Remembering the man who fought Ministry tooth and nail for creatures he adored (From This Is Wiltshire)
Remembering the man who fought Ministry tooth and nail for creatures he adored
Pictured in 1981, Nelson Crook mournfully reflects on the death of several badgers at the hands of the Ministry of Agriculture at his farm near Wootton Bassett
HIS eyes welling-up, Nelson Crook is unable to conceal his emotions as he recalls an incident that occurred on his land a few months earlier which continues to haunt, anger and disgust him.
“They pined their hearts out,” says Nelson, a 71 year-old retired horse farmer. “It was pitiful. We left them milk, but they couldn’t survive without their parents. It was heart-breaking.”
Nelson had returned to his 14-acre plot near Wootton Bassett to discover that the Ministry of Agriculture, against whom he had been waging a fierce and occasionally violent war, had once more been on his land.
They had pumped deadly cyanide into a sett, killing a pair of badgers. Nelson remembers the agony of watching the two babies of the slaughtered creatures’ helplessly crawling around only to die a few days later in spite of his and his wife Phyllis’ efforts to save them.
“The badger is slowly being wiped out,” continues Nelson, his brow furrowed, his hands shaking. “There will be none left soon if the Ministry keeps on like this.”
Nelson sees their elimination as a crime on a par with the slaughter of baby seals for their fur and erects a large sign outside his farm saying so. “It’s pure butchery,” he adds. “Badgers are harmless creatures.”
As controversy once more rages over imminent plans to cull thousands of badgers on the grounds that they cause TB among cattle it is impossible, for me at least, not to recall the plucky pensioner who fought the men from the Ministry tooth and nail, and never gave up.
It is an ongoing clash in which a slightly built elderly man physically assails a bunch of tough looking Ministry gassers and grapples with burly policemen, risking his wellbeing as well as courting an ever present possibility of prison.
Nelson’s conflict with the Ministry of Agriculture begins in 1977 when they start bombarding him with letters seeking permission to lay badger traps on his land as part of a government move to eradicate bovine TB.
Nelson either ignores the missives or tells the Ministry, in no uncertain terms, to go to hell.
You see, Nelson likes badgers. A country boy, he finds them intelligent, delightful creatures. They are on his land. He is fond of them. “But they are being persecuted,” he says.
He isn’t just thinking with his heart, either. He has read reams of reports on the causes of bovine TB and is convinced that a mild form of the disease that badgers may or may not carry cannot harm cattle or humans.
The Ministry, however, isn’t having it. Suits are dispatched to Nelson’s home, just off the Wootton Bassett-Lyneham road, to press the Ministry’s case… only to meet with the same defiant response.
They are sent home, in all likelihood with curses ringing in their ears.
One day in March, 1980 Nelson finds two badger traps – huge cages resembling medieval implements of torture – on his land. They are splattered with blood – apparently as a result of the badgers trying to break free.
Nelson later recalls: “I was furious. I smashed them up with a sledgehammer. The killers had obviously been sneaking on my land, trapping the badgers and taking them away.”
An equally appalled Phyllis sighs: “The traps were awful. The poor badgers must have died long, agonising deaths.”
And then, unprecedented drama down at Bowd’s Lane Farm. It is a chilly morning on Thursday, December 4, 1980. Ministry gassers descend on Nelson’s land with some killing to do but the hardy farmer is there to greet them.
“Get off my land,” and similar words to that effect, bellows Nelson, 70 at the time. “I’ll take a shotgun to you – I’ve got one upstairs.”
They go – but soon return with a police escort. Watching them dig up a sett in preparation for discharging their lethal chemicals is too much for Nelson.
“Let me get at the b*******s, I’ll murder you,” he yells. The gassers go to work and police struggle to hold Nelson back. “I’ll find out where you live, I’ll get you,” he rages.
Suddenly, Nelson is wielding a hefty walking stick with which, having broken loose from a constable’s grip, he whacks a Ministry Man on the back. The official is understandably aghast. He looks up in surprise and pain.
Phyllis is sobbing as Nelson is once more constrained by police; a couple of tasty officers, whom you suspect have some sympathy with their captive and his cause, lead him away from the killing fields.
Phyllis later says, with some justification: “If he continues to fight the Ministry like this he could do himself an awful lot of harm,”
The Ministry, at the time, has a couple of tried and trusted methods of exterminating badgers. They lure them into cage-like trap with peanuts before taking them away to either shoot them or apply a lethal injection. Or they pump cyanide into their setts.
Over the next few months they return to Nelson’s farm on several occasions; usually – sensibly – when he is out of sight.
Nelson relates to me the above mentioned tale of the helpless baby badgers when I visit him in 1981. Since his brawl with the gassers he says six badgers have been killed on his land.
But he vows to remain vigilant and will not shirk from doing what he feels is right. “I’ll do everything possible to keep these butchers off my land,” he assures me. “I’ll be waiting for them – they won’t get off so lightly next time.”
The shotgun threat, however, was always a bluff, he says.
He and Phyllis’ courageous stand wins them admirers from animal lovers all over Britain who send them letters and cards. “It shows there are plenty of people who care,” he says. In 1984 he and Phyllis rear a pair of badgers with cow’s milk – Jack and Jill – whose parents are killed by the Ministry. Happily, the slaughter of badgers recedes over the years and Nelson, now a widower, releases a couple more brocks onto his land after they are brought into an animal rescue centre.
Until his death aged 88 in 1998 Nelson campaigns vociferously on behalf of badgers; the new enemy, however, is the busy road outside his home which constantly claims the lives of brocks.
Nelson outrages some animal lovers by hanging new badger carcasses by the side of the road to demonstrate to passing motorists the carnage they can cause by driving too fast.
For years he lobbies councils, without success, for a badger tunnel to be built under A3102 Wootton Bassett-Lyneham road, claiming that at least 100 had died on it over the past 13 years.
Whatever your feelings on culling badgers to eradicate bovine TB you would have to made of stone not to admire the sheer courage and determination of one elderly man’s efforts to protect the creatures he loved and to fight for cause he vehemently felt was worth fighting for.
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