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Book Review

Badgers (2017) by Michael Clark

It is an interesting exercise comparing different editions of the same book. Interesting academically and, in this case, interesting scientifically, philosophically and morally too. My shelf of badger books would bow alarmingly were they all together.  However, since my workspace at home extends to an art studio several hundred yards away, an old pottery, a breakfast room (usually controlled by small grandchildren) and an attic sanctuary – which is where I am now – my books tend to become scattered through the house.

But it was easy to find Michael Clark’s 1988 signed edition of Badgers since it sits chummily with my other Whittet titles quite separate from Dr Neal’s New Naturalist monograph; all 39 of my NN books (many inherited from my father) have their own bookcase.  Some of these are valuable first editions, as is my 1988 edition of Badgers. Dr Neal was a great supporter of Clark from the 1960s until his death in 1998. My copy of Neal’s “classic monograph” is unsigned but a prized possession even though I never had the benefits of his mentoring as did Michael but I did meet the great man and have a signed copy of his Natural History of Badgers published by Croom Helm in 1986 which, coincidentally, was the year my own The Fate of the Badger was published by Batsford.

Badgers have cubs, and books are reprinted but it’s a tragedy and a miscarriage of justice that Michael Clark’s Badgers has survived better than many of its titular animals.  This book is rapidly becoming a modern classic.  It has been through many reprints and three revisions: 1998, 2007 as well as this new one.  On receiving my new edition, in a series entitled ‘The British Natural History Collection’, what could I do but turn to the section on ‘Badgers and TB’?  In 1948, Neal did not mention TB at all; it was not until the 1970s that it became used as a weapon against our favourite mustelid.  In fact, Neal makes only one mention of disease in his monograph, stating “Since badgers are such wonderfully clean animals it is not surprising that disease does not take a heavy toll.”  Yes, they are clean, as any badger watcher knows.

By 1986, the situation had changed: Neal devoted 5 pages to bTB, and myself the best part of an entire book.  In 1988 Clark gave 9 pages to the problem and much the same in the new edition but the difference is marked.  In the original book Clark discussed the Dunnet Report at length but politics have moved on (backwards, many would say) and there have been more conferences, meetings, panels, studies, reports and trials than you could pin down with a pronged stick (see fig page xii, inter pp74 & 75), and so much hot air it could suffocate you: more heat than light as that redoubtable badger lady Eunice Overend liked to say.

In 1986, Michael Clark laid out the chronology of badgers and bTB; now he concentrates more on the equally redoubtable Martin Hancox’s perspective. Martin succeeded me on the Consultative Panel as representative for the National Federation of Badger Groups (later morphing into The Badger Trust).  Michael represented The Mammal Society and stuck the CP for longer than both of us put together (I managed only 3 years).

But Badgers is not just about bTB – it accounts for only about 7% - so I mustn’t go on about it.  Where this book triumphs, as do all Whittet titles, is in its ability to present a mass of incisive and specialised natural history to a non-specialist audience. Whittet’s authors are never stuffy or dense, and any danger of factual indigestion is always made more palatable by many clever and amusing cartoons. In this volume they are by the author himself; in others Guy Troughton’s are similarly a sheer delight.  Both artists manage the difficult feat of combining humour with imparting knowledge.

There is a lovely drawing of various ‘Grooming Attitudes’ (p.60) new to this volume, unfortunately omitted from the Index, as is a new reference to bTB on p.14.  There are other inconsistencies in an otherwise comprehensive index but these are negligible flaws in this most valuable addition to the badger saga.  There is in fact very little to criticise but I had to find something!

It is tempting to say that if you have any of the previous editions you don’t need this one but that would mean missing out on important new material.  Since both our books are of a similar age with both being revised 3 decades on, I’m only too aware of this problem.  I’ve heard people say they don’t need the new book because they have the old one. That’s a bit like saying I won’t watch a new series of my favourite TV show because I saw the first one.  So if you don’t want two versions, I suggest you buy this one and sell or, better still, give away the older one to a young naturalist because, rest assured, there is nothing in there which they will not find valuable and which does not still stand up today.

© Richard Meyer June 2017

Badgers by Michael Clark, 2017, Whittet Books Ltd, pp.143 (+16 new colour plates) and many drawings by the author, ISBN 978 1 873580 99 8.