Earlier this week Ms Caroline Spelman, Environment Secretary, announced that, although there would be no badger culling in England this year as a measure to control cattle tuberculosis (bTB), there would be consultations on methodology. Culling by controlled shooting could take place in pilot trials next Spring with wider implementation the following year.
Although this decision was not exactly unexpected, I was really appalled by it for the following reasons.
The European Badger (Meles meles) is a protected species and, although under certain circumstances, for example to tackle disease, the Government can approve culling, I feel the killing of badgers is morally unjustifiable and inhumane. Prevention of the spread of bTB to cattle can be tackled in so many other ways - improved farm biosecurity measures especially around food storage containers and drinking troughs, improved husbandry management, more controls on cattle movement and more trialling and eventual introduction of vaccines for badgers and cattle. There is also far too much risk of badgers not being killed outright and suffering horribly from gunshot wounds.
In addition, culling could lead to local badger extinctions.
All relevant scientific evidence suggests that culling is ineffective and will not solve the cattle bTB problem as can be seen from the culling trial by the Independent Scientific Group (ISG) (costing £50 million pounds to administer). In their summary and recommendations they said "Given its high costs and low benefits we therefore conclude that badger culling is unlikely to contribute usefully to the control of cattle TB in Britain and recommend that TB control efforts focus on measures other than badger culling".
So why is this advice now being ignored?
A cull would be non-selective; targeting healthy as well as diseased badgers. Most badgers are free from bTB. The Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT), overseen by the ISG, demonstrated that even in bTB hotspots less than 1 in 7 badgers were infected.
The Government has suggested that in the pilot trials badgers should be culled by controlled shooting by marksmen, operating under licences from Natural England, targeting the badgers at night. This method and its effectiveness has never been tested previously.
The RBCT discovered in its trials that killing some badgers can lead to "pertubation" (i.e. the remaining badgers from the sett will scatter to other areas) thus increasing disease in cattle on the edge of test regions. Under current Government proposals pertubation will not be monitored even though controlled shooting could possibly lead to high scattering of surviving animals.
In 2009 and 2010 no badgers were culled but there were improvements in the testing of cattle, movement controls and cattle husbandry, resulting in a 15% reduction in the incidences of bTB.
The location of pilot trials will become public knowledge as local people will need to be consulted before culling can commence which may well lead to protests and consequent problems with public order and safety in the trial areas.
It appears to me that in recent decades the badger has often been made a scapegoat in the spread of bTB and its alleged role seems to have taken attention away from important research into other solutions and cattle management issues.
Culling would be costly and time consuming and could even exacerbate the problems of transmission. It is not a well proven solution to the problem as past trials have shown.
Ms Spelman's Chief Scientific Adviser claims the policy is science-led but DEFRA says on its website that "cattle to cattle transmission is a serious cause of disease spread". As previously mentioned the ISG in its summary did not recommend badger culling as a solution. The ISG has made the scientific view that culling of badgers provides "no meaningful contribution" and is "not cost effective" as a tool for reducing incidence of bTB. The RBCT from 1998 to 2006 researched how bTB spread between cattle, badgers and other species and reached the important conclusions that
1. Although badgers were a source of bTB, badger culling could make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain and some ideas under consideration could make the situation worse not better.
2. Failures in cattle testing means that cattle themselves contribute to the persistence and spread of bTB where it is found and in some areas are likely to be the primary reasons for infection.
Scientific evidence also suggest that rising levels of the disease can be reversed and spreading of the disease can be stopped by the rigorous use of cattle based control measures alone.
So what is the best way of tackling the transmission of bTB in cattle?
Cattle mainly catch bTB from other cattle and the risk of the disease spreading is highest when cattle are kept in close proximity to each other in enclosed areas, such as overwintering in sheds, or when they make contact with other cattle at markets or shows. Therefore, surely improved husbandry and efficient movement controls are part of the answer.
Increased biosecurity by farmers to reduce the risk of wildlife, such as badgers and deer, contaminating food and water is also essential.
But most importantly widespread vaccination of badgers following more field trials would seem the most humane, cost effective and efficient way forward. In the long term a vaccination for cattle would control the spread of the disease even more effectively especially as a test is being developed which can differentiate between cows infected with bTB and those that have been vaccinated.
A BBC poll last month revealed that most people (both city and rural dwellers) opposed a badger cull. 63% were against culling, 31% in favour and the remainder undecided.
If you are against the proposed cull of badgers The League Against Cruel Sports have an online petition at
They have 18,000 signatures and are hoping to get a million but even 100,000 would be enough to start a debate in parliament.
The Mammal Society (http://www.mammal.org.uk/(
The Badgers Trust (http://www.badger.org.uk/Content/Home.asp)
Save Me Badgers in Peril (http://www.brianmay.com/save-me/badgers/)
The Wildlife Trusts (http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/)
Bovine TB: Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) Report
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