day have separate subspecies – just as the African elephant has Forest and Savannah subspecies.
I am a big fan of otters, so when Graham Roberts of the Hampshire Wildlife Trust spoke on Otters and Fisheries – the otter’s success and problems now arising I was always going to be in for a treat, but Graham’s talk was especially interesting, not just in demonstrating another facet of environmental biodiversity which is struggling to co-exist with man, but also because it raised questions about how to face problems which are common to the welfare of otters and badgers when confronted with a clash of interests with man in that struggle for co-existence, in which man always seems to be the outright winner.
On the subject of mustelids, of which badgers and otters are members, Dr Johnny Birks, Chairman of the Mammal Society, asked a question of enormous importance in his speech: Why are we neglecting our smaller mustelids? Not only did Johnny give us an excellent speech on the smaller species of which I was shamefully ignorant, but reminded us of the need to remember that our rôle in badger protection cannot be seen in isolation from the whole natural – and urban – environments. We neglect any species at our peril.
For many of us, one of the highlights on Sunday was the presentation by Virginie Boyaval. Taking in orphaned badgers, almost single-handedly she rears, releases and follows their lives in the Forest of Compiègne in northern France. A heart-warming story and one which made me wonder why more young people in the New Forest don’t get more involved in badger conservation.
To all, I should just like to extend my personal thanks with some words, not of my own making, but from a great man whom I once met from the East African Wildlife Society:
“We have seen you, we praise you, and we thank you.”
I hope very much that delegates and speakers enjoyed the Conference as much as I did. It was the first national conference which the New Forest Badger Group has organised, but you would never have known it, thanks to the meticulous care and skill of our very dedicated Committee team, and to them I give my hearty applause and congratulations for a job well done. But most of all, I must thank Martin and Julia Noble, who managed the whole thing as skilfully as a conductor manages a symphony orchestra; and in that case, you guys know how to compose the 1812 Overture. With cannons.
With all best wishes