An article published recently by the BBC in the UK brought to light a shocking discovery at the Radnor Street Cemetery in Swindon, a town about 80 miles west of London in the County of Wiltshire. The soil has been disturbed, grass has been torn up, headstones have been toppled and exposed bones have been found at the site. At first it was thought that this was the work of vandals. However it was soon revealed that badgers have been digging up graves in this cemetery that dates back about 130 years where some 33,000 people have been laid to rest since Victorian times. Now, little by little the old bones are being brought to the surface by a group of enterprising badgers that have built a network of tunnels under the graveyard.
The crafty animals are fond of using existing structures such as roads or foundations of buildings as roofs for their setts, which are networks of underground tunnels that comprise a badger’s den. Therefore it should not come as a surprise that the bottom surface of a casket would serve as an ideal roof for a sett. It follows logically that the industrious badgers would soon discover the contents of the caskets. It is not known what would possess the creatures to remove the bones from their resting place and deposit them on the surface. Maybe they’re simply clearing out the casket to create additional living space for their clan.
At first it appeared that there would be a simple solution to the problem. The badgers could be trapped and removed and taken somewhere else. The parish council proposed that the badgers be relocated to a nearby site where they would be less likely to engage in destructive mischief. However, the conservation group Natural England intervened and blocked this proposal on the grounds that this would constitute a violation of the Protection of Badgers Act of 1992, which prohibits the taking or otherwise injuring of badgers or disturbing a sett. Natural England is an NGO whose conservation mandate is set forth in legislation as the government body responsible for the stewardship of the country’s natural environment. Not long afterwards, another NGO, English Heritage, which is funded by the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport, also stepped in and took a position against the idea because it is believed that the field selected for the relocation might have at one time been the site of a medieval house. In addition, the entire matter is further complicated by the fact that the cemetery was declared to be a Local Nature Reserve back in 2005.
This is not the first time that this phenomenon has occurred. In 2010, children began to bring home bones they found in a field adjacent to 12th century St. Remigius church in the village of Long Clawson in Leicestershire, a small town about 130 miles north of London that is famous for its award-winning Blue Stilton cheese. Other residents reported seeing a skull and other bones protruding from the earth.
This, too, proved to be the work of badgers. The village vicar, Rev. Simon Shoule performs regular excursions into the graveyard to search for bones which he gathers up and buries in a new grave, which cannot be anywhere near the original site due to government regulations that prohibit disturbing the badgers in any way. This has irritated the families of the deceased to see their loved ones’ remains scattered asunder and buried anonymously at other locations.
But that is not the end of the story.
Little did the villagers know the badgers’ real motivation in digging up the grave sites. It wasn’t to make more room in their burrows. They already had more tunnels and chambers than they needed to accommodate their extended families. The real reason was far more sinister. Some years back, the badgers had made contact with an underground criminal ring that was engaged in the trafficking of illegally obtained human body parts. This ghoulish gang colluded with morticians at funeral homes who would remove bones and other tissues from corpses and surreptitiously replace them with lengths of PVC pipe, leaving the bereaved none the wiser. These bones were subsequently sold to body brokers or biomedical tissue companies who in turn resold them for use as dental implants and other procedures involving unsuspecting patients.
When law enforcement turned up the heat on their illicit business, the gang sought out other sources of bones that were less likely to attract the attention of the authorities. With an average sale valued at over $7,000, it did not take the badgers long to discover what a lucrative business this was. In their pursuit of quick riches, the badgers were not really concerned about the consequences of their actions. They engaged in many financial excesses and bought expensive watches and fashionable suits of clothes to wear when they came to the surface to conduct their nefarious business transactions with the shady bone merchants.
The badgers did not even stop to think seriously about the possibility that the old bones might still contain dangerous bacteria and viruses. It is a well-known fact that many of the individuals interred in the cemetery were victims of anthrax, cholera, tuberculosis and other communicable diseases. These organisms have been shown to survive in the soil for very long periods of time, even centuries.
The badgers didn’t really care about the human public health consequences. After all, they were plenty angry that the UK Department of Agriculture and Rural Development had fingered them as the source of the alarming spread of bovine tuberculosis in the countryside, which resulted in the slaughter of approximately 25,000 cattle in 2010 for the purpose of controlling the epidemic. This pronouncement led to the infamous Big Society Badger Cull, a government sanctioned extermination effort that was responsible for the deaths of untold thousands of innocent badgers. Ironically, subsequent studies by independent scientists demonstrated that this carnage had not made a meaningful contribution to the reducing the spread of bovine TB in cattle.
So, what goes around comes around…
Illustration by Kim Harris
Story by Don Rudisuhle