Badgers, blame and bovine TB

Badger, secret location, East Kent. The government’s badger cull has not reached Kent… yet! Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Bovine TB (b:TB or cattle tuberculosis) is a menace on the farm. If cattle contract it they must be slaughtered. For farmers who have spent many years breeding a herd this is a disaster, particularly as the disease tends to spread amongst animals in close proximity, meaning that sometimes an entire herd has to be destroyed.

For decades farmers, vets and environmentalists have argued about what causes the spread of bTB. Environmentalists say modern farming methods are to blame, insisting cattle aren’t checked properly before being transported to farms across the country. Others, including many farmers and the vets who earn a living treating their cattle, say badgers, which are known carriers of the disease, pass it on to livestock.

In recent years two hugely important trials have occurred out in the fields in the west of Britain. In a few English counties, a highly controversial government backed cull has attempted to kill vast numbers of badgers to see if bTB in cattle is reduced. About 15,000 have been killed so far and the pro cull lobby claims success, but many leading scientists and The Wildlife Trusts, suggest there is no basis for suggesting anything of the sort. In a joint statement the Badger Trust, Born Free Foundation, the RSPCA, and The Humane Society International make their view clear:

“there is no evidence that the current culls are reducing bovine TB in cattle” (1).

One surprising figure from an earlier test is that 83% of badgers culled in government trials 2002-2005 tested TB free” (2), yet in the culls of recent years the government has refused to allow testing of culled badgers to check if they actually had bTB. Furthermore, a panel of experts appointed by the government to assess the validity of the English badger cull was disbanded when they reported that the cull was both cruel and ineffective.

Meanwhile in Wales, where a cull was ruled out, a so called IAA Vaccination Programme has been vaccinating hundreds of Badgers against Bovine TB, so that they don’t get it and therefore can’t spread it to cattle. In tandem a more stringent bTB testing programme has been carried out in Welsh cattle herds.

Between July 2015 and July 2016 new bTB incidences in Welsh cattle fell by 19% (2) although more incidences were found in herds known to have had previous bTB infections. This suggests overall the two level programme is working: less herds are being infected, and better testing is finding more of the cattle which already have bTB. Vaccination is cheaper too, at about £700 per badger (3), while the cull is costing about £5-7,000 per badger(4). Nevertheless many Welsh farmers are insisting they want an English style badger cull. Such a call would seem to conflict with the scientific evidence.

To pass the disease directly to a cow, an infected badger would need to come within 1.5 metres of it, but new research by Prof Rosie Woodroffe and experts at the Zoological Society of London (5), in which they tracked 65,000 badger and cattle movements, shows that rather than coming into close contact with cattle, badgers actually avoid them. Only once in the entire study did a badger come within 10 metres of a cow, but most preferred to stay 50 metres away or more.

These new studies suggest that environmental factors may play a much more important role in bTB infections than has been realised. “The current tests for bTB in cattle are only 20-50% effective and one fifth of all bTB infections are only discovered when the animals go to slaughter” (6). These cattle are therefore likely to have been infecting pasture land, farmyards and a variety of common animals including hedgehogs, mice, moles, rats, sheep, goats, slugs and worms long before the disease was detected. Even when a bTb infection is found early in a cattle herd, the slurry and manure from these animals is not regarded as contaminated and often gets spread all over the farm. Professor Alastair MacMillan, ex Defra vet and Veterinary Adviser to the Humane Society International has advised:

The suggestion by some that TB is spread by frequent nose-to-nose contact between badgers and cattle has now been completely dismissed. It is much more likely that contamination by cattle of fields and yards by [TB bacteria] is the cause of repeated TB herd breakdownsIt’s clear that the government must divert the substantial resources being used needlessly to cull badgers and instead improve farmer education and biosecurity on farms”(7).

So, why is there a continued insistence amongst farmers and some members of the governmental scientific community that badgers are always to blame? Badgers are an easy target: they, like many wild animals, have been persecuted by cruel country folk for centuries, not because they cause any real harm, but because it’s a traditional ‘country sport’ to kill them. Could it be the very same thugs who are getting paid to kill badgers in the cull?

Britain’s farming industry is vital, it feeds the nation, it must succeed; but whatever the definitive cause of the spread of bTB turns out to be, we need an ethical, sustainable farming industry that works in harmony with the land, local communities and wildlife. The mass slaughter of thousands of healthy, uninfected badgers surely cannot be seen as a logical, ethical and humane solution to what is essentially a modern farming problem.

(1) Badger Trust, Born Free Foundation, RSPCA, Humane Society International, joint submission to DEFRA consultation, January 2017.
(2) Badger Trust figure
(3) Figure quoted by Caroline Lucas MP, Hansard 07 September 2016, Volume 614.
(4) Initial figure: £7,000, Final Report of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, June 2007; revised figure: £5,000, Caroline Lucas MP, Hansard 07 September 2016, Volume 614.
(5) Prof. R. Woodroffe, Ecology Letters, 4 Aug 2016,: Badgers prefer cattle pasture but avoid cattle: implications for bovine tuberculosis control
(6) Dr Monaghan MP. Sponsor of Commons EDM on Badger Cull. Hansard 07 September 2016, Volume 614.
(7) Quoted in The Guardian, Friday 5 August 2016.

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