Once, entirely by accident, I caught a badger. We’d been having problems with foxes, and the badger had wandered into the live trap up in the orchard, no doubt attracted by the cat food used for bait.
I’d never seen one really close up before, and was surprised how mangy, smelly and fierce it was. Not a bit like Wind In The Willows. The children, then very young, thought it was a bit frightening and I think it rather put them off some of their squeaky soft toys.
I did know that badgers were by no means vegetarian, and this one – given half a chance – would have given me a nasty bite. Using a long stick, I carefully lifted the cage door and the badger bolted for freedom.
People tend to think that badgers are rare, probably because they are nocturnal and we rarely see any during daytime. In fact, as a result of being protected by the 1973 Badgers Act and the even tougher 1992 Protection of Badgers Act, they have never been more numerous: probably around 250,000 nationwide. Road-kill is, unfortunately, one way of estimating the badger population – the more dead ones you see, the more there are likely to be.
And just to be clear about what I know about badgers: badgers most definitely carry TB. While most are perfectly healthy, about a quarter carry the disease. This is a fact. Another fact is that many of Cornwall’s dairy farms are effectively shut down because of government trading restrictions which apply to bovine tuberculosis.
So having made it quite clear that I am not remotely sentimental about badgers, let me explain why I am very strongly opposed to the idea of culling them as part of Defra’s attempts to control TB in cattle.
The first reason is that while badgers can break into stores and contaminate feed, and through their faeces and urine they might also contaminate pasture, they are not the only wild animal that carries TB. So do deer.
So can foxes, hedgehogs, pigs, sheep, horses, dogs, cats, rats and many others. There are more than a million feral cats in Britain, and 7.5 million domestic pets. Alpacas, now increasingly marginalised as an “agricultural” animal and no longer welcome at many rural shows, are far more prone to TB than badgers.
It therefore seems quite illogical to get so worked up about badgers, unless we are also prepared to cull feral cats – which outnumber them by 4 to 1.
The biggest single vector for transmitting TB to cattle is other cattle. Arguments have long raged over whether it is better to keep the cows indoors, away from wildlife and possibly contaminated fields – but then run the alternative risk that they simply spread the disease amongst themselves.
Dairy tankers, driving through the mud as they go from farm to farm, are also capable of spreading TB.
There has been so much publicly-funded science thrown at badger studies over the past 20 years that now there really is little that we don’t know. If you shoot 4 badgers, you will most likely kill 3 healthy ones. That makes it easier for diseased badgers to take over the healthy badger setts. Culling can easily make the disease even worse.
This week’s news that the badger cull is coming to Cornwall will keep me busy on other pages in this newspaper, so it can’t be all bad. But although they might celebrate today, it is actually not good news for our dairy farmers and I doubt it will make any difference to the TB problem. And it is of course even worse news for the badgers.
One of the first things that every journo learns is that “dog bites man” is not a story. “Man bites dog” is much more interesting.
Similarly, “village pub not for sale” would these days probably get more readers than a headline which said the opposite.
I write this, with considerable sadness, because my village pub is once again for sale. I have been drinking at the St Mabyn Inn for 36 years and have lost count of the number of landlords that have come and gone. My poor memory is not actually a direct result of drinking in the pub for 36 years, because I don’t drink there every day. But the number of ex-landlords in that time is easily in double figures.
The plight of rural pubs has been under discussion ever since the drink-driving laws were introduced in 1966. In recent years, the nation’s price-sensitive drinking habits have also been much influenced by cheap supermarket booze.
News that the St Mabyn Inn was once again on the market, with a price tag of nearly £1million, provoked a genuine outpouring of distress from friends in the village. The owners, who have been behind the bar for about three years, had invested handsomely in bringing the pub straight from the 19th century to the 21st.
The introduction of the indoor toilets almost provoked a spontaneous street party, complete with bunting. The new restaurant was also hugely popular, serving food that had not only been cooked to order, but had actually been cooked. Wherever possible, ingredients were sourced locally from a multitude of agricultural interests. The word “improvement” is simply inadequate.
I remember how, as a young man, early on a Friday evening, I would watch as the pub filled up with young women, plastered in war paint, before they would head off to Bodmin to do battle in the White Hart – leaving the local men to their beer. The arrival of the police, shortly after closing time, signalled the start of the lock-in and the drinking would continue.
The transformation from spit-and-sawdust dive to elegant place-worth-a-visit had been handled with a degree of sensitivity which is not always seen in rural areas. Previous incumbents had been known to ban their own darts teams in their bids to attract the more up-market customer – only to discover that once the summer school holidays were over, the pub was empty until the following Easter. The recent redevelopment had somehow managed to remain loyal to those locals who still liked to perch at a corner of the bar, Thursday – Monday, play darts, and occasionally walk round the pool table with a big stick.
The pub today is almost certainly the biggest single employer in the parish. Its success has not been without problems – such as a car park too small for the vastly increased number of customers. But now the owners are moving on to pastures new and one of the most important parts of village life again faces an uncertain future.
One of the disadvantages of having a Y-chromosome is the tendency to make lists of things which need fixing (a pair of X-chromosomes would of course allow me simply to wait for someone else to fix things.)
Having struggled with this condition for six decades, I have belatedly come to the conclusion that I don’t actually have enough time to fix everything. And this gives me cause to consider the future of my 1948 Allen scythe.
Along with my 1955 Royal Enfield motorbike, the scythe has seen better days. Both have flat tyres, their fuel pipes are cracked, the Amal carburettors clogged with dirt – and the Champion spark plugs have not been warm for at least 10 years. Kept under a leaky corrugated roof and somewhat exposed to the elements, both machines have rusted.
While I confess to being something of a hoarder, the reasons why both machines occupy space in my life include (a) I have the physical space and (b) they are things of beauty, representative of superb engineering triumphs, and moments of time which are special to me. I simply cannot bring myself to throw them away.
The Allen scythe, in particular, occupies a place in the history of rural Britain which deserves a much louder celebration than that which it has so far enjoyed. Manufactured in Oxford from 1935 to 1973, its three-foot wide scissor blades have munched through blackthorn, brambles and stinging nettles on smallholdings all over the world.
The scythe is powered by a Villiers engine which starts only when you wind a rope round the magneto and tug hard. The clutch is a simply a piece of wire which, when released gently, breathes life into the unforgiving teeth on the razor-sharp blades.
I wonder if there are any Health and Safety Executive statistics for the number of limbs lost to the Allen scythe over the years. The worst thing that ever happened to me was to get soaked in the sap from a large patch of giant hogweed, on a hot, sunny day, blissfully unaware that photosynthesis of that toxic juice produced severe chemical burns. It was 25 years ago, and I still bear the scars.
All of which brings me back to the question of my genetically-driven need to fix things. Although I am no expert, I probably could repair my Allen scythe and – given enough time – remove the rust and restore the paintwork. Would I ever use it? Almost certainly not. I am as easily seduced by 21st century technology as the next man (it’s that Y-chromosome again.)
But there is so much more to my Allen scythe than chopping blackthorn and clearing weeds. It defines a chapter of post-war rural Britain which also defines me. So the scythe will definitely be staying, and so will my ambition to one day repair it.
Perhaps one day, my “to do” lists will also end up in a museum. Or engraved, in tiny letters, on my tomb. One day.
A tough decision to make last weekend – whether to join village friends at the local cider farm for the annual Wassail, or stay in and watch the latest Mad Max movie.
Wassailing is the traditional Mid-winter booze-up much beloved of rural communities, even if no-one can really remember what it’s all about. The undisputed facts are that it involves a bit of dressing up, a “blessing” of the apple trees and the drinking of much cider.
Some Wassails involve Morris Dancing, some involve singing, some involve pouring cider onto the roots of a newly-planted tree, and many involve raising money for local charities – but all of them involve drinking.
I hear that they are very big on Wassailing in Bodmin. The Cornish Guardian seldom misses an opportunity to report on the mid-January activities of the Bodmin Wassailers, who dress in Victorian clothing and tell anyone who will listen that they are celebrating a tradition started by the town clerk in 1624.
In Bodmin they do it “for the continuance of love and neighbourly meeting.” There is no mention of cider, specifically – perhaps in Bodmin, any booze will do. It goes without saying that the 1624 Bodmin town clerk was no Victorian, so already you can see that there is some disconnect between what people are actually doing and what they think they are doing.
It seems that you can have different kinds of Wassailing, depending on where you are. In some parts of Cornwall it might be about banqueting, in other parts it might be about calling on people and serenading them at their home, as if they hadn’t had enough of that with the Christmas carol singers the previous month. In and around St Mabyn, it’s about cider, perhaps with some historical derivation from the days when agricultural workers might receive some of their pay in alcohol.
In Padstow, of course, hardly a week goes by without some kind of festival. The Big One is ‘Obby ‘Oss, on 1st May, when the pubs stay open all day and anyone still sober by 11am is a wimp. I wonder how many of the 30,000 people who attend ‘Obby ‘Oss have any idea, or even interest, in the rural history they think they are celebrating.
It is hard to escape the thought that, in the 21st century, these traditional customs and festivals have become just another marketing opportunity. Once you start looking into the pagan origins of many of these things, you might wonder how they still survive. Cornwall’s rural primary schools are already preparing their children for Maypole Dancing, presumably unaware that this was originally a fertility ritual. The huge, erect pole around which the youngsters are skipping represents something that I dare not describe in a family newspaper.
Rural Cornwall is not the only place where we go in for such daftness – but at least we don’t have asparagus festivals, or knob throwing competitions (the “knob” is a Dorset biscuit) and nor do we incur the wrath of the Health and Safety Executive by chasing balls of cheese down a steep, grassy hill.
One thing which all of these rural festivals have in common is that they date from an era before television or internet.
I’m afraid that I embraced the latest Mid-winter festival, the “Dry January” holiday granted to my liver, and stayed in to watch Mad Max.