As the badger cull continues creating a plethora of news stories for and against, Martin Hesp’s aunt has written to ask him what life is really like in the middle of the West Somerset killing zone. Here’s his reply...
Thank you for being concerned about our welfare. Yes, it was a bit of a shock to discover that our valley is plonk in the middle of badger-cull country – but, no, the house hasn't been hit by any bullets yet.
However, we do see lots of strange people in the countryside at night, which is something we've never experienced before – and when they run up your garden path shining torches in your windows at one in the morning it is, I assure you, highly alarming.
You've asked if I, as a journalist living in the heart of cull-country, can throw any light upon this unprecedented debacle. The answer, alas, is no. I have never been so much in the dark about anything – which is an odd thing to say, seeing I was born and bred here and know the place like the back of my hand.
Indeed, in the pub last night a group of farmers asked me the same question and when I told them the few things I thought I knew about the cull, they called me an idiot.
For example, my newspaper carried a front page story this week about the cull being in tatters after we learned from an official source that fewer than 100 badgers had been shot so far. The farmers in the pub would have fallen about laughing, had they been in the mood to laugh about anything.
But they're not.
The normally mild-mannered agrarian folk in these hills are very, very angry. I have never seen them so enraged before. Even the so-called "ban" on hunting didn't get 'em going as much as this badger cull.
Why? Because the lanes around here at night are full of "antis", as they call them and some farmers I know can't understand why they are being given so much leeway. I interviewed some of these people when they set up a temporary community called Camp Badger down on the sea cliffs. They were only there for a day because the landowner kicked them off, but I was left in no doubt that they are as deeply entrenched in their views as the farmers who've suffered the effects of bovine TB all these years.
The antis say the cull is cruel, unscientific and just plain wrong. The farming community says it has suffered bovine TB long enough without anything being done. It is hugely important to them that now, at last, something is being done.
Last night in the pub they asked me if I was having trouble with all the splinters in my backside. When I looked bemused, they said they were wondering because I'd been sitting on the fence for so long.
I argued that there were a lot of people like me, because the whole story surrounding the present cull is confusing and unclear. If some reports were true, I said, then the way it was being done did seem a little lacking in science. Why, for example, weren't all the badgers culled being taken for testing to see the real extent of TB in this area?
Dear Aunt, what you need to know is that my farmer friends are extremely emotional about this whole thing because for years they've struggled because of bovine TB. And I mean struggled. I know some who've got out of farming altogether because of it. They don't want to hear people talking about things being unscientific or questioning this cull in any way – what they say is: "At least SOMETHING IS BEING DONE!"
Here's what I do know: I have lived in this valley for many years and most days I walk my dog extensively throughout its acres, so know the place intimately. In those years I have witnessed an enormous growth in the badger population. It is an undeniable fact.
The farmers say that before the Wildlife Act protected badgers, they simply shot a few when numbers got out of hand. They say that's exactly what they still do in the case of the unprotected wild deer, which also carry TB.
"Deer are shot every night on Exmoor but we don't get droves of bunny-huggers turning up protesting about that," one farmer said to me last night. "Why is it they're obsessed with badgers?"
I told the farmers that I had seen a website produced by the antis which named every landowner who'd signed up for the cull and supplied maps of properties involved – and I said what concerned many people was that the cull seemed patchy in its nature, which meant that the marksmen might take out a colony of healthy badgers while leaving a TB infested one right next door. If that happened, then the cull would only make the situation worse.
The farmers had all seen the same website and they claimed that its listing of landowners was totally inaccurate. They also said that so was the reported fact landowners had paid £200 each to sign up for the cull – they claimed some had been so desperate that they had paid many £1000s for it to be done.
So, was it being done? Are badgers being killed in greater numbers than the 100 reported this week?
"You have no idea," said one man who would have every reason to know. "You don't think people who've paid through the nose for this to be done would be happy with that, do you? Of course loads more than that have been killed."
This is the point, dear Aunt, when my story enters the murky world of the badger-cull night. A place where all is rumour and hearsay. At least, when there's a journalist around.
Two words I've heard are: "contractors" and "parcels". The first stands for "marksman" – the second means: "badger in a bag".
I have heard stories of contractors handing parcels to farmers who drive off in one direction while the antis chase the marksman in the other. I have heard tales of antis mounting nocturnal roadblocks. One story, which might be apocryphal, involved a contractor being stopped behind other vehicles – the bloke, who had a high velocity rifle plain to see in his vehicle – decided to slam down his accelerator and follow the car in front through the roadblock. This apparently resulted in a car-chase down to Williton where the marksman stopped at the police station.
I have heard of fisticuffs and vehicle rammings. I've been told of acts of terrible vandalism on farms. I have seen the websites of bed and breakfast establishments and other businesses being taken off the web because they've been inundated with "badger murderer" style comments. I have heard of the "nice" antis who wear hi-vis jackets and act within the law, and the "nasty lot" who wear black balaclavas and are out for a fight. I have seen riot vans full of officers in tiny lanes and watched a police helicopter hovering low over my lonely valley.
I have dialled 999 for the first time in my life when I saw some people running up my garden path in the middle of the night.
I am perplexed and perturbed. For the first time since I was a teenage drop-out I saw local people look at me in the pub with expressions that said: "Because you even dare mention that some people question the science behind the cull, you're not one of us. You do not understand."
I'm not alone. Outside the agricultural community and the mysterious nocturnal brigades of antis, there's a large body of local folk who think something must be done to help the farmers, but who are increasingly bewildered.
From where you sit, dear Aunt – from the outside looking in – maybe the story seems clear. Inside the cull-zone everything is deeply concerning, but at the same time it is as clear as mud. I worry that there's a real chance violence might break out here in the coming weeks – if it does I shall blame politicians because I think the entire tuberculosis story has been a shambles. Yet another central government case of: "Rural affairs are a nuisance – sweep 'em under the carpet."