Being A Beast

Being A Beast – Charles Foster

First Published: 2016, Profile Books Ltd

From the back of the book: “Charles Foster wanted to know what life was really like for a badger, an otter, a deer, a fox, a swift. So he tried it.”

Thoughts: Charles Foster wanted to be five different animals from the British wildlife scene, and he wanted to do so without anthropomorphising. It’s a difficult task, considering that the very nature of trying to contort your lifestyle into that of an animal, means working out how to squash their unique way of life into the somewhat different parameters of your own human one. Trying to be a swift, for example, is going to be a trifle hard without wings. No matter how hard he flaps, his arms are still going to remain human.

Foster is not concerned by such minor setbacks, and happily delves into a hole cut into a hillside with a miniature digger to live as a badger with his son for a while. Quite how long, I’m not sure, and that is something which spoilt the reading for me. I want to know just how long was invested in that hillside eating earthworms, and did he swim as an otter for months on end, or just as an afternoon jaunt one summer’s day?

Being A Beast looks at what separates our experience from an animal’s. Delivery of hot pie from a friend’s farmhouse seems to be one glaring difference, although I’m sure a badger wouldn’t say no to that either. Maybe it’s just a case of availability. Cynicism aside, I have a lot of respect for somebody who sticks out a storm in an artificial badger sett, watching the weather damage your handiwork, only to crawl out in the muddy morning and fix the damage to welcome round two. I would have been in the pub at the sight of the lightning bolt on the BBC Weather App. Perhaps this is why Foster has such a deep respect for the badgers. The otters don’t fare so well.

Otters, it seems, don’t rate highly on Charles Foster’s list of animals. They are described as “jangling, snarling, roaming, twitching bundles of ADHD” and a “pretty shabby evolutionary compromise with a short attention span, poised on the edge of ontological precipice”. And those are the compliments.

Despite his apparent dislike of the creatures, Foster does his best to get into their lifestyle. First on the list is to get his children to poo along a river bank, in an attempt to mimic leaving spraint, and then crawl around with his kids in the coming days, sniffing each others’ faeces. Poo from different kids smells different, and gets less smelly the longer it’s out in the elements. Who knew? I hope this was well thought out, with a plan to reduce any negative environmental impact. Considering that water pollution is touched on in the same chapter, shitting on a riverbank doesn’t seem like the most responsible thing to advocate, whether you think you’re an otter or not.

And then we move onto the foxes. A deep sense of awe starts to shine through again here. Foxes seem to have earned his respect, and a huge amount of effort goes in to replicating their existence. Eating rubbish from the bin bags of London’s East End, creeping out policemen by sleeping under a bush  and declaring he’s a fox, and ruminating on the televisual habits of the human population get him in the right mind set, but the highlight of this chapter for me is a fascinating look at their senses. What does a motorway sound like to a fox? What, exactly, goes through their noses? Or more to the point, how much more colourful is the information once it reaches the brain?

I was so enthralled in Foster’s exploration of the sensory world of a fox, that I felt surprised to then be reading about chasing a cat around his backyard, snarling. It seemed slightly unnecessary. Particularly as he baited it by placing a smelly chicken leg on top of a tarpaulin, then hid underneath just to scare the poor thing off. I’ve seen a lot of foxes, but I’ve never seen one do that. And I’m not entirely convinced that Mr Foster chased the cat along the top of a fence, unless it was an extremely broad one. More like a wall. Or the ground. Maybe I’m just jealous of his supreme athletic abilities.

By the time we reached the chapter about deer, I’m not sure what Foster was trying to achieve. Don’t get me wrong, this book is a fantastic exploration of the hidden lives of some of our wildlife. But as for being a deer, it’s disappointing.

He acknowledges that stag hunting can’t tell you much about what it’s like to be a deer, but you have to read eleven pages of detailed description of the last moments of a stag’s life before we move past it. He then gets chased through some farmland by a dog called Monty, but still, he’s not a deer. Next, he crawls through snow on his hands and knees to some freezing, dying deer that “smelt of pear drops”. It gets cold and dark, and he basically ends up hypothermic (but still not a deer), having a conversation with himself which is recounted with incredible clarity considering the state of delirium he must have been in. Thankfully he survives the night and wakes up surrounded by deer, which carry on being deer whilst he wanders off to warm up somewhere in a not-very-deerlike-fashion.

His next attempt to become a deer involves wallowing in some mud and watching an ant try to crawl up his urethra. This, shockingly, still doesn’t make him a deer, but it’s okay because after all this he surmises that he couldn’t possibly be a deer anyway, because they’re victims. And he’s Charles Foster.

I’ll leave you to make your own mind up about whether he’s successful at becoming a swift.

Edibility Rating: 3 Monster Points

Favourite Line:  “Wetsuits are condoms that prevent your imagination from being fertilised by mountain rivers.”

(Although I also hear they’re quite good at preventing pneumonia – Susan)

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Badgerlands

Badgerlands – Patrick Barkham

First Published: 2013, Granta Books

This Edition: 2014, Granta Books

From the back of the book: “There are more badgers per square kilometre in Britain than in any other country, yet they are scarcely seen and much maligned. Travelling across our fields and through our woods, Patrick Barkham seeks out these distinctively striped creatures, and the enthusiasts, farmers and scientists who know them best.”

Thoughts: When Badgerlands arrived on my bookshelf, I had already spent the last few years keenly following the controversy over the UK government’s decision to implement a yearly cull of badgers. It is happening as a desperate attempt to eradicate bovine Tuberculosis, a disease that costs the farming industry an awful lot of money and stress. But is it really the fault of badgers or have these iconic mammals become a scapegoat for the problem? Are there other options? Why is the cull continuing despite the lack of any scientific evidence to suggest it may work?

The cull has attracted both fervent supporters and passionate objectors, and the two have come head to head in debates, online and in the dark fields of Britain, trying desperately to kill and protect badgers in equal measure. Patrick Barkham spends time with both and lets us into the picture from several different angles.

In Badgerlands, Barkham investigates not only the current cull, but reminds us of the dark history that this species has faced in our countryside. This is not the first time they have been subjected to persecution, and despite the fact that the badger is a protected species under UK law, it looks like they will be targeted for some time to come. Badgerlands takes a deep breath and asks the questions that don’t come up in the furious online arguments and can’t be found within the DEFRA cull guidelines: What do these animals mean to us as individuals and as a nation? How have they been represented in folklore, popular culture and the media? And who are the people who live deep within Badgerlands, his imagined sphere of badger-y existence?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It appeared to earnestly try and present a balanced picture of the cull, but as with anyone who sticks their head too far down this particular rabbit hole, Barkham’s opinions sneak out more as the pages turn. It is not a lecture though, nor is it aggressive in its approach, and it was refreshing to read coherent and sensible arguments, even those that I didn’t agree with.

The only flaw I could really identify was in one chapter entitled ‘Vermin’ where the figures confused me a little. When referring to the percentage of cattle killed in the UK due to bovine TB it discusses a 10.2% rise between the years 2011 and 2012, but without knowing the actual number of cattle killed in the first year this isn’t helpful in appreciating the scale of the problem. Of the 8.3 million cows in the country, it makes a big difference if 10 cows were killed in 2011, or if 1 million cows were killed. That 10.2% rise would be somewhat more significant if it were the latter!

It is not a book overloaded with facts and figures though, and for those interested in a broad overview of how these nocturnal creatures exist in our landscape it is easy to digest and littered with anecdotes and fun character descriptions as Barkham gets to know badger scientists and backyard enthusiasts, and follows them in their work.

There was one chapter that made me feel very uncomfortable, ‘Lunch’. I did push through it, but it is not for the faint-hearted. So if you have a weak stomach or are a staunch vegan who recoils at the idea of gobbling up wildlife for curiosity’s sake, this might be a chapter to skim read. On the other hand, if you’re the sort of person whose first thought when seeing something new is: “I want to eat that!” then, by all means, knock yourself out and read away!

Overall, this is the best book I’ve read in recent times, and I would recommend it whole-heartedly.

Edibility Rating: 5 Monster Points

Favourite Line: “Most deliciously, above the attractively variegated cast of bungling politicians, pitchfork-brandishing farmers and animal rights nutters, loomed the photogenic hero: the noble, innocent, tragically flawed black-and-white.”

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