In his book Badgers, the naturalist Michael Clark describes surveying the animal back in the 1960s. Calling at a farm cottage, he asked the occupier - an old countryman - whether he knew of any badgers living nearby. "What's badgers?" came the reply. The countryman, Clark writes, "genuinely did not know of the species" - even though, as the author subsequently discovered, there were three colonies living within a mile of the cottage.
You can be a "countryman", it seems, and know little of the country. To anyone acquainted with, say, Cold Comfort Farm, this may come as no surprise. But the countervailing wisdom, which depicts country folk as being in tune with the land, still holds sway. They live there, don't they? What can townies, penned up in offices and housing estates, know of the "ways of nature"?
This assumption infects much of our culture and politics. It underpins the operations of the Countryside Alliance, for example, which are predicated on the existence of a clear division between town and country. It enables the rural lobby to characterise itself as an embattled indigenous culture, its "native" traditions and pastimes (hunting, shooting, fishing) threatened by an oppressive urban majority. It puts the politicians on the back foot - witness the delays in implementing the promised ban on fox-hunting. Indeed, the rural lobby's pro-hunting campaign has been remarkably successful in switching the debate away from concerns about cruelty and animal welfare towards one that combines civil liberties, employment and rural autonomy. The underlying message is that the countryside is best managed by country people. After all, they know about such things . . .
Unfortunately, too often, they don't. As the historian Keith Thomas showed in his classic study Man and the Natural World, the growth of our knowledge about nature has come by rebutting the "vulgar errors" of country people. And although Thomas was writing about the period between 1500 and 1800, that process continues today - what country-dwellers take to be self-evident is still being confounded by the careful observation of reality.
This month, the government is to start killing badgers again as part of a project-cum-experiment stretching back three decades to prevent the spread of bovine TB (bTB) in cattle. Despite the extermination of roughly 30,000 badgers at a cost of £7m a year, the policy has, by most measures, failed. The incidence of bTB in cattle has continued to rise and we still do not know to what extent badgers are responsible. Worse, there is powerful evidence that the culling policy may actually be causing this increase.
The badger culling saga is an object lesson in why we should be wary of the wisdom of country folk. In the 1960s, there was much puzzlement as to why bTB was persisting despite supposedly rigorous testing and slaughter policies. The discovery in 1971 of a dead badger infected with bTB convinced farmers that badgers were to blame. And while the National Farmers' Union, abetted by the now-defunct Ministry of Agriculture, became a vehement proponent of badger culling, many farmers took the law into their own hands - as dramatised on Radio 4's The Archers last year, when David Archer shot a badger he blamed for infecting his cattle.
The result was a hopelessly skewed research agenda, focusing on badgers at the expense of many other possible causes. We now know, for example, that tests "clearing" cattle of bTB are inaccurate. The 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic proved that long-distance, unregulated transport of cattle is commonplace. Most livestock spend their lives in overcrowded conditions ideally suited to cattle-to-cattle spread of bTB. The most likely explanation for the growth in bTB is the way cattle are kept, moved and managed. Badgers are some way down the list of culprits.
Compounding this mess was the finding last year that killing badgers in areas where bTB had broken out among cattle - so-called "reactive culling" - led to 27 per cent more cases of bTB in cattle. In other words, the more badgers you kill, the more cattle get TB. One possible explanation is the "perturbation" hypothesis, which suggests that killing badgers may disrupt their hierarchies and territories in ways that lead either to more badgers becoming infectious, or more infectious badgers moving about, or both. The finding prompted the government, in November, to cancel the reactive element of its culling trial; somewhat illogically, the "proactive" part, in which all badgers are culled in certain areas free of bTB, remains in place.
The perturbation hypothesis - and the related finding that the badger culling policy may be based on a flawed epidemiological model - was the work not of agriculturalists but of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) at Oxford University. Another study, from York University, has also cast strange new light on the farmers' other enemy - foxes. The more foxes a farmer kills, the more lambs he appears to lose to foxes. Again, territorial disruption may be the key: new foxes will almost certainly occupy the slain animals' territory. New animals, unused to the terrain, may then choose more obvious prey - such as lambs.
The message of studies such as these is that natural systems are complex, unpredictable and counter- intuitive: understanding them requires patient observation, careful analysis and an absence of preconceptions. The lack of these conditions explains why, in the early modern era, slow-worms and grass snakes were persecuted as venomous, toads were killed for the "jewel" hidden in their heads and gardeners destroyed worms because they were thought to gnaw plant roots. The natural scientists who put paid to such nonsense were by and large men of letters, belonging to a cosmopolitan intellectual fraternity whose contemporary descendants are likely to be found at (urban) universities and research institutes - one thinks of John Evelyn, John Ray and Gilbert White. "As far as I could ever find by conversing with farmers," one naturalist wrote in the 1750s, "our common people know scarce any of the grasses by [common] names."
Farmers might no doubt argue that then, as now, they were too busy earning a crust to construct a great intellectual tradition. Yet farming, indeed the countryside as a whole, now finds itself caught between two conflicting value systems, one seeking to maximise human exploitation of the earth, the other to moderate or minimise it. This is a wholly new predicament, which demands a certain ecological literacy on the part of ruralists. It will not do to blame "pests" for losses when the real fault lies in human husbandry, or to accuse townies of "Disneyfying" animals while labelling as "evil" foxes that kill chickens. Nor is it particularly sensible to go on treating animals as "things" when the best contemporary research shows that animals certainly do have emotions - and their capacity to suffer, as Jeremy Bentham characterised it two centuries ago, is foremost among them. Yet last year, when scientists from the Roslin Institute and Edinburgh University produced a study suggesting that fish feel pain, the director of the Countryside Alliance's Campaign for Angling criticised such "emotionalism", arguing memorably: "I have spent my whole life fishing and I wouldn't do it if I thought that it was cruel."
The assumption that country people "ought" to know about such things is based on an urban-rural divide that opened up in the 18th century - when cities spread, Romanticism was born and Rousseau idealised the "noble savage". For a couple of centuries, city and country people did inhabit separate realms. But the car, the phone, the media and the internet have contributed to the homogenising tendency of what we call modern lifestyle; and the vast population outflow from cities into rural areas blurred urban and rural identities. Most of us now work indoors or in an office, and even if we are involved in what remains of our primary industries, we are far more likely to be shuffling paper or staring at a computer than communing with the landscape. Human life has turned generally into a monoculture, gobbled up, as time studies show, by work, sleep, shopping and TV - all virtually identical whether performed in town or country.
The most reasonable conclusion is that we are all much of a muchness now - urban where it matters, but with rural aspirations if we can afford them. A new word - "rurban" - has been coined to describe this condition. But for the rural lobby to accept this diagnosis would entail abandoning its moral high ground. It would also throw a revealing light on the few differences between town and country that might be said to survive - and thus on what really motivates bodies such as the Countryside Alliance. One candidate immediately identifies itself - country sports. In other words, it may just be the case that, to qualify as rural in an urban (or rurban) age, we may have to hunt, shoot or fish.
David Nicholson-Lord is the author of Green Cities - And Why We Need Them (New Economics Foundation, 2003)