The story about Brian May’s alleged hypocrisy over culling deer but protecting badgers underscores a general confusion about managing wildlife, Philip Bowern believes.
Brian May is more famous among the younger generation for opposing the badger cull than playing lead guitar in Queen. So it was with some glee that TheSunday Times reported at the weekend that he had allowed the deer on his Dorset estate to be culled, in apparent contradiction of his high profile campaign against the badger cull.
"Hypocrisy," the newspaper cried on its front page. And the story, not denied by May, that he had indeed allowed a marksman to cull deer on his 140-acre estate for 12 months, was followed up by other media, all of them homing in on the apparent anomaly of the wildlife campaigner allowing deer to be taken out by a skilled stalker with a rifle while opposing the self-same action against badgers.
Yet is there really any hypocrisy in taking such a position? It is possible a number of estate owners, who cull deer or allow properly licensed stalkers to cull them, are also opposed to a cull of badgers, perhaps on scientific grounds. The difference between a badger cull and the control of deer numbers is significant. Badgers are a protected species and the cull, due to go ahead next summer after a last-minute delay earlier this autumn, is designed to reduce the incidence of bovine TB in hotspot areas, not cut badger numbers overall.
Deer, on the other hand, whether red, roe, fallow, muntjac or sika, have long been considered quarry species and venison is a source of food. Keeping deer numbers under control, through culling with high-powered rifles, is acknowledged – even by the RSPCA, an increasingly strident animal welfare organisation – as "humane and effective". The RSPCA is opposed to the badger cull but supportive of the control of deer.
Where there is, if not hypocrisy, then a fundamental misunderstanding of the proper management of the countryside in Brian May's position, is that he has since stopped the deer cull on his Dorset estate. He wrote on his blog that he had taken over the estate when he had a lot to learn about forest management and initially allowed the culling to continue. "A couple of years ago, having studied the effects, I decided to stop the culling," he said.
Such action risks creating a population explosion among the deer, which could, in extreme circumstances, lead to some of the animals suffering. Fortunately, responsible culling by other estate owners across Dorset will be keeping overall numbers in check. Most land owners, including bodies like the Forestry Commission and the National Trust, allow culling because they know, like the RSPCA, that some form of control is essential if a mammal at the top of the food chain with no predators is to be kept at healthy, manageable numbers.
It is tempting – and perhaps understandable – for the farmers and landowners angry and alarmed at the rising rates of bovine TB among their cattle to want to attack one of the main campaigners against the badger cull when presented with what looks like an open goal. But consistency of argument when it comes to animal welfare and countryside management is essential if it is to be credible. And the control of many species in our heavily managed countryside is vital – from rats and rabbits to woodpigeons, crows and rooks, up to foxes and deer.
Badgers are not on that list – and not because they are rare or in any way endangered – but because, in the eyes of many countrymen, in seeking to put a stop to the appalling practice of digging out badgers and matching them in fights with dogs, legislators went further than they needed to and gave almost unprecedented protection to a mammal that now exists in such numbers it is, anecdotally at least, putting several other wild species at risk, from hedgehogs to some ground-nesting birds.
One farmer in Wiltshire has, reportedly, pulled out of an agri-environment scheme in which he was paid to encourage ground-nesting birds on his farm because badgers – which he is forbidden from controlling in any way – make it impossible for the birds to nest. The badgers, he believes, are taking the eggs and chicks.
Badgers remain, however, much-loved mammals, even by some of the farmers and landowners who believe they are spreading TB among their cattle and want numbers controlled. They occupy a special place in the hearts of many country-lovers, including those who shoot or fish and who see no contradiction in cherishing wildlife and also understanding that some species, like deer and badgers, need to be humanely controlled. That is not hypocrisy, it is common sense.