In search of the badger cull... with very few protesters and a lot of false claims
Photographer Andrew Hobbs has been in the front-line of Exmoor’s badger cull, meeting both those in favour and against the controversial killings to prevent the spread of bovine TB. Here is his blog about what he has witnessed – all in the pursuit of a picture.
The badger cull is not a new story, it's been talked about for over a year. When West Somerset was first mentioned as being one of the pilot areas there were very quickly reports that farmers were getting death threats and that they were at risk of having their farms burnt down by protesters.
Farmers I have known for years stopped talking. They were polite but they didn't want anything leaking out. Locations of farms suspected of involvement in the cull were rapidly put up on the net and just as quickly taken down.
Everything in the cull zone was geared up and ready for an influx of animal rights activists.
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Then the Government postponed the cull and things returned to normal.
Then a couple of weeks ago, anti-cull groups were reporting that the cull would start on the August 27. Local badger groups, some of whom I'd met the year before at a gathering in Dunster, started their night walks again and it began to seem as if the shooting would begin soon.
I was driving home one evening when I heard on the BBC news confirmation from the government that the cull had started and that was when life got busy.
News was scarce about where the cull would begin and Twitter and Facebook became the source of all knowledge.
The Stop the Cull pages reported that a camp had been set up for protesters near Watchet and I headed over there only to be met by ITV and BBC TV news crews.
There were more people from the media than protesters, though those protesters that were there were very welcoming and chatty.
Later that night, the local badger group had arranged a candlelight vigil in Minehead, their plan being to march through the town and raise awareness about the cull.
I had stationed myself on the edge of Minehead ready to cover the story and I was quickly joined by press snappers from the Press Association (PA) and South West News Service (SWNS), and again BBC and ITV.
This was the start of a very long night that ended with Tim Ireland from PA and myself standing in a pub carpark at 4am waiting to be taken out by the badger group to see a badger being vaccinated.
At 4.15am a Land Rover drove up and a young lady jumped out. She explained that the farm they were due to visit had decided that they didn't want the press there – they were scared of possible reprisals from locals. They left, and Tim and I did what you have to do at times like this, we laughed. Up all night for nothing.
Vaccination is the policy advocated by the Somerset Badger Group who feel this is the right way to control TB.
Somerset Badger Group chairman Adrian Coward says "Vaccination is the key – it is probably the only option, and what we would like to see is Owen Paterson putting pressure on Europe so a vaccine can be developed in less than the ten years he says it will take.
"Farmers deserve that too, instead of the Government remaining determined to kill badgers at any cost."
Over the next few days and nights, I joined the other press photographers and journalists on badger patrols, our numbers now swelled by staffers from the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Telegraph.
There aren't many photos taken on these walks, but the excursions seem to be the main activity for protesters.
On Thursday, Camp Badger is closed at the request of the landowner and the residents agree to leave by 4pm, which they do peacefully.
There is no word from the people there about where they are going but Jay Tiernan, the main man behind the protest group Stop the Cull, is there helping them to locate a new site.
Mr Tiernan was named in an injunction brought by the National Farmers' Union to stop protesters "intimidating or harassing" farmers.
Mr Tiernan, who was arrested a few days ago in Gloucestershire for an alleged attempt to break into a Defra site, though since released without charge, is at first friendly enough, requesting I keep a distance while the protesters talk.
I do so, as after all I have no interest in annoying them.
However, after about half an hour they seem to have stopped talking and I go closer again to get some general shots.
It's then that Mr Tiernan decides I am "taking the p***" and suggests that I "f*** off'.
The same night that Camp Badger is evicted, the Bristol hunt sabs (saboteurs) post on Facebook that they have had to cancel their minibus to Somerset because of a lack of numbers.
One of the most vocal people at Camp Badger said, when asked where she was heading as she drove out, "I'm going home." When asked on a previous night about the numbers involved, she said "It's been really hard to get people interested."
The nights that follow this are taken up with reading Twitter and Facebook and scouting around the cull zones, tracking police and protesters' movements wherever possible.
I have someone back at base researching the new camp, the location of which is being kept a secret.
Friday August 30 did see an increase in activity – more cars and vans from both sides, most likely a result of the weekend freeing up more people from their day jobs and the police response to that.
I ran into a group of sabs clearly from out of the area (maybe the Bristol sabs found some more people that night!) driving around looking lost.
I offered to help them with directions and was again told to "f*** off."
On the other side, the police were friendly but obviously checking people out. I was stopped by Bristol police who took my details.
Over the course of the night I saw the sabs' van again and again. They were just driving round and I feel sure they were aiming to distract the police, who had told me they'd stopped the van several times and were filmed by the sabs doing so.
This was the night after the building site of a police firearms training centre near Bristol was set on fire by a group who, in their statement claiming responsibility for the incident, said in reference to the cull, "we hope this will be one of many rebellions against this slaughter".
However, if you believed the tweets and Facebook posts being put out by the Stop the Cull people, you'd think the hills of Exmoor are full of the sounds of screaming badgers and gunfire. They are not.
They are full of the sound of cars and are only occasionally lit up by the odd torch flash in the woods.
I have been out every night, pretty much all night. I was, in fact, in two of the named locations at the time the protesters were saying there were badger screams, barking dogs and gunfire there. There wasn't.
There were however some people talking in the woods, followed by what sounded like poor attempts at making a screaming noise.
Last Saturday night there were claims on Facebook that voices could be heard and smoke seen at the place rumoured to be cull central, Combe Sydenham.
It was suspected that the badger carcasses were, are, being taken there for disposal, most likely through burning. I was right there at the time the person posted this, on the same bit of road and I saw and heard nothing.
This isn't to say that the shooting isn't happening, of course. I have heard shots and a group of protesters were having a "stand-off" with a team of shooters in Blue Anchor at about 1.30am on Friday night.
But it's not a war zone, and when the protesters are asked for evidence, they can't produce it.
I am not sure how many protesters there are on the ground in Somerset, but it feels like very few. Their online support is very large, but then, it's easy to be an online supporter.
Finally, after a day of researching online and scouting around the area, I found the location of the new camp and I parked up near the meeting point given for collection. I wasn't planning on going in, I just wanted to see how it all works.
I had been sitting at the spot for about an hour when a girl with a backpack about the same size as her turned up. She looked a little lost and dug her phone out of her bag to make a call.
Minutes later, a car arrived with two men in it, one very heavily tattooed. She got in and they went, though not before spotting me and driving past slowly to take a good look.
I attracted the attention of locals too and was obviously out of place so I left, but in the two hours that I was there, I saw only that one girl arriving at the camp and I think this is the protesters' real problem – they lack the numbers on the ground to enable them to make a real difference to the cull.
This seemed to be confirmed when, about an hour after I left the pick-up point, the camp organisers posted the formerly secret address of the camp on Facebook to help get more people there.
Along with the online activity reports and camp location, the protesters posted a set of camp rules of which one, number 4, is "no press."
This has baffled me from the start with the hard-core protesters, why advocate no press when you also claim there's a media blackout?
It makes people wonder if in fact protest numbers are very low and activity is not as high as claimed.
Last Sunday it seems that maybe the group has recognised this fact with queries about the rule being posted on Facebook.
The reply – that interviews can still happen out on patrol at night and in a nearby village during the day – is probably correct but still fails to address the basic underlying issue of lack of evidence.
Though I am sympathetic of the inherent difficulties for the protesters in providing evidence of secret activity, in today's media-aware society a word of mouth report online is not enough, people are just too wary of internet scams and exaggerations to believe everything they read.
The lack is particularly glaring when the reverse side, the losses caused to British farmers by TB, has been very well documented.
I was commissioned by the Western Morning News to take the images for one such news story – a visit to farmer Richard Reed who has lost over 30 cattle in the last year to TB and who stands to lose much more if the disease is not controlled or contained somehow.
Though his animals were insured, the cost of replacing pedigree cows is so expensive that it has left him with a deficit which could only be made up by breeding other stock that should by rights have been sold.
It's a struggle that has been reflected in other press stories all over the UK and means that anyone searching for information regarding the cost of bovine TB does not have far to look.
So would those who are busy channelling money to help support activities against the badger cull consider raising money to assist farmers who are suffering from the ravages of TB?
Particularly those farmers who have declared themselves to be against the cull? It would be interesting to hear the responses to this question from those who have currently supplied over £3,000 to various gofundme campaigns set up by Stop the Cull in order to provide fuel and supplies to the protesters.
There is also the equally interesting question of where any excess donations will go, given the scarce numbers involved currently and the fact that many protesters are providing their own transportation or offering supplies directly to the camp.
But having said all of this, that doesn't mean I am against the badger cull protests or negative about the protesters involved.
On the contrary, I do think they are asking some very valid questions that have yet to be answered by the government and those in control of the cull zones.
For example, why have Defra decided that only 240 of the thousands of badgers due to be killed will be given post-mortem examinations?
And why are only a small percentage of shootings due to be independently monitored to check for humaneness?
I was also interested to hear from anti-cull protesters that the mass movement of cattle following the foot and mouth outbreak was potentially a greater factor in the spread of TB around the country than the badgers, and that the slackness of government controls on the testing and moving of cattle at this time could only have contributed to it.
However, information is rarely forthcoming from Defra, and that which has been provided regarding the cull has usually needed to be forced to the surface by a Freedom of Information request.
So what remains to be seen still, is whether the pressure that can be brought to bear on the Government by protesters at all levels – whether locally in the field or by online petitions or by celebrities speaking out against the cull – can possibly be enough to force the politicians to think again.
From my experiences in the last week or so, on a local level at least, it just doesn't seem as if the numbers needed are really there.
Andrew Hobbs is a freelance photographer living and working in Somerset on the edge of Exmoor for the past 25 years.