Badger Culls Based on facts, not panic & bias
Unless every single badger is killed, the survivors move around, resulting in an increase in bovine TB. But will politicians listen? "The government is so desperate to be seen to be doing something to appease the countryside lobby that it is willing to ride over facts.’
After more than 40 years of living in the British countryside, any day I see a badger is precious. I knew the location of every sett in the woods around my childhood home but rarely saw them with my own eyes. Even now I’m a professional naturalist, the majority of my badger encounters come from tracking their teddy bear paw prints, probing richly scented communal latrines, or plucking stiff guard hairs from where low-slung bellies have caught barbed wire fences or tree roots. Sightings are usually limited to monochrome images from the camera traps I put out behind my house. I know plenty of people who live in the country who have never seen a badger. They are definitely there, but these nocturnal delights remain elusive and thus are still a thrill.
Those who support the badger cull would say my passion for wild things makes me subjective, emotive and irrational; they would accuse me of letting cuddly sentiment get in the way of common sense. Fair enough. Many of the animals that are traditionally seen as vermin are my life’s fascination. I am biased. For this reason, neither I nor any farmer whose livelihood, family and future depends on cattle should be making the big decisions on this subject. Instead, our government must rely on science.
The definitive study on the impact of badger culling on the spread of bovine TB in cattle is the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) undertaken by the last government between 1997 and 2007. It cost more than £50m, resulted in the deaths of 11,000 badgers and is widely regarded as the best piece of peer-reviewed research on the issue undertaken anywhere in the world.
In the wake of this trial, the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB (ISG) concluded: “Given its high costs and low benefits, badger culling is unlikely to contribute usefully to the control of cattle TB in Britain and we recommend that TB control efforts focus on measures other than badger culling.”
Certain facts about badgers and bovine TB are not in dispute. Badgers are definitely a reservoir of the disease in the wild, with about 4% possibly being infected. Defra research carried out to justify the present cull policy shows that nine continuous years of badger culling in one area will at best reduce the incidence of TB in cattle by 12-16%.
However, these reductions are not guaranteed, as removing badgers from an established population changes the behavior of the survivors. The disturbance caused by shooting or gassing badgers results in artificially changed dynamics inside the sett, forcing the animals to move. Dispersal puts diseased badgers into contact with more healthy ones, and more cattle too. Simply put, unless you kill every single badger, the survivors move around, resulting in an increase in bovine TB. This increase will undoubtedly be more significant with a badly organised, shambolic cull such as we have seen over the past year.
Even a total eradication of badgers will not end bTB (bovine tuberculosis), for one simple reason: almost every other animal in the British countryside is a vector of the disease. Defra research has detected TB in moles, foxes, mink, rats, ferrets, cats, sheep, llamas, alpacas and all our deer species. It can reside in the environment itself for months, or years in some cases. Not to mention the prime carrier, which is cattle themselves. Based on the use of current skin tests for TB, developed in the 1930s, for every 100 cows infected with bTB the test will, on average, miss 20, leaving large numbers of cattle in herds spreading a disease that badgers are being blamed for.
It’s inevitable that farmers who see badgers in their fields will perceive them as the cause of bTB in their cattle, but badgers with TB don’t clasp bloody hankies to their faces like actors in period dramas; the disease is generally not visible, and infection rates are very low. Of the 11,000 badgers killed during the RBCT only 1.65% were found to have late-stage TB with visible lesions, where they were at high risk of spreading TB. Of the 3,000 plus badgers vaccinated by the Welsh government in the past three years in a TB hotspot, not one of the animals had to be removed and euthanised as a result of being visibly ill with TB; all were vaccinated and returned in good health to the wild.
The government has refused to test any of the badgers killed in the pilot badger culls undertaken in Gloucestershire and Somerset over the past two years. However, it is clear that the majority of the 2,500-plus badgers killed so far would have been TB free.
We all have a vested interest in the correct and long-term control of bTB. The spread of the disease needs to be significantly reduced for the interests of taxpayers, farmers and the future protection of our wildlife.
So what is the solution? It’s all very well criticising the status quo, but much harder to come up with a proper answer. The definitive long-term response has to be an effective strategy to reduce the spread of the disease based on cattle control measures and the vaccination of badgers and cattle.
At present, a cattle TB vaccination is being tested in Ethiopia and this needs to be brought to the UK for field trials as soon as possible. The European commission has put in place a 10-year timetable for its approved use in relation to meat and dairy exports to the EU.
However, this could be sidestepped if the UK government (with the support of the farming industry and major food retailers) were willing to seek a derogation from the European commission to allow the use of the vaccine in livestock products used in the UK supply chain only.
Defra’s Edge Badger Vaccination Scheme will see a significant increase in the level of badger vaccination across England in TB hotspot edge areas. But over the longer term, we must move forward with oral vaccine research for badgers as this offers the best solution to fighting the disease in the badger population, without the costs and complexities of the trap and vaccination methods currently being used.
Another key approach would be to improve TB testing techniques for cattle – and then introduce annual TB testing for cattle across the UK, not just in Wales as is currently the case.
Why does this mean so much to me? Living my life in conservation, I see far greater tragedies and crimes against wildlife than the loss of a few thousand badgers. The real reason so many people are so unsettled by the cull is its sinister reflection on the democratic process, on our government’s attitude to conservation and to science. The RBCTs were highly controversial and deplored by conservationists due to the number of animals killed. However, this thorough study clearly showed a cull would not work, so … it’s being discarded in favour of ill-thought, rushed pilot culls solely designed to placate the powerful farmers’ unions.
The former environment secretary, Owen Paterson, traveled the world looking for justification for a cull, pointing to “Other countries, where a cull has had results”. More specifically, to the Republic of Ireland, where the period of a cull coincided with a reduction of bTB. This conveniently ignores the fact that, in the same time period, Northern Ireland achieved comparable results in reducing bTB by cattle-based measures and without a single badger being killed. The other two countries he refers to are Australia and New Zealand. Two countries with entirely different ecosystems, which do not have badgers. None. Results were achieved in New Zealand by culling invasive possums and ferrets. You have to ask yourself why our politicians are even mentioning something so irrelevant, when the RBCT completed in this country with our farms and our animals, paid for by British taxpayers, is totally specific to our countryside.
The government is so desperate to be seen to be doing something, anything, to appease the countryside lobby, that it is willing to ride roughshod over facts, science, and the wildlife that belongs to each and every one of us lucky enough to live in Britain. It cannot afford to ignore public opinion though. Over the past 12 months more than 300,000 people have signed a petition against badger culling; the issue has been debated in Parliament three times; the Badger Trust has challenged the policy in the high court; and thousands of people have taken to the streets of 25 of our towns and cities to march for badgers in the biggest rolling wildlife campaign seen in Europe in decades. A recent Mori poll showed badger culling was the fifth most common issue of complaint to MPs. This was backed up by a recent ComRes poll for Care for the Wild and Badger Trust, which showed that nine out of 10 people believe badger culling is cruel and ineffective. This disastrous policy has to end.