Friday, 20 July 2012

The Badger Cull - The Facts, Alternatives and How to Help Stop It

NOTE: A longer and more in-depth version of this article has also been published here:

Last week, the proposed badger cull was declared legal, despite a challenge from the Badger Trust.

There's a badger sett not far from where I live. Often I see them out in the evening searching for food and in the summer there are often young badger cubs playing on the edge of the fields. I have a great fondness for these creatures, and naturally wouldn't want to see them butchered. But regardless of that, there are several other reasons why I oppose the badger cull.

What's the problem?

If you haven't heard already, badgers carry Bovine Tuberculosis (TB), and the disease can be passed to cattle (and likewise, cattle can pass the disease to badgers). In 2011, 34,191 cattle were slaughtered due to TB - there is no denying that this disease impacts on the livelihood of cattle farmers (although those of us that don't consume cow products may argue that most, if not all, cattle farming is unethical, unsustainable and unenvironmentally friendly, but I'll leave that issue for another day). Government compensation per cow ranges from £98 to £4,913 depending on the age, breed and sex of the cow - that's your taxes. Understandably, many farmers are concerned that having badgers on their land is a major threat to their herd and their business. Eradication of badgers would seem like a logical method of preventing the spread of Bovine TB.

How is TB transmitted?

In 2005, scientists at Oxford University found that cattle-to-cattle transmissions of TB "substantially and consistently outweigh" all other factors. Cattle catch the disease from breathing in air from the lungs of other cattle, particularly in poorly-ventilated spaces such as barns. The disease may be brought into the herd from new cows, shared breeding bulls and coming into contact with infected cows at markets and shows. Cows are, of course, tested for TB - however Defra estimates that the test only detects around 80% of infected cattle. Furthermore, a team from Liverpool University has found that the presence of a common fluke that parasitises the liver of cattle can reduce the chances of TB being detected by the test. This fluke has increased dramatically in numbers over the last 15 years, the same period that has seen a large increase in incidences of TB in cattle.

It is thought that TB is transmitted from badgers to cattle primarily via urine and dung left in fields, and laboratory studies have shown that cattle can catch the disease from infected badgers under controlled conditions, albeit in an enclosed environment. Testing for infected setts is unreliable, with only around a 40-50% success rate, and therefore only targeting infected setts would be expensive and unreliable.

Badgers are not the only wild animals that carry TB. Deer carry TB and tend to wander much further than badgers. Fallow and red deer in particular have high incidences of the disease. Foxes, squirrels and rats also carry TB. However, following two studies indicating the relatively high incidences of of TB in deer, Defra concluded that they are unlikely to pass the disease onto cattle. The Badger Trust responded: "This statement is plainly nonsense to those of us who have watched wild deer grazing alongside cattle at pasture."

As David Williams, Chair of the Badger Trust put it - “Until the science is clear, we should not be making the badger a scapegoat. Remember DDT, myxomatosis and Thalidomide. We thought we knew that these were scientific certainties but they were disastrous. We should be wary for the future.”

What's the problem with culling?

Springwatch presenter Chris Packham, speaking to The Telegraph, opposes the cull and said "...their death would most likely be in vain as scientific studies suggest that culling them could increase the risk of transmission to bovine cattle rather than reduce it." Wildlife documentary legend David Attenborough echoed these concerns in The Guardian - "Survivors will carry the disease into areas that have hitherto been unaffected. There's good scientific research available to show that culling badgers can make things worse and not better." The evidence for this claim comes from studies, including the RBCT, that suggest that culling increases dispersal in badgers, infecting the areas on the edge of the cull area. This leaflet produced by the Wildlife Trusts explains the reasoning behind this.

In the 1990s, Lord Krebs conducted a long-term study on the effectiveness of badger culling, and his initial report can be found here. Back in 1997, Lord Krebs supported the development of a vaccination for cattle - "We recommend that the best prospect for control of TB in the British herd is to develop a cattle vaccine. This is a long-term policy and success cannot be guaranteed. But the potential benefits are substantial and we consider this should be a high priority." In 2011, speaking to The Guardian, he re-stated his view that development of a vaccine should be a priority and called for "biosecurity measures" to reduce incidences of cattle coming into contact with badgers and other sources of TB, and from passing the disease between cattle. He also put into context the pointlessness of the cull - "You cull intensively for at least four years, you will have a net benefit of reducing TB in cattle of 12% to 16%. So you leave 85% of the problem still there, having gone to a huge amount of trouble to kill a huge number of badgers. It doesn't seem to be an effective way of controlling the disease." The Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) was undertaken between 1998 and 2005 and the final report can be found here. This report stated "While endorsing the need for continued research on vaccine development, we recognise that substantial obstacles need to be overcome in developing an effective vaccine and therefore advise that vaccination, of either cattle or badgers, should be considered only as a longer term option" and also "...there were insufficient data on the efficacy of [vaccines] in badgers to assess whether or not it represented a viable vaccine candidate."

In summary, the government's own advisors have admitted that culling won't completely solve the problem, and that vaccination has potential, although it is untested.

How are they intending to cull? 

Two methods will be used - shooting badgers in the field and cage trapping followed by shooting. Full details of the methods they intend to employ can be found here.

Where are they intending to cull?

For security reasons, the exact location of the cull areas have not been disclosed. In January, the BBC reported that the locations would be around Tewkesbury and the Foreset of Dean in Gloucestershire, and in the Taunton Deane area of Somerset.

So what's the alternative to the cull?

The Welsh Government has scrapped plans for a cull and has now embarked on a badger vaccination programme. To date, 430 badgers have been vaccinated. The Cheshire Wildlife Trust has also begun a 5-year vaccination programme. Badgers are trapped and injected with the vaccine and then set free again - with the benefit of being immune to TB. Although it is far too early to tell how effective this will be, if Lord Krebs is right, it would make sense to put off the cull until we some results from Wales. Continued research into a vaccine for cattle would be a sensible use of time and money.

In the meantime, biosecurity measures would limit the spread of the disease in cattle, such as putting up badger-proof fences, keeping cattle in smaller sheds and improving ventilation, as well as more rigorous testing. A recent study suggests that managing farms for conservation can reduce the risk of transmission of TB from cattle to badgers, and makes some recommendations for farming practices.

Who is opposing the cull?

A poll conducted by the BBC suggests that 63% of the population are opposed to the cull. A wide variety of scientists, celebrities and organisations have come forth to oppose the cull. As previously mentioned, Lord Krebs, David Attenborough and Chris Packham have been outspoken against the cull. Queen guitarist Brian May is also passionately opposed. Wildlife and animal rights organisations against the cull include The Badger Trust, RSPCA, RSPB, Wildlife Trusts, League Against Cruel Sports, Badger Watch and Rescue, Humane Society International, Network for Animals, Viva and an organisation I was not previously familiar with, Conservatives Against Fox Hunting.

The Stroud 100 group has "sealed off" 1,000 acres of land in Gloucestershire by getting landowners to declare their land a no-cull area.

Both the Green Party and the Labour Party have voiced their opposition to the cull.

The National Trust's position can be found here. Relevant extracts are as follows: "Where a comprehensive package of measures is in place, and where the scientific criteria for a successful cull can be met, we would not object to a humane and effective cull of badgers taking place on our land. Research shows this can help reduce the spread of the disease... Effective vaccination of badgers and cattle is an additional tool for tackling bovine TB in the long term, which is why we have launched a vaccination programme for badgers on one of our estates."

What can I do to help oppose the cull?
Please contact Standing Stone's Blog if you have any details or news of future campaigns, protests or petitions against the badger cull - standingstonesblog [at]

No comments:

Post a Comment