Barberries and Badgers

Amid all the hysteria and anger around the Badger Cull, which has now commenced, I might be accused of jumping on the bandwagon. Well OK, maybe, though I have done work in the past on the badger issue, researching and writing a position paper on badgers and biosecurity for The Wildlife Trusts back in 2006.

But I thought a slightly different angle might be more interesting than going over the same old ground.

Barberry Berberis vulgaris was a native shrub in Britain. It probably arrived fairly soon after the end of the last glaciation, preferring open ground to Forest. It’s related to the many varieties of Garden Berberis which are such a popular choice for landscape architects.  Wild Barberry fruits have long been used for food and medicine and are a key ingredient of dishes particulary in the Middle East.  I can confirm that Zereshk Polow Barberry Rice from Iran is delicious.

Barberry is also the secondary host of the the Wheat Rust fungus Puccinia tritica – indeed recently a new virulent strain of this significant disease of wheat has appeared.

You may be thinking at this point – “Berberis – a native shrub? Really? I’ve never seen it….” And you would be right. Barberry has been effectively wiped out from the British countryside because it innocently hosts a virulent agricultural pest.

It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to see where this thread is going (I have a simple mind at heart).

No tears were shed for Barberry – because it all happened a long time ago, once it was identified as the host for Wheat Rust.  It does seem barbaric (sorry) to me that we had to exterminate a wild plant and with it its significant value for other wildlife, because of its effect on our crops.

I am sure some farmers (and politicians) see the Badger as the Barberry of the cattle world and regard its extinction as an unpleasant but necessary action.

Have we learnt nothing from the past?

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About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in agricultural pests, agriculture, badgers, barberry, biodiversity, environmental policy, farming, invasive species, Owen Paterson and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Barberries and Badgers

  1. Mark Fisher says:

    Good analogy, Miles. First time I saw barberry was in hedgerows in Belgium, but I think my first natural spotting was in deciduous woodland in New England.

    The same could be said about buckthorn and alder buckthorn, both of which harbour oat crown rust (Puccinia coronata) and have come in for persecution over the years.

    • milesking10 says:

      Thanks Mark. I understand the Americans are also enthusiastically exterminating their native Berberis spp for the same reason. When George has tired of his Sheepwreck trope, perhaps he will turn his ire on to that other scourge from Mesopotamia – Triticum aestivum. They arrived more or less at the same time.

      Yes Frangula is certainly not a common site, I didnt realise they were also hosts for rusts, though not so many farmers grow Oats as Wheat – thanks for that.

  2. Ian Hoare says:

    I’m no historian, but as I grow older and see the follies of successive governments, I’m forced to agree with George Santayana. “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

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