A Lenten Story: The Gamekeeper’s Gibbet, Biodiversity Onsetting and Confirmation Bias


spot the badger

The Gamekeeper’s Gibbet

Not so long ago, a walk in the country would entail this scene – a gamekeeper’s gibbet. Vermin would be presented by the estate gamekeeper, neatly strung on fences or hung from trees, as this one does. Presented to – well to whom?

Some might suggest this was merely the gamekeeper showing his prowess, showing the Master that he is doing a good job keeping all those pesky stoats, crows, buzzards, kites, foxes, badgers, pine martens, beavers, wolves, bears, wolverines and elephants, in check, so they don’t compete with us for food.

I think it goes much deeper. I think this is primeval, it is about both sacrifice, abeyance and defiance. On the one hand, humans have always made sacrifices to appease our gods  – I have written about this elsewhere. Sacrificing something valuable gave it extra meaning, and the bigger the request or plea for a deity to intervene, the more valuable the sacrifice needed – Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his own child to appease Yahweh.  There is a direct line from Abraham to giving up Facebook for Lent.

Reverse Sacrifice

Stringing up furry animals and birds on trees is also a way of signifying that we can overcome nature, that we rail against the power of the nature gods: a kind of reverse sacrifice. Instead of giving something precious – we take something away from nature. Festooning special trees with talismanic objects is also a ritual that  has very deep roots (sorry for the pun.) Wishing trees, like wishing wells have long been decorated with votive objects of significance to the decorators, as gifts to nature gods or spirits. They continue to play an important role in modern day Britain.

wishing tree

wishing (rag) tree at the fulacht fiadh (holy well) Slieve Carron, The Burren. (c) Miles King

Of course it could just be a simple economic transaction – you eat my crops (or game animals) and I will kill you.

What has this got to do with the Badger Cull I hear none of you asking. Well I think it has quite a lot. On this day when we will (?) hear that the pilot Badger Cull was a resounding success and it will be rolled out to Dorset for this year’s summer butchery, it occurs to me that this is about a reverse sacrifice, thumbing our noses at nature. The badger as scapegoat – Owen Paterson as high priest of a badger death cult.  They may not be publicly strung up in trees – but who knows what happens in the deep privacy of the land?

Biodiversity Onsetting

I was talking about Biodiversity Offsetting last week and one of my critiques of the Government’s approach is that it only applies to development. Why? Here are the figures:

    • 9% of England is developed.
    • 69% of England is agricultural land, increased by 1% from 2012 to 2013.
    • 10% of England is forested.

Agriculture is the principal cause of biodiversity loss. It has been, is and will continue to be so. Why then is it not included in biodiversity offsetting?

If Agriculture were included in BO, the badger cull would be liable to offsetting, as the only (official) argument in favour of the cull is an economic one – cattle die of TB costing farmers money. Badgers cause cattle to get TB ergo kill badgers to save farmers money.

If the mitigation hierarchy was applied to the badger cull, the first step would be avoid damage. This would be through things like better TB testing, restricting the ability for TB to pass from cattle to cattle (the main transmission route) and introducing vaccination for cattle and badgers. Once all these measures have been thoroughly implemented, the next step is mitigation – this means minimise the impact of an action on biodiversity or in this case minimise the impact of the badger cull on badgers. Ah. we seem to have hit a problem. Anyway let’s move on.

Next is offsetting – this means replacing the lost biodiversity, or badgers, by creating new biodiversity, or badgers, or improving degraded biodiversity, or badgers, somewhere else. Could Dorset’s badgers be replaced by badgers elsewhere?

Perhaps there are areas of Britain which are currently under-badgered where special badger breeding programmes could provide guaranteed TB-free (GM?) badgers to be reintroduced there. Perhaps badgers could be captured, vaccinated and returned to those areas where they have recently been exterminated? Perhaps – instead of killing the badgers of Dorset (most of whom are TB free) they could be captured, checked for TB, vaccinated and released back into their former areas straight away?

But no. Instead what we have is Biodiversity Onsetting for badgers. This is where farmers are mostly paid by us, via the Government, to go and kill biodiversity (badgers), for their own economic gain. Yes – work that you and I do, to earn money, is used (transferred via taxation from your pocket to farmers) to kill biodiversity, for the farmers economic gain.

This is biodiversity onsetting in action and it’s been going on for decades.

Confirmation Bias

Clearly this is not being driven by any rational consideration either of science or economics. I think it is being driven by an atavistic need to make sacrifices. There is also something called cognitive bias which I am sure is in play here.  One such cognitive bias is Confirmation Bias. Effectively this means you look for the evidence to support the argument you already know instinctively to be true; and ignore any evidence to the contrary. Politicians do it all the time.

What can we do to counter the innate drive to satisfy our atavistic urges and feed our cognitive biases? Are we slaves to our palaeolithic brains?


Dorset Badger Cull Areas – apparently, the North sacrifice will take place this Summer

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in agricultural pests, animism, badgers, biodiversity offsetting, blood sports, Defra, Owen Paterson and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to A Lenten Story: The Gamekeeper’s Gibbet, Biodiversity Onsetting and Confirmation Bias

  1. nirgunapa says:

    The other motivation is pure politics. Many rural heartlands are Conservative territory and OPatz has to look like he’s doing something, no matter how misguided or unscientific, to appease this community in the hope of retaining Conservative voters.
    Interestingly, I met some Conservative voters last week in just such a constituency who won’t be voting Conservative ever again. The cause here was that there beautiful house is to be demolished for HS2 and the total ineffectiveness of their current Conservative MP in dealing with it.

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks Colin. I don’t think the badger cull is going to make any difference to whether backswood Tory MPs or cabinet ministers get voted back in. The consituency of pro-cullers is too small to have much of an effect.

      The politics of craven subservience to the NFU and CLA is another matter. In this respect I think politics is an influence, but the motivations behind this type of human behaviour run far deeper.

  2. Steve Alton says:

    Wonderful use of the phrase ‘under-badgered’. I will treasure that one.

  3. Bracken Wood says:

    Yes that need to CONTROL nature runs deep. It’s almost as though nature is too wild to cope with. Over manicured shrubs in gardens, the need to see bare soil and the constant attack on ivy bear witness to it. Look at the Forest of Dean. Those neatly cropped verges nibbled to mm by sheep are now happily rolled back by the boar, but the fuss from the threatened neat and tidy brigade is deafening! Oh yes and who is joining in for mileage? Yes, Harper MP.

  4. Miles King says:

    I am delighted that I was wrong to suggest that the Dorset Badger Cull is going ahead this year. However, Owen Paterson has made it abundantly clear that he is committed to the wider “roll out” – perhaps he is thinking of that old East End song “roll out the badger” sorry “roll out the barrel”. So Dorset’s badgers probably only have a year’s stay of execution.

  5. Pingback: As the Badger sacrifice commences in Dorset, French farmers bay for Wolves blood | a new nature blog

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