It’s hardly surprising we’ve got an emotional attachment to badgers considering the popular culture of our childhood. Wise and authoritative in The Wind in the Willows, the bumbling best friend in The Animals of Farthing Wood and the mischievous sidekick in Bodger and Badger, our perception of the animal is dripping with nostalgia. But to the humble farmer, the story is conversely lacking in sentiment. Instead it is concerned with the devastating loss of life and livelihood caused the spread of Bovine Tuberculosis (bTB) to their cattle.

Incidences of bTB in British cows have increased since the 1980s, costing UK Farms £100m in 2010 alone. So in September this year, despite fierce opposition and an appeal to the High Court from the Badger Trust; DEFRA gave the go ahead for two pilot culls, licensing the controlled shooting of badgers in areas of Somerset and Gloucestershire.

This decision has thrown up fierce opposition, with activists threatening to disrupt the shootings, farmers and supermarkets disassociating themselves from the scheme and naturalists slamming the science behind the cull as flawed and inconclusive.  BBC Wildlife Broadcaster Simon King tweets ‘culling badgers offers no lasting or substantial reduction in bTB.’ King points out that the study used to justify the cull (The Randomised Badger Culling Trial) concluded only minimal benefits, reducing bTB by just 16% over nine years within a 150sq km area.

The Randomised Badger Culling Trial concluded only minimal benefits, reducing bTB by just 16% over nine years

In fact, there was evidence that culls could even be counter-productive if surviving badgers and other species were to flee the shooting to surrounding areas, contaminating previously uninfected sets. DEFRA claims that the long-term benefits to cattle in the reduction of bTB outweigh this short-term drawback, because river and motorway boundaries prevent the effect lasting longer than 12-18 months. But it’s not unknown for badgers to swim and naturalists are concerned these boundaries may not be enough to keep the disease at bay.

So is there an alternative solution? Shropshire Wildife Trust is currently carrying out a five year vaccination project aimed in attempts to cut the spread of bTB in North Shropshire and South Cheshire. But the scheme is costly and difficult to execute. Each vaccine costs £20 and every badger has to be trapped in order to be immunised. Plus, the vaccines have to be repeated yearly to fully protect the population and have no effect on animals which are already infected. A cattle vaccine is a potential solution, but scientists have as of yet failed to develop one which can distinguish between immunised cows and infected ones. DEFRA are investing £15.5m into this research as well as looking into an oral vaccine for badgers, but both are likely to take several years.

bTB costed UK Farms £100m in 2010 alone

With bTB spreading rapidly and vaccinations still being tested, isn’t the cull better than nothing? Perhaps not. One of the most significant findings from the RBCT was that the incidence and geographical spread of bTB could be reversed by vigilant implementation of cattle-based control measures alone. In recent weeks a report from the European Commission suggests a widespread failure of farmers to adhere to biosecurity measures and consequently naturalists against the cull are arguing that badgers have been used as a scapegoat. Rather than culling badgers, they suggest that rapid isolation and removal of infected cattle, thorough disinfecting of water troughs, and less stressful living conditions. There are instances where bTB rates have fallen in West Wales since tighter biosecurity measures have been put in place. Simon King tweets, ‘Scientific evidence strongly supports cattle based control methods, combined with vaccination, as being best way to tackle bTB.’

Scientific evidence strongly supports cattle based control methods, combined with vaccination, as being best way to tackle bTB

Simon King

Southampton University’s Ecology professor, Dr C. Patrick Doncaster, agrees with other naturalists in opposing the cull. ‘I am not in favour of culling when scientific evidence has demonstrated its fallibility and when other alternatives are available’, he says, ‘I read the government’s decision as a political move with the short-term motive of garnering the rural vote, which will have damaging long-term consequences for England’s wildlife.’

If you want more facts to make up your own mind, you can read the RSCT report at: http://archive.defra.gov.uk/foodfarm/farmanimal/diseases/atoz/tb/isg/report/final_report.pdf

Since this article was printed in Issue 2 there has since been a delay in the cull until at least next summer apparently due to the bad weather inhibiting the culling process.  

There has also been a non-binding vote in the Houses Of Parliament in which ministers rejected the culling policy 147 votes to 28, with ministers instead preferring the policy of vaccination and improved biosecurity. At present despite the recent vote the cull is still planned to go ahead.

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