Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book Review - Pearce on Badgers

One of the advantages of my love for our British wildlife is the fact that my family never gets stuck when it comes to choosing Christmas gifts. As I excitedly opened my presents on Christmas Day the pile of books around my feet grew and grew. My Amazon Wish-list had been used to great effect!!

George Pearce’s book, entitled Badger Behaviour, Conservation & Rehabilitation, was my father’s present. I’ve just finished reading it and can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone perusing this blog who would like to learn more about this fascinating animal. The subtitle is ’70 Years of Getting to Know Badgers’. George's passion began when he encountered his first badger whilst cycling home as a 14 year old during the famous arctic winter of 1946-7. His knowledge grew during the years he spent as a pig farmer, and he has been able to put everything he has learned to good use as a Badger Consultant since giving up farming in 1990. I say ‘good use’ advisedly. In the world of the amateur naturalist, wildlife consultants to developers and government bodies are often perceived as being ‘tainted’ by association and apt to side with the wishes of the organisation paying their fees – and I have certainly heard a few horror stories over the past few years – but George certainly comes across as someone with real integrity, always seeking to put the needs of the badger first and foremost. I guess some people will still struggle, though, with George’s response to the chairman of a local CPRE group wanting advice on the best grounds for objecting to the planned construction of a new road that happened to run right through George’s badger study area: ‘To her surprise I said they should welcome it with open arms. As the proposed route crossed arable land, I took the view that there would be far better habitat after construction than there was before; there would be more permanent grassed areas and a variety of small trees and shrubs would be planted.’

George writes in an anecdotal way, and the stories of his personal experiences are really enjoyable. Early on, he tells the story of being called out to check on a group of badgers marooned on an island after the Rivers’ Severn & Vyrnwy had overflowed their banks and inundated the surrounding countryside. George managed to wade across to find 11 badgers safe and sound, most of them – including 2 in the canopy of a tree – asleep! Checking them again the following day he writes, ‘As I got closer to the elder tree, I was greeted by a sight that will live forever in my memory. In front of me was a huge ball of badgers, half a metre above ground level, wedged between the wire fence and the tree trunk. Amazingly, they weren’t in any distress – quite the contrary, they were asleep, their breathing synchronized! I assumed there were nine badgers in the ball, as there were two fast asleep on a limb in the treetop.’ Fortunately, George took a photo of the scene which can be seen in the photo section of the book.

The main chapter headings give a real taster as to what this book is all about: Badger biology; The world of the sett; Badgers in the family; Badger rescue; Badger consultancy; Badgers and farming; Badger-watching. There’s also a useful index at the back. Within the chapters is a wealth of knowledge and practical advice that will really inspire both those with a developing interest in wildlife, together with those who regularly watch and read about badgers. I was amazed to learn just how much soil a badger can shift in an evening and, concerning tunnels, I was interested in George’s theory that badgers, like moles, build the tunnels to act as a means of catching worms & any other invertebrates which fall into them. He also proposes that most of the injuries reported indicate that the majority of fights between badgers are hierarchical rather than territorial in nature. As a former farmer, his discussion on bovine TB is enlightening, based on the observation of a vet: ‘To create a disease you have to create the conditions.’ George feels that we haven’t learned from the experiences of the past and that our agricultural biosecurity is nowhere near as tight as in years gone by: 'In the cattle industry, the increase of bTB has happened in parallel with the changes in management of dairy and beef cattle and if I were in farming today that's where I would want the research concentrated.'

George’s character shines through the pages of this book. Are there any conditions where even the most ardent badger-watcher is likely going to struggle to see anything? I quote: ‘But a cold east wind? Stay indoors and put your feet up. As Corporal Jones of Dad’s Army might put it: ‘badgers don’t like it up ‘em’.’

George concludes, ‘This farmer’s boy is old in the tooth now. The back creaks and the joints complain. But the wonderful memories live on and I feel very privileged that wild animals have allowed me to share part of their lives with them. I hope many of you will feel that way too.’

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