On the night of the 10th September, I take a drive around the cull zone again, returning to the place I had been previously for testing Stop the Cull's thermal imaging equipment, and retracing the regular route I devised last year. I'm heading towards home when I decide to take a minute's break and pull in at location A on the map below. I turn the engine off and sit, it's another full moon and a clear chilly night. All is quiet, no cars going by. It's peaceful. But then suddenly I hear two shots coming from the direction of location B.
I start my engine and instinctively head that way. I know the shots came from somewhere near the lane called Galloping Bottom. I arrive at location C on the map and park, turn the engine off and wait. It's pitch dark. Not a sound is in the air. After about twenty minutes I decided to drive further down the lane. When I reach location B, I meet two 4x4s. They stop and so do I. I reverse back to a slightly wider part of this single lane road. The first 4x4 inches past, tooting his horn. It's a new 4x4 and has dark glass, I can't see in. The second 4x4 passes but not as slowly, the driver's window is down and the man driving looks to be about 50, wearing a big coat and a woolly hat. I start off again but it seems an odd pair to meet out on these roads so late. I begin to think they have to be more than just locals on their way home so I find a gateway and turn round. Somewhere between location B and C, I meet the first 4x4 again, coming back the way it had just come. He, like me had turned around. We pass each other once more.
I return to location C and park. A moment or so later my car is lit up by headlights on full beam. It's the 4x4 - I can't see it but I know it is. I have no idea who is in it though, protesters, police, a farmer? Well, I have all night so I decide to wait and just see what happens. I'm not going anywhere. After what seems like a long time but which might just have been a few minutes the 4x4 pulls alongside me. My windows are down and I look out of my passenger window into a bright torch being shone into my face. "Are you ok?" I ask.
"Don't worry, your friends will be back soon" the person holding the torch replies.
"Sorry, what do you mean?"
"Your friends, they'll be back soon."
"I am not waiting for anyone."
"What are you doing then?"
This person has yet to say who he is, but I feel the time has come for me to explain who I am.
"I'm a freelance photographer, I have a press card if you'd like to check."
"You lot need to report on the death threats and intimidation the locals are getting."
"I'm more than happy to report on that, I'd be happy to interview you now, here in my car."
"I'm not talking to you here."
His car door opens and the interior light comes on, his torch drops a little as he gets out and I see he's wearing a high viz vest and, rather surprisingly a full ski mask. Who the hell is this guy I wonder, not a sab surely, they wouldn't stop and chat.
He leans into my car through the passenger window. "Give me your card then."
A memory flits through my head from the EDL march in Exeter, of talking to another photographer who said to keep my press card safe and not to show it to anyone other than the police as the EDL often steal them. I pass the masked man a business card, not my press card.
He takes it, shines his torch on it. "Okay, I'll call you."
He jumps back in his 4x4 and is gone at speed up the lane.
Who was he? I'm not sure. I am 99.9% sure it wasn't a sab or anyone connected with the protestors. I don't think it was a farmer, just didn't sound like one. Someone has suggested it might have been a Natural England observer, a shooter or the police. He hasn't called of course. But then I wasn't expecting him to.
There's so much hearsay and rumour about what each side of the badger cull is doing and I would like to know what it's really like on a farm at night. There are videos of sabs destroying badger traps and I know of one farm that has 24 hour monitored CCTV running for the duration of the cull but it's hard to really tell what is happening on the cull front line. You drive around the lanes and meet police doing the same. Neither of you are going to see anything, unless you happen to bump into someone like I did. The real activity happens out of view in the fields and woods...and then occasionally ends up on YouTube.
I exchanged texts with Jay Tiernan, Stop the Cull's main spokesman, a few days ago and he reported that more trapping is taking place this year compared to 2013. Exact figures on how many of these traps the sabs have destroyed aren't available but Jay's "guesstimate" is three dozen, which is about six a night.
With another four weeks to go there's plenty of time for things to change but the 2014 cull seems to be a quieter affair. I haven't been out every night, but when I have been out there are less cars moving around this year. There's still visible police around and still a fair few cars parked in gateways but I suspect both sides have improved their tactics this year and so are spending less time travelling around the roads.
Brian May joins the Somerset Badger Patrol. Photo : Andrew Hobbs
On the 15th September, Brian May came to visit the Somerset Cull zone and met with the local badger patrol group as they returned from their evening rounds. Mr May and the Save the Badger Group both support vaccination as their preferred method of controlling TB, and given that Stop the Cull are finding more evidence of badger trapping this year, it would seem as easy to vaccinate the captured badgers and release them as shoot them.
However, vaccination isn't a cure so there are of course inherent problems with this, if you vaccinate a healthy badger all well and good but vaccinating an infected badger wouldn't stop it from spreading TB. The number of vaccinated animals also needs to hit a critical mass point, usually thought to be around 80% of the badger population, in order to reach the herd immunity threshold - the point where the infection becomes unsustainable because the number of protected animals far outweighs the number of unprotected and the chances of an infected badger coming into contact with a non-vaccinated badger is extremely low.
Brian May joins the Somerset Badger Patrol and thanks them for their help while listening to stories of what it's like patrolling the cull zone. Photo : Andrew Hobbs Brian May Badger Cull 2014 012Brian May joins the Somerset Badger Patrol and thanks them for their help in fighting the badger cull.
In support of vaccination, the government, in the shape of the new Environment Secretary Liz Truss, has also announced a Badger Edge Vaccination Scheme (BEVS) which aims to vaccinate badgers on the edges of the high risk areas.
Up to 50% of the long-term costs of vaccination, along with free equipment loans and free vaccine supply, is being offered to projects in the areas bordering the cull zones, in the hopes of creating a buffer zone of vaccinated badger populations that will help curb TB transmission.
But while I am sure this was welcome news to all involved in this debate, it falls short of addressing the immediate issue of finding an alternative solution to the badger cull for controlling bovine TB in the high risk areas. This week Labour pledged to stop the culling of badgers if they win the next general election, demonstrating that they are well aware the culling of badgers is not popular. In fact, 'some 54% of Conservative and Labour MPs surveyed identified the divisive issue as one of the major sources of letters and queries through constituency clinics.'
(Source: Western Morning News. Read more here: http://www.westernmorningnews.co.uk/Cull-critics-target-MPs-Labour-pledges-scrap/story-22932968-detail/story.html#ixzz3Dq0XIijp)
What's interesting too is that during the cull of 2013, West Somerset probably had more London based photographers and writers present than cull marksmen. You almost couldn't move for people from the Press Association, Getty and staff reporters from the Telegraph and other national papers. This year, I haven't seen any, and the national press agency I submit images to hasn't taken one photo of mine, or anyone else's, and have said they are only interested in photos of the cull if 'something happens'. It feels odd considering the amount of anti-cull feeling there seems to be in the country, but not even Brian May's visit sparked any interest in the papers - save for the Western Morning News, who have covered this year's cull and rightly so. It affects many, if not all, of their readers in some way or another. Of course West Somerset has never been as well covered as the Gloucestershire cull, it's harder for protesters and journalists to reach. And then the start of this year's cull coincided with the announcement of a royal baby and a referendum on Scottish independence, two massive press stories. Now a conspiracy theorist might claim that this wasn't a coincidence, but whilst I love a good conspiracy, I don't for a moment believe the two stories were planned by a bloodthirsty government intent on killing badgers as quickly and quietly as possible.
So the 2014 cull will of course continue, quieter than last year, less obvious to the public eye, but whether the marksmen will be back in 2015 is less assured. Labour may win the election and keep their promise to stop the cull. The Conservatives could claim they have shot enough badgers over the previous two years and with Liz Truss's new vaccination scheme, announce that there is no need to have a cull in 2015. The government surprised me this year by continuing with the cull despite the protestation and the low results from last year but still, my bet is that whoever wins the election, the next few weeks will see the last of the badger cull. The last of protesters and marksmen chasing their 4x4s around the narrow lanes of Somerset, the last of Brian May visiting this part of the world, the last of masked men shining their torches on innocent photographers, and the last instances of badgers being killed in the dead of night. We can only hope it sees the last of badger-related TB infection in cattle as well.