Once upon a time, in a place not so very far away from here, there lived an old woman who had a simple cottage the by sea. She lived in a place where the summer days were very long and lovely, surrounded by all the beautiful things in the countryside.
Now, this old woman loved all animals, and the animals seemed to know that. Cats that had no homes heard about her, and traveled across the countryside to live with her. Each night, the old woman would put extra food outside, so that if anything hungry passed by, it would be able to get a small meal. Sometimes the animals came and ate, and went on their way to other parts of the country. And sometimes the animals came and ate, and realised that this was a very good place, and decided to stay. The old woman would wake up in the morning, and a new face would be sitting outside, looking up at her, a little frightened, but hopeful, that maybe it had found a home.
The old woman had respect for all living things. There were spiders living in silky webs in her bathroom, and she just let them stay there. After all, she thought, the spiders were not bothering her at all. Sometimes the old woman would find a bee that had flown by mistake into a barrel of water, or sometimes the wind would push it in, and the bee could not swim. If the old woman saw this, she would get a big leaf and put it under the bee, and take it out to safety, laying it carefully in a safe place so that it could dry off and fly away. Sometimes, in heavy rain, there would be great puddles, and the little worms in the ground would be surrounded by water. The worms did not know how to swim either, and if the woman saw them, she would pick them up and put them on dry ground. The woman loved all living things, big or small, whether they were important or not. And she lived for many years like this, happy to know that she was part of a larger nature that included her, and that she respected and cared for.
The woman had few neighbors, but the ones that she did have were farmers that had cows and ducks and chickens and sheep. The farmers raised these animals so that they could be made into food, like hamburger and chicken nuggets and things like that. They cared for the animals but maybe not in the same way that the woman cared for hers, and certainly not in the same way that little boys and girls care for their dogs and cats. The farmers knew that in a certain amount of time, their animals would be sent away to be made into food for people to eat. So they did not get to know them well, or play with them. And they did not give them names, or take them for walks, or hug them or pet them. They treated them the same way as though they were apples on the trees, waiting to be eaten, or carrots that you grow in the ground. The farmers would get paid for their cows and sheep, but only if they were healthy. If the cows and sheep had any illness, then the farmer would not be able to get any money for them. So the farmers wanted to make sure that their animals were healthy all the time.
Further down the road was a large group of trees, and in that group of trees, buried in tunnels under the ground, lived a large group of badgers. They had been there for many years, and there were baby badgers, and mothers and fathers, and grandmothers and grandfathers. They lived there for generations, not being a trouble to anyone. They would sleep every day, and each night, they would go out to look for food. The badgers would snuff around in the ground, looking for insects and crawly things that they could eat. They would walk through the fields on the very same paths that their parents had walked before them. The badgers did not like change, and many people knew that. So if the people decided to make a new road, for example, that cut across a path that the badgers would walk on, the people would actually make a tunnel under the road so that badgers could continue on their way.
Now, there was a sickness that the cows got sometime, a long word called bovine tuberculosis, that is made shorter into the letters bTB. Sometimes the cows that were on the farms would get this, and since they could not get better from this sickness, the farmer could not get any money for them. For many years, a small number of cows got this sickness, and the farmers did not know why. One day, there was a farm where many of the cows were sick, and on this farm, they also found a badger that had the same sickness. The badger was brought to scientists so they could see why the badger got sick from the cow’s disease, but the scientist couldn’t tell if the badger had given the disease to the cows, or the cows had given it to the badger. So the people in government decided to do a big test, to see that if there was a place where there were no badgers, if the cows would still get sick. They took a place of 100 miles by 100 miles, and removed all the badgers from their homes, so that there were no badgers left at all. They also made sure that the farmers followed all the rules for proper farming. The government did this for a long time, ten whole years, to see if this made any difference. They found that it helped a little bit, but not by a lot. If 100 cows were going to get sick, the scientists found that 80 still did, even if there were no badgers there. They found out that if the farmers kept their farms nice and clean, and kept the sheds where the cows sometimes lived, in the same way, this would help just as much. They also found that if they kept different groups of cows away from other groups, this would help too. The government then told the farmers of what they had found.
Sometimes the farmers thought that it might be too difficult to keep their sheds clean. Sometimes they wanted to own more cattle than they could care for. Sometimes they wanted to move their cattle from one place to another, and didn’t want to stop doing this even though the cows might get sick with bTB. But the farmers realised that there was one thing they could easily do. And that thing was to get rid of all the badgers. They told the government that this is what they wanted to do. So, very quietly, without a lot of people knowing about it, the government came in and took away a lot of the badgers.
Now, most people had not heard that the government was doing this. And the old woman who lived in the simple cottage by the sea had not heard it either. She kept putting the plate of food out each night, winter or summer, for any hungry thing that might pass her door.
One summer’s night, before the sun had gone to bed and it was still light enough so that people could see without torches, the old woman looked outside, and saw a tiny badger feeding at the bowl. She watched it for a long time. It was a lovely wee thing, with a tiny head with black and white stripes, and it was very hungry. The old woman smiled as she watched it. When the badger was happy, it waddled away in the funny kind of walk that they have, and went under a bush and disappeared behind the shed. The old woman had never seen a badger at her back door before, and she wondered if the badger had a mother or father, or if it was alone. She decided, for the next night, that she would put out a special bowl of food for the little badger, to see if it would come back.
The next evening, the woman waited by the window, and just as the sun was going down, but it was still light enough to see, a little black and white head appeared from under the bush. The little badger had returned. It did not come out of the bush right away, but looked to the left and the right with its nose up in the air, sniffing and sniffing. Badgers do not see well but rely on their very good sense of smell, and the little badger was sniffing to see if everything was safe. Deciding that it was, the wee badger came out and ate his dinner from the bowl the woman had left. And the old woman watched him, and was happy.
And so it was that the little badger came back night after night. As time passed, the old woman thought that the little badger deserved a name, and so she named him Edgar.
Each night, at the same time, Edgar would show up at the bottom of the bush. At first, he would stop and sniff and sniff, and, deciding that everything was safe, he would come out to eat. After a while, Edgar decided that the place was always a safe place, and would come out without sniffing, and just go to the bowl to eat. The old woman didn’t know if Edgar knew where the bowl came from, and she decided that she would just watch Edgar, but never let him know that she was giving him the bowl every night. Badgers are always afraid of people, and the old woman decided that this was a good thing. She knew that sometimes people do terrible things to animals, and she did not want Edgar to grow up thinking that being around people was a safe place to be.
And so, life continued on. The old woman fed the cats that came around, saved the bees in the barrels of water, and picked up the worms that were trying to swim, but couldn’t, after a heavy rain. And Edgar came every night, and grew up to be a big, strong badger. He never brought any of the other badgers with him, as badgers usually feed alone. But his mother and father were very proud that their little Edgar was growing up to be such a fine, strong badger.
Edgar became friendly with some of the cats that lived at the old woman’s house. The cats were allowed inside, and they could listen to the old woman and hear her talking. When Edgar would come to eat, they would sometimes sit around him, and tell him the things that the old woman was doing and what they heard. The cats and Edgar did not become really good friends, though. They didn’t play with each other, or rub up against each other, or anything like that. Edgar would just come for his dinner, and listen to the news and idle chatter, and when he was finished, he would say goodnight to them, and waddle away.
And life continued on like this for years.
One day, the old woman’s neighbor saw her on the road and stopped to talk to her. The neighbor was a farmer who had many cows that lived in a field across the road from the little cottage. The old woman was friendly with everyone, so she was happy to stop to chat. But she soon learned that the neighbor was not bringing good news.
‘There has been an outbreak of bTB in the next town,’ the neighbor said. ‘I have been contacted by the men in the government, who want to come down here to cull the badgers.’
‘Cull?’ the old woman asked ‘What do you mean’.
‘Oh, kill them, of course,’ the neighbor replied. ‘They asked me if it was ok to come here to do this. I must protect my cows, so I have told them to come as soon as they can.’
‘But we have not had cow sickness here in many, many years,’ the old woman answered. ‘How can you kill all the badgers?’
‘It is for the safety of the cows’, the neighbor answered, and, smiling, she continued walking down the road.
The old woman was very upset, and, of course, the first thing she thought of was Edgar. What exactly did all of this mean? She decided to go home and go on to her computer, and go on the internet to read as much as she could about it. She would read everything, and not take her neighbor’s information as true, until she learned for herself. (And this is a good thing to do, because with the internet, she was able to read all the science and all the information that was ever written on the subject of badgers and bTB in cows.)
The old woman began to read, and began to get more and more upset. She saw that culling badgers was not the answer to the problem, and maybe only helped a small amount. She saw that if the farmers would keep their places clean and stop moving cows all over the place, the problem would be helped much more. She didn’t know what to do, and started making telephone calls to try to find out a way to stop this. She wanted Edgar and his family to be safe.
Some of the cats were sitting in the house and heard this news and what was going on. They saw the old woman getting more and more upset, and realised that they must warn Edgar, as it was an important thing to do.
That night, as usual, just as the sun was about to set, Edgar waddled out from his place under the bush. How beautiful he was now, fine and strong, with his large black and white head, and powerful body. He began to eat, as the cats sat around him.
‘So, what is the news?’ Edgar asked between mouthfuls.
‘Oh, eat some first,’ said Simon the oldest cat. ‘We can tell you the news when you are finishing your dinner’. For although people think that cats can be selfish and sneaky, they just do that for play. When it is really important, cats can be very kind and caring.
When Edgar almost finished, Simon cleared his throat.
‘Ah, we have some very important news,’ he said. ‘And you must listen very carefully. The lives of all of your family depends on this’.
So, Simon slowly told Edgar all the news that he had heard from the old woman. People from the government were coming down to the area in two days’ time. They were not government people, really, but hunters that the government had hired to do this work. The hunters were going to put wire snares across all the paths that the badgers used. They would put the snares around the openings to the badgers homes, as well. As the badgers didn’t see very well, they would not be able to see the snares. Instead, the hunters were hoping that the badgers would get caught in the snares and would not be able to get away. They would struggle in the snares all night, but the snares would not let go and the badgers would not be able to escape. In the morning, the hunters would come back with a rifle, and kill the badgers that were trapped. They were going to do this every day for two weeks, until there were no badgers left at all.
Edgar sat there quietly, listening to this. He blinked and blinked and could not believe his ears. Certainly there had been no cow sickness in this area for many, many, many years. The badgers had not bothered anyone. How could this be happening? But Simon insisted that what he had heard was true, and that Edgar had to go home and warn his family.
Edgar waddled back very slowly to his home that night, using the paths that his family had used for over 100 years. The sun had set, and all the smells around him were familiar. His heart was sad that he might never smell these things again. He thought and thought about what he and his family would need to do, to be safe.
He did not have far to go, to get to his home, and some of his family had already come back from their evening meal. The entrance to his home was a small hole on the side of a bank of trees, that he could see in the moonlight. He went inside. As he was old enough now to be called an adult, he had certain privileges that the younger badgers didn’t have. One of those privileges was that he could call a conference. And that is what he did.
It took a while for all the badgers to assemble in one of the large areas that was made by generations of tunneling underground.
With a heavy heart, Edgar made his announcement.
‘In two days time, the humans are coming here to cull us.’
Now the younger badgers did not know what culling meant, but the older ones did. They had heard about this from their parents and grandparents, and knew how serious it was. If they didn’t act quickly and carefully, soon they would all be caught in the snares and be killed.
After Edgar’s announcement, his father spoke up. He knew what culling meant, and explained this to the younger badgers.
‘We must leave here, as soon as we can,’ Edgar’s father said. He too, was very sad to leave the home of his ancestors. ‘We must pack up our things, and walk very carefully. I don’t know where we can go to safety, but it will be far from here and will take some time. We need to think of a way to delay the hunters, so that they think that there are still badgers here. If they come and set the snares, and find no badgers, they will know that something is wrong, and investigate. They might even put snares in larger areas, so that all our neighbors will be in danger, as well. We must think of a way.’
All the badgers began to think and come up with ideas and talk at once. There was a such a loud chatter that even the birds outside wondered what was going on. Finally, from the corner of the room, the oldest badger, Edgar’s father’s father, who had lived a very long time, began to speak.
‘There is only one way to give you time for you to go to safety,’ he said. ‘On the first night that the hunters come, they must catch one badger’.
Edgar’s father looked at the old badger in disbelief, knowing what the old badger was going to say. He started to speak, but the old badger looked at him and stopped him.
‘I am very old now,’ Edgar’s father’s father said. ‘And as you know, it is hard for me to get around. My sense of smell is not what it was, and my eyes are failing. In the natural course of things, I would not live much longer. We need a sacrifice to give you time to get away, and I am the best choice that you have.’
Edgar’s father started to object, but the old badger continued on.
‘If I was to come with you, I would slow up your escape. I cannot walk as fast as I used to. You would be stopping to see if I was alright. All of us would be in danger. This way, everyone gets to safety.’
He stopped for a moment, and looked around at his friends and family, and smiled gently at them.
‘This is how it will be done’.
There were two days left before the hunters would arrive to lay down the traps. The plan was to act normally for one day, and on the night before the traps were laid, the badgers would start their escape. Edgar had one night left, to go back to the old woman’s house, to thank the cats for the information, and have one last meal before the journey ahead.
So, on the last day, just as the sun was setting, he walked down the path that his family had used for generations. He waddled under the bush, and saw the dish that the old woman had put out for him. This time, the dish was twice as full as it normally was, and Edgar knew that the old woman understood what was going on. She knew that it might be some time before he felt safe enough to eat again.
Simon was outside with some of the other cats when he arrived. They sat in a circle while Edgar ate, not speaking much. When he was finished, Edgar sat too, for a moment.
‘Thank you, my friend, for your warning,’ he said to Simon. ‘Because of you, my family might have a chance to survive. We all thank you.’
‘Do not thank me, ‘ Simon answered. ‘You can thank our keeper, who has been trying to get this stopped. Other people might have just let it happen without doing anything, thinking that just because someone says this is right, that it is. She is still trying to stop this, but I’m afraid she cannot find anyone to listen’.
They all looked over at the window, and saw the old woman’s face staring out. Tears slowly dropped from her cheeks as she watched, knowing that the little badger that she had cared for, for so many years, was in great danger. She could not know of the plan that the badgers had, nor even know that Simon had warned Edgar of what was to happen. All she knew is that no one was reading the science to see that they were doing the wrong thing. Edgar sat on the ground and looked at her for a long time. He wanted his look to tell her that they had a plan, that they had a chance. But in nature’s wisdom he knew that, although she could speak to him with her heart, she would not understand his words. He turned and walked away for the last time, leaving the old woman weeping at the window.
It was a cold, bright night, that very last night that he walked the paths that he knew so well. The moon was full, and since the city was so far away, everything was lit up by moonlight. He crawled through the hedgerows he had passed as a child, crossed over fields where he had played as a youngster. The places of safety would soon pose a great danger. They had to leave before that happened.
When he arrived home, the other elders were speaking to Edgar’s father’s father, explaining to him what they thought might happen, and giving him last instructions.
One of the elders said, ‘Leave the sett tomorrow night, and expect that, as soon as your head comes out of the tunnel, a snare will be there to catch you. Do not struggle! The more you struggle, the tighter the snare will become, and it will cause you pain. When you feel the snare, just quietly lay down. In the morning, just after first light, the hunters will come back and find you. They will use a rifle. When you hear the hunters coming, just close your eyes and wait, and it will be over soon.
Edgar’s father’s father knew this already. He had heard stories of this from his own father and knew what to expect. He nodded in agreement.
‘Yes,’ he answered. ‘Tonight I will go out and have a good meal. I will walk the paths our family has walked for generations. I will cross the fields I played in as a child. Do not worry. I am old, and at peace with this. You will have plenty of time to get to safety. I love you all.’
He then went and stood by the entrance to the sett. The rest of the badgers filed out, single file, as the tunnel was only wide enough for one badger to come through at a time, As each one passed, they sniffed and snuggled with their big, strong noses, looking at the old badger for the last time. Edgar was the last to leave, and stood with the old badger for a moment. Their hearts were heavy at the things they would leave behind, because of the rules of men.
‘You have saved the family’, the old badger said. ‘You will be rewarded’.
‘The reward is not for me,’ Edgar replied. ‘Let the reward be for an old woman who lives past our last field, who heard of this one day and wanted to change it. I have seen her tears. Somewhere, there are still humans who love us.’
Then Edgar moved on, following the single file of badgers that began to cross unknown paths, to an unknown future. The old badger stood at the entrance and watched them for as long as his old eyes and the moonlight would allow, and then retreated back into the cool tunnel.
Although he said he would, he did not go out to eat that night. Instead he walked each tunnel, remembering parts of his life, and the lives before him, that had nested there. And finally, for the last time, he curled into his own area and went to sleep.
Morning came, and the old badger opened one eye as he heard the hunters at the mouth of the sett, hammering the stake in that would hold the snare. He heard them talking in their rough way, joking and laughing. But he was at peace with his fate, and was not afraid.
When night fell, he did not move, but lay in the sett, at peace. He had not told the others, but he had devised a plan. He would stay in the sett for an additional day, to give the family more time to escape. He heard the hunters come back on that second morning to check the snares, and heard them arguing when they found the snares empty. Through the mouth of the tunnel he could see their feet at the opening of the sett. The hunters were disappointed that no badgers were caught, but kept the snares where they were and left for the day. The sun crossed the sky and began to set. By this time, Edgar’s father’s father was quite hungry. But he was old, and in being old, he was also very patient. He rested for the better part of the second night, too, sleeping as best he could.
Just before daybreak, the old badger arose from his sleep. Now was the time, and he was empowered that his plan would help save the others. He waddled for the last time through the familiar tunnels. And slowly, he poked his head out from the mouth of the sett. He could feel the steel of the snare as his head went through it. He moved a little, and could feel the snare tighten just that little bit. He stopped moving and lay where he was, so that the snare was not too tight. He did not move to the left or the right, but just lay there, waiting.
Before long, he could hear the hunters at the gate. He could hear the rough shoes that he saw the day before, coming down the path. He heard the voices and the laughter, and the excitement when they saw they had caught a badger in their snare. He knew that it would not be long now, and closed his eyes. In a moment, the hunter raised his rifle, and the old badger’s wait was over.
Down the road, at the little cottage by the sea, the old woman continued to put Edgar’s bowl out, for the next few nights. Every few minutes she would look outside, hoping to see the black and white head appear under the bush. She would see Edgar in her mind, coming in the summer, growing big and strong. But Edgar did not return, and each morning, the bowl was still full. The old woman thought that the hunters had caught her little Edgar, and her heart broke at his loss, and the stubbornness of men.
And somewhere, in a field quite far away, their beautiful black and white heads shining in the evening moonlight, a long line of badgers made their way to safety.