Monday, 30 September 2013

On Seeing a Dead Badger by the Road

On Sunday morning I was surprised to find a dead badger on a piece of grass less than a hundred yards from my house.  Despite the odd bluebottle it looked fairly fresh, perhaps just a little bloated.  The breeze rippling its fur made me wonder as I approached from the back whether it was still breathing.  But I couldn’t think where it had sprung from.  I doubt that there are any badger setts around here, though you can never be completely sure as they are such elusive creatures.  While the housing is fairly low density, and the piece of grass on which the animal lay is situated next to houses that are in an area called ‘The Coppice’ for a good reason, there are no extensive woodlands where badgers would be able to live undisturbed.  On the other hand their presence, otherwise secretive, might explain another mystery that has been puzzling me recently: why I have seen so few slugs this year.

My immediate assumption was that it had been killed by a car but it is unlikely, though possible, that it would have been thrown into that position, and the body appeared relatively undamaged.  It looked like it had been placed there, but that would be an odd thing to do with road kill, unless a mortified driver decided to treat it with more respect than is usually accorded to cats and other small mammals knocked down on the roads.  Getting closer I noticed an abrasion on the side of the head.  It was impossible for me to tell whether it was made pre- or post-mortem and whether it was related to the cause of death.  I didn’t turn the body over to check the other side.

If not by a car, perhaps the badger had been killed by a marksman.  Cambridge is well outside the cull area that is currently operating in the west of England, but that doesn’t mean that they are safe from assassination – remember David in The Archers illegally shooting one unwise enough to wander too close to his cows when he had had several TB reactors.  It transpired at the time that there were a few farmers taking the law into their own hands to protect their herds, and it must still go on discreetly.  The same day I saw the body, David Archer was on air ranting about badgers again in what can only have been a show of support for the National Farmers’ Union’s pro-culling stance.  Even so, an illegal shooter would surely not dump a corpse like that in such a visible place.  Anyway, I don‘t think there are any dairy farms close by, it’s arable in this area on the edge of Cambridge.  Thus cause of death is a mystery, and one not to be solved without an examination by a vet.

I think this is the first time I have ever seen one of these animals in person, alive or dead.  It was a sad sight, and made concrete just what the fierce controversy that I have been reading about in the news really means.  These are superb creatures, and their loss from the landscape, from whatever cause, diminishes us all and degrades our environment.  Whether or not culling badgers will prove to be an effective way of stopping bovine TB in cattle I have no idea but critics argue that there is more hope than science in the effort.  Still, if the NFU figure of 38,000 cattle slaughtered last year alone because of bovine TB is correct, I can understand the desperation behind the act.  Whether the cull is successful or not, seeing the animal lying there, its fur rippling in a warm September breeze, it seemed an emblem that we can be too quick to prioritise our own interests over the other inhabitants of our world.  It may have been shot, run over by a car, or died of age or disease.  Whatever its fate, it made me think of how many badgers are being killed legally every night at present, with such an uncertain outcome, to ensure that we have a ready supply of dairy products on our tables.


We rang the RSPCA when we got home to tell them about the death, and they recorded our statement.  They are taking reports of dead badgers seriously because of the risk of illegal shooting.  In fact, they are taking them so seriously that an inspector came out to examine the body the following day, but by the time he arrived the evidence had vanished, possibly removed by the Council as a health hazard.  Fortunately I was able to show him my photographs and his verdict was that it was likely to have been hit by a car.  The hole in its neck was certainly pre-mortem as the surrounding hair had fallen away because of inflammation, and was probably caused by fighting with another badger.

The distance it was lying from the road could be explained by the species’ robustness.  After a collision with a vehicle they often go under the car rather than bounce off the radiator grill, and are able to get up and walk some distance before collapsing.  As to whether there could be a badger clan in what I assumed was an unpromising area, he thought it entirely possible.  They tend to have a main sett with satellite setts further away, and the latter do not need access to a wide range of food resources to be viable.  We could have badgers fairly close and not realise it, perhaps living by a large lake which isn’t far away, and is across the main road from where the body lay.  So some answers, and while it is sad to think that one of these magnificent creatures was the victim of a car, at least it doesn’t look as if we have a rogue farmer deciding to extend the cull to this neck of Impington.