Waiting to be collected.
Sitting in the pub car park, it could be any regular night of the week. People arrive, park their cars, glance at me and walk into the pub for their evening meals and a pint. But tonight their glances seem to linger a little longer than usual. There's an air of suspicion already building in West Somerset and it's only the first night of the 6 week badger cull.
When you live in a small community you get to know the cars people drive; you may not know the person but you know the car, truck, Landrover etc. so out of town vehicles stick out. We're used to holidaymakers of course, but it's not really the holiday season. And of course the big give-away that something is not of the norm, that something might happen, is happening, is the number of police cars in the area. We are not blessed by a large police presence in West Somerset, thankfully we don't really need one. But even by the standards set by last year's cull, there are a lot of police in the area now.
Jay Tiernen at the entrance of new Camp Badger in Somerset. Jay says the big difference in this year's cull will be the equipment the Stop the Cull group have. With the addition of thermal imaging sights, they can see trapped badgers and shooters up to 1km away.
One of the cars that I am sure will receive many long glances over the weeks to come pulls into the car park and I see Jay Tiernan, spokesman for Stop the Cull, in the passenger seat.
Jay and I had met the evening before at Camp Badger and after we put the difficulties of last year's meeting behind us, shook hands and agreed to start again, we got chatting. Jay told me about the new thermal imaging scopes they have this year and how they give the group a big jump forward from last year's equipment. I am of course keen to see the scopes in action and ask if he can arrange for me to go out with someone the following night. We swap numbers and agree I'll call the next day at lunchtime.
The following day I call and Jay says he'll meet me at 6pm in the car park of a local pub. I'd made arrangements last year to meet with the protesters but for whatever reason the meetings never happened so I wasn't convinced Jay would show up, and when a text came in saying he'd need to make it 7 as he was going to be on ITV news at 6.15, I began to wonder if this was going to happen.
But then, at 7:04pm, Jay arrives.
We set off for our location and Jay says, "I bet you don't smoke, and I'll have to go without one while we're out". To be honest, I was surprised he'd asked, I had the misguided impression that if he wanted to smoke, he would. But as the evening went on, I find that Jay isn't really like the man I've read about. I'm not saying he's an angel, but he is a thoughtful, intelligent and polite man.
We're not long into our drive when we see a 4x4 turning into a field. Jay looks at me and says, "It's got to be them [the cull marksmen] surely?". We stop a little past the gateway and walk quietly back down the road. Jay has one advantage over me when it comes to looking into fields, he's very tall. "Nope, he's picking something up, potatoes?". We leave.
Jay explains that in the first few nights it's about getting to know the cars, that 'you soon learn who's who.' They make lists, in the same way the police do during the cull, registration numbers, locations etc. I guess the only difference is that the police check their computer databases to see who owns the car and where it's from, and that leads to a tap on the car window and the inevitable question of 'Evening sir, what are you up to tonight?'. It's something I was asked a few times last year, but already, in just this first night, I have been approached by police three times. I suppose they, like the protesters, are making their lists early.
The light is fading by the time we arrive at our location. It's high up and even at dusk you can see for miles. Jay tells me, "this is a good spot, we used it last year, you can see and hear for miles up here." We are overlooking farms and fields with cows blissfully unaware of all the fuss going on around them, and indeed because of them in many ways.
One of the 16 Pulsar Quantum Thermal Imaging scopes that the Stop the Cull group are now armed with in the fight against the badger cull in both Gloucestershire and Somerset.
Jay unboxes the Palsar HT38s thermal imaging scope. It's brand new and the group have 16 now. That's nearly £45,000 worth of kit. Paid for by donations from the public and as Jay tells me, "two have just been donated for our use, paid for by one person. I've been hassling the guy for a year now." I suggest the word hassling might not be the best word to use, given the high court injunction Jay still has placed on him after last year's cull. "Sweet talking" Jay corrects himself. I don't ask who donated the 2 scopes but I wonder if it's Brian May. Should have asked.
Jay quickly reads the manual and we are up and running. When I get to have a go with the scope, my first thought is that it's like playing Call of Duty. The landscape before me is gloomy, even with the rising full moon. It's possible to see the cows which are standing in the middle of fields but it's not until you put the scope to your eye that you can see the ones standing along the hedgerows.
This is what the Somerset cull zone looks like in total darkness when using a Pulsar HT 38s thermal imaging scope.
We spend some time playing with the scope, trying to identify what the distant shapes are - water troughs? Sheep? Even the base of a tree gives off a strong glow though the scope. It’s obvious using it takes some practice but I have no doubt that the people using the scopes will soon get to grips with them. For us, it’s not long before we are pretty comfortable at not only knowing what we are looking at but also understanding where it is in relation to the landscape on a map. Viewing the landscape in daylight is important, that way you know what you are looking at in the dark, or at least that the movement ahead is three fields past a particular farm, junction, etc…
Jay and I talk for a while longer and explore a few more areas using the scope. Jay is on the phone when I see some lights in a field. It’s a vehicle, and Jay spots it too and ends the call. He's not expecting it to be anything cull related, pointing out, "they wouldn’t have their lights on, I expect they are lamping.” We watch as the vehicle, now with lights on the roof switched on as well, sweeps the field. Whether they are lamping (i.e. hunting at night), searching for protesters, or cull marksmen hiding in full view, we will never know. This is one of the problems both sides face, trying to figure out who’s who in the dark. A marksmen could easily think someone stopping on the way home for a pee in a field is a protestor and abandon that area. A protestor seeing the same thing could waste time investigating who that person is and what they are up to.
We walk back to the car and talk about the lowering of the targets this year. The government has considerably dropped them from last year, even to the point where the target is below the number of badgers killed in the previous year's cull. “Is this because they shot so many last year already or is it just a target they can’t fail to achieve?” Jay asks. My instinctive inclination is that it's a target they can’t fail, and that it may have been set that low for precisely that reason. The government simply can’t afford not to hit their target this year.
But if Stop the Cull do manage to use their new technology to put into practice the lessons already learnt, it could be another embarrassing result for the government. Jay and I also talk about the photos I’d like to get to illustrate the cull. Shooters, hunt sabs at work - the newspapers I feel want to see more action, arrests even. I ask why there hasn’t been photos or footage of badgers being shot, as his group must get close enough for that surely. Jay replies, “we are here to save badgers' lives, not film them getting shot. We could have filmed it last year but that would have meant not saving the badger. Saving the badgers is what it’s all about.”
Driving back, I ask Jay if he could only use one method to disrupt the cull what it would be: night patrols, sett sitting, hunt sabs, badger army demo marches. He thinks for a while before answering, then concludes, “you can’t pick one above the other, they all have their merits and all are effective. Our strength is in numbers and the diversity of tactics. A sett sitter might protect that sett all through the cull; people get attached to the setts and that’s fine, they do good work. Night patrols might come across one shooter a night and stop them from working in the area, while the sabs might come across 5 shooters in a night and stop shooting in all those areas. And the badger army demonstrations keep the issue in the public eye when the cull isn’t happening. They are all important." My next question has to be whether all the different groups coordinate their actions but the answer is “no, we talk, but there’s no coordination, more a sharing of information”.
We are nearly back at the car park now and I ask if Jay will text me if he hears of anything happening. “Why would I do that?” he says. It’s a good question to which I don’t instantly have an answer to. “Because you want the story out there” is the best I can do. As we shake hands and say goodbye, Jay asks how long it would take me to get somewhere if something happened. I explain that it depends where I am, but I live around 15 mins away from the camp. When Jay's reply of “so, if I text at 1am, that’s ok?” comes, I don't even hesitate. “Of course.”