On badgers and rural class politics
Rowenna Davis has written in the New Statesman that the left should support the now postponed badger cull because we should support struggling farmers. The left has historically ignored rural areas, she says, and rural people support the cull.
Well, let’s ignore, for a moment, the evidence as to whether or not the cull will effectively stop bovine TB. She argues that it will, others – including a former government chief scientific adviser – argue that it won’t.
What I find hard about Rowenna’s piece is that she equates rural opinions with farmers’ opinions. For many city dwellers, these are one and the same. But my experience is that the opposite is true. Most people in most rural areas aren’t farmers. And among those who aren’t, most – and particularly most working class people are, in my experience, are passionate about wildlife.
To explain this, let’s look at the campaign my parents have been running for the last couple of years in rural Perthshire. The Scottish government discovered that a population of beavers – a species made extinct in Scotland about 400 years ago – had been breeding in the Tay catchment area for nearly a decade. Despite the fact that the government has a trial re-introduction project on the West Coast of Scotland, they announced that they were going to trap all of the Tay beavers. It soon became clear that they would then be killed.
Now, my parents have spent a decade working for beaver re-introduction in Scotland. If you ask why, they’ll tell you that wetland is to Scotland what rainforest is to Brazil. And it is beavers who build our wetland. How dare we complain of Brazilians felling their rainforest whilst we refuse to bring back the animals which would restore ours?
So when the government announced that these beavers were to be shot, my mum and dad weren’t too happy. Along with an active group of locals, they whipped up a campaign. The Blairgowrie Advertiser, our local paper, soon backed them – regularly updating readers on the tale of Eric – the beaver found in the local River Ericht (though Eric later turned out to be Erica). During the Scottish Elections, the Perthshire Advertiser announced that the main issue locally wasn’t the recession or independence. It was the campaign to save the beavers.
The campaign ultimately won. After mass support, the government backed down. When Brian Taylor’s Big Debate – Scotland’s equivalent of Question Time – last come to Perthshire, one local asked what panelists thought of the attempts to kill the beavers. Even the local Tory, formerly a key critic of the rodents, was forced to say something nice about them. The chair, Taylor, wasn’t taken aback by this peculiar question. Quite the opposite. He said ‘ah yes, it would be a sad day if we came to Perthshire and didn’t get a question about beavers’.
The point is this. Farmers are almost all anti-beaver. But the vast majority of people in rural Perthshire are pro-beaver. Passionately so. In my experience, if there is a class divide, it is that working class people oppose the trapping, whilst landowners support it.
So if Rowenna wants the left to do better in rural areas, to support the rural working classes, she should start by realising that farmer and rural are not synonymous.
My second issue with the article is this: Rowenna is, of course, right that most farmers are struggling. And she is right that the left ought to stand with them. But lumping all farmers together is rather like lumping all shopkeepers together. Yes, local shops are being squeezed. But some shop keepers are Tesco managers. Saying that we ought to support farmers is no more meaningful than saying we ought to support everyone in the food production industry: it is true in that we ought to support all people, but it fails to address that ‘farmer’ just means someone who produces food. Some are essentially managers of vast agribusinesses, others have tiny smallholdings. Their interests are not the same.
Finally, back to badgers. At the end of her piece, she tells us that farmers are being squeezed – the price of milk has been hit by supermarket monopolies, our changing climate is causing real problems. Again, this is all true. But the thing that she argues for is not the break up of supermarket monopolies. It is the slaughter of badgers. Even by the most optimistic figures, this will only slightly alleviate the problem of bovine TB.
Britain’s left is too urban. We do need to get serious about supporting rural areas. But if we are going to, we will need to understand that not everyone who lives in ‘rural’ is a farmer, that not all farmers are the same, and that there are many more significant problems in rural areas than coughing badgers.