Map of UK incidences of Bovine TB in cattle 2006-2010 shows Wales and West of England are worst affected.
Last week the Badger Trust began its High Court challenge to try to force the government to end the trial badger culls taking place in Somerset and Gloucestershire. The court is now considering its decision. If the trials are allowed and deemed successful the government will organise a cull of badgers across England, possibly including the Bridge area, so here we consider some of the issues involved in this controversial policy.
What is the cull?
The cull is the organised mass killing of random badgers by trapping and shooting. It does not just select sick animals.
What is its purpose?
To prevent the spread of Bovine Tuberculosis from badgers to cattle. Thousands of cattle contract Bovine TB each year and have to be slaughtered to prevent them entering the human food chain (32,600 in 2013 (1)) . This can be both devastating and expensive for farmers, although they can claim compensation from the government; an expensive tab which costs about £29 million a year (2). The numbers seem huge, but in comparison approximately 90,000 dairy cows are prematurely killed annually due to mastitis (infection of the udder), 31,000 due to lameness and 125,000 due to infertility (3). It’s not hard to see why critics say the underlying problem here is cattle welfare management, not badgers.
If the culling trials are considered effective and the cull goes nationwide the objective is to reduce Bovine TB in cattle by between 12-16% (4).
How many badgers will be killed?
About 1,860 Badgers in Gloucestershire and Somerset have been culled initially. If the cull is rolled out nationally somewhere between 100,000 to 130,000 badgers could be killed in order to reduce the population by 70% to match the statistical model being used (16).
Is the cull generally backed by political and expert opinion?
No. A previous Labour government conducted its own trial badger cull and concluded on scientific advice that it was ineffective for its purpose. The new cull was introduced by the Conservative Party element of the British coalition government and it is not supported by the other main parties.
Recently, over thirty of the country’s leading animal disease scientists wrote to the The Observer to complain about the cull. One of them, Lord John Krebs, stated “The scientific case is as clear as it can be: this cull is not the answer to TB in cattle. The government is cherry-picking bits of data to support its case.”
The Government’s trial culls were branded an “epic failure” by Professor David Macdonald the chief scientific adviser to Natural England, the very organisation that authorised them. He stated: “It is hard to see how continuing this approach could be justified.”
Both the current government chief scientist, Professor Sir John Beddington and a former government chief scientist Lord Robert May have refused to back the cull, again indicating that there is no scientific justification for it.
In contrast, the National Farmers Union have been vociferous in their demands for a badger cull, but they only represent 18% of agricultural workers and they have not balloted their membership about the issue; so who exactly is making the demand? Dave Purser, a dairy farmer from Cheltenham, spoke out publicly about the issue in 2012 saying that, contrary to the impression given by the NFU, many farmers were against badger culling but had no voice.
Is the cull legal?
Possibly not. The Badger is a protected species. The Badger Trust is currently battling in the High Court to show that the cull only has legality if it can show an independent assessment of the effectiveness, humaneness and safety of the cull. However, the entire independent assessment panel of experts has been dismissed by the government because they exposed the cull as a failure.
Do badgers carry Bovine TB?
Yes, various wildlife species carry the disease including some badgers. However, in a sample of over 11,000 badgers killed in the Randomised Badger Culling Trials by the last Labour Government, only 1.65% had the symptoms of being seriously infectious (5). 15% had low level TB, which would not impact on the health of the badger during its short lifetime, or make it a major risk of disease spread to other badgers or cattle (6).
The government culls do not target the sick animals, they kill at random, which actually increases the percentage of animals left with the disease. During the recent trial culls in Gloucestershire and Somerset the government have even refused to test the killed badgers to see how many had Bovine TB. This is unbelievably incompetent in itself, but protesters argue that it is because the numbers will expose the cull as a complete fraud.
Do badgers spread Bovine TB to cattle?
Possibly to some extent yes, but astonishingly there is no conclusive scientific evidence of this; however it is a belief held by thousands of farmers. To justify the cull Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for the Environment, quoted a mathematical model to suggest that badgers caused 50% of the Bovine TB in cattle (7). Environmentalists and scientists argue that the evidence suggests the opposite, badgers probably catch Bovine TB from cattle, although transmissions back from badgers to cattle is likely to be about 5% (8). In Wales, a Bovine TB hotspot, 40% of farms do not suffer from any Bovine TB (13), yet they are surrounded by badgers, just as the other farms are. Furthermore, the fact that Scotland and many other countries in the EU are virtually free of Bovine TB even though badgers live there too suggests that badgers are not the main source of the problem.
“According to the European Commission many successful bTB eradication programmes have been implemented which led to seven countries being recently officially bTB free (OTF) such as France (2001) and Latvia (2011) and in none of these did the occurrence of bTB in the wild population cause an insurmountable problem. Fifteen EU countries are currently OTF1.” RSPCA
So where else could the Bovine TB in cattle come from?
The government’s own website Gov.uk describes alternative sources of infection thus:
“Bovine TB is mainly spread into new herds through the movement of infected cattle that have not been detected.
Infected animals spread the disease mainly through coughing and sneezing. Bacteria are released into the air and inhaled by other animals in close contact.
The disease can be spread from infected cows to their offspring during suckling and, much more rarely, in the womb; and also through contaminated equipment, animal waste, feed and pasture “
What is the situation in other countries?
Badgers roam wild right across continental Europe, yet many countries in the EU have been declared free of Bovine TB for years. In EU countries which are not officially TB free incidences of Bovine TB in cattle are low compared to those found in the UK and Ireland.
Although Ireland has experienced comparatively high levels of Bovine TB, stricter regulations on cattle movement and biosecurity combined with a savage badger cull (using snares) appear to have brought down incidences in recent years, but it is unclear which elements of the schemes have worked and which haven’t. The UK’s badger cull is modelled on what took place in Ireland, yet that country still has one of the highest rates of Bovine TB in Europe and the Irish government have stated that they aim to end their badger culls and introduce a badger or cattle vaccination programme as soon as practicably possible.
Status of EU countries regarding Bovine TB Free or Not Free classification
Is there a better solution to Bovine TB than killing badgers?
Yes. Environmentalists argue that a combination of improved cattle welfare management methods could dramatically reduce the problems caused by the disease without the need to cull badgers.
“We believe that vaccination, increased levels of testing and improved biosecurity are more effective ways of dealing with bovineTB in the long term.” RSPCA
The European Commission has stated that the UK has more movement of cattle than any other country in the EU. They urged for greater movement restrictions to be introduced as a priority as cattle movement is such an important part of the disease transmission. Around 40% of all British cattle are moved annually and over 13 million cattle movements take place every year as farmers buy and sell stock (10).
The Welsh Assembly have initiated a badger vaccination programme which does not involve killing badgers, but vaccinations do not cure badgers which already have the disease, so it will be some time before the results of this can be seen. In England a badger vaccination programme called ‘The Badger Edge Vaccination Scheme’ is to be launched in 2015 to create a buffer between areas of high incidence in the South West of England and low incidence in the North and East (11). However, such schemes assume that the badger is the main culprit in the spread of the disease.
Prof John McInerney, Emeritus Professor of Agricultural Policy, University of Exeter has stated:
“Bovine TB is unarguably a serious problem in cattle farming, but the continual focus on the badger aspect is getting in the way of proper rigorous thinking about disease control. bTB is a disease of cattle and the badger is just an accessory, so badger culling (or vaccination) is just an accessory to the main problem. The control strategy has to be built directly around measures to limit the spread within the cattle population, and until this is done we will never get on top of the problem.”
The best solution would be the vaccination of cattle (a BCG vaccination is available), but there is much confusion about whether or not milk and meat products from vaccinated cows would desirable or even legal in the EU marketplace because they spoil human Tuberculosis tests.
What about the costs?
The government has claimed that a badger vaccination programme in England would be too expensive. The cull of badgers by ‘free shooting’ has been put forward as the cheapest option for reducing the incidence of Bovine TB in cattle to acceptable levels. Yet results show that in the trial areas this proved impractical and only 24% of badgers were killed in this way (12). The rest were trapped by teams of trappers, then shot at a cost which far exceeds the price of a vaccination programme.
A Care for the Wild calculation based on Freedom of Information requested releases indicates:
“… an overall cost for the pilot culls of £7.3 million or over £4,000 per dead badger. If badger culling was rolled out to 40 new areas of England over the next 4 years, the overall cost could exceed £800 million.”
In Wales the cost of vaccinating badgers has been calculated at £650 each (15).
So why have the cull at all?
Opponents suggest that the cull was proposed as a political measure by the Conservative Party before the 2010 general election to gain support from the highly influential National Farmers Union and the self styled Countryside Alliance. Many farmers support the cull because they are desperate for a solution to Bovine TB. The Countryside Alliance represent an alarming group of the ‘hunting, shooting, fishing’ crowd who just enjoy killing wildlife whether there is an official cull or not. To conduct the badger culls on their land farmers and landowners can appoint and pay the same people who go out shooting wildlife for sport on a regular basis. Of course these people continually spread the idea that killing badgers is the cure for Bovine TB, for them it is just a lucrative extension of their hobby.
We must surely conclude that the badger cull is not supported by science, popular opinion or financial prudence: it is an act of environmental vandalism made, we can only assume, as a political gesture which aims to appease a certain sector of the ‘hunting, shooting, fishing’ community, a community to which David Cameron and his previous Secretary of State for the Environment Owen Paterson apparently feel particularly loyal.
Primary sources used for statistics:
(1) The Guardian. (2) Averaged over last 5 years. Gov.uk. (3) Viva International. (4) Defra. (5) Badger Trust (6) Badger Trust (7) Defra. 8 Badger Trust. (9) www.BovineTB info. (10) RSPCA. (11) Defra. (12) Care for the Wild. (13) www.BovineTB info.(14) www.BovineTB.co.uk. (15) BBC.co.uk/news/science-environment. (16) Care for the Wild.
Following an enquiry on this issue we would like to clarify that Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs who introduced the badger cull discussed in this article has recently been replaced in that position by Elizabeth (Liz) Truss from the Conservative Party. Ms Truss will be making the decision on whether or not to roll out the badger cull nationwide. So what are her views on it? As Camilla Swift comments in the Spectator on 17 July, “She has twice voted in favour of the pilot badgers cull. (sec)” So more of the same then.
Comment added by ADMIN 29 October 2014.
The Badger Trust has been informed today that it has lost its appeal in the High Court. The trust was attempting to have the badger cull trials declared illegal.