On 14th December last year the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, announced to the House of Commons that the government would run two pilot schemes to cull badgers in England. The pilots will assess the viability of addressing the problem of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in beef and dairy cattle by shooting wild badgers, which are known to be carriers of the disease.
Two areas have been chosen, one in West Gloucestershire and one in West Somerset, both hot spots for bTB. The pilots are expected to last six weeks beginning in August or September this year.
The cull is naturally controversial. It’s opposed by the RSPCA, The Wildlife Trust, The Badger Trust and by roughly 60,000 members of the public who responded to the government’s own consultation exercise. A poll conducted by GfK NOP for the BBC last summer indicated that 63% of the public opposed it too.
Minister for Environment, Food
and Rural Affairs
But in the words of Ms Spelman, ‘Doing nothing is not an option’.
bTB is rife throughout South West England and Wales and is spreading steadily to other parts of the country. Badgers are known to spread the disease through saliva and urine. The government’s response is to enforce compulsory skin tests for all cattle every 60 days and to slaughter infected beasts. In 2010, 25,000 cattle were slaughtered in England alone, costing the taxpayer £91m in compensation for farmers. Farms under TB restrictions are not allowed to export live animals.
These policies hit dairy farms particularly. Although the government pays a market rate for slaughtered cattle, the farmer receives nothing for lost milk production and they have no option but to shoot male calves which might otherwise be sold for rearing elsewhere.
Although badgers are protected in the UK, many farmers have already taken the law in to their own hands and many badgers have been gassed in their sets, yet still the disease spreads.
The trouble is that culling does not work.
DEFRA says that the culls will be ‘science led’, but as Natural England, the government’s own wildlife advisors, have pointed out, it has been tried before, in the 70s and the 90s, and it proved ineffective at holding back the spread of the disease.
Moreover, an official £50m, ten-year study conducted for the government by a specially formed Independent Scientific Group (ISG), found that culling was ineffective at controlling the disease, and in fact caused it to spread more rapidly as surviving badgers scattered throughout the countryside, an effect known as ‘perturbation’.
Prof Lord John Krebs of Oxford University, who instigated the study, concluded in July 2011 that a four-year intensive cull which eradicated around 70% of the badger population might reduce incidence of the disease in cattle by 12 to 16%.
This is the reason that the previous Labour government rejected the proposals for a cull and also why similar plans were shelved last year by the Welsh government.
So what is the answer?
Well in the first instance let’s get this problem back in perspective. The reasons that the government insists on slaughtering animals are:
· To protect public health
· Animal welfare
· To protect Britain’s export market
But let’s take a closer look at these arguments.
Work by two senior zoologists, Prof David Torgerson of York University and Prof Paul Torgerson of Zurich University, has shown that there is little or no danger to public health posed by bTB provided milk is pasteurized. In fact meat from infected cattle slaughtered under the government policy is currently sold for human consumption, so obviously the government agrees.
They also point out that most cattle exposed to the bacterium will not fully develop the disease within the time of their normal commercial life, and many won’t develop it at all. In other words, the government’s policy which has been in place for 60 years is probably excessive and largely unnecessary.
The claims on animal welfare are clearly absurd. Slaughtering animals because they might develop a disease to which a vaccine is available cannot be represented as concern for their welfare.
Trade with EU countries is often cited as a factor. Well EU laws in this area only concern live animals. In the last 20 years Britain’s exports of live cattle have never exceeded £3.3 million in annual value which hardly justifies annual control costs of almost £100m.
So should we do nothing and simply accept a level of TB in our cattle herd?
Well no. What is rarely mentioned is that there is a viable vaccine for bTB.
Vaccinating cattle is currently seen as a non-starter because it is outlawed by EU law. The current skin tests do not differentiate between an immunised cow and an infected one. Further, DEFRA argues that “Not all vaccinated animals would be protected from TB and therefore vaccination alone will not be sufficient to demonstrate disease free status… and allow trade in those animals”. This is a disingenuous argument, as use of the skin test is also imperfect. Currently it is estimated that one in five animals slaughtered under government guidelines is actually a false positive. Similarly the test misses around 20% of infected cattle which may then be transported quite legally.
Would we reject vaccination of children against polio on the grounds that it’s not 100% effective? Of course not.
Vaccinating badgers is also ruled out because of assumptions about cost and difficulty. But another of DEFRA’s own agencies, The Food and Environment Research Agency, FERA, recently completed a badger vaccination project over a 100km² area near Stroud in Gloucestershire. In a report published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society they concluded,
“In a clinical field study, BCG vaccination of free-living badgers reduced the incidence of positive serological test results by 73.8 per cent. …BCG vaccination of badgers could comprise an important component of a comprehensive programme of measures to control bovine TB in cattle.”
In fact, the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, which has conducted its own trials, estimates that badger vaccination is a viable alternative to culling without the drawbacks, and could be carried out for only £51 per hectare.
Only two diseases have ever been eradicated in the world; smallpox and rinderpest, the latter being a cattle disease. Both were eradicated using vaccination.
What DEFRA should do is as follows:
- stop slaughtering infected cattle immediately
- allow farmers to vaccinate their cattle at their own discretion
- initiate a programme of vaccinating wild badgers
It will still take years but this is the only approach that will ever eradicate bTB from our shores.
Government ministers of all hues often feel obliged to be seen to do something, even when it makes no sense. The Conservative party moreover has always been the traditional party of the countryside and the farming lobby, so the pressure to do something dramatic is commensurately greater. But killing badgers will do nothing to eliminate bovine TB, it may even exacerbate the problem and it will do immense damage to our wildlife. Far from being science led, the decision to cull badgers looks like a purely political one.
Under these circumstances the proposed cull is pointless, barbaric and just plain wrong. Our wildlife should not be treated as a political prop.
I will leave the last word to the Badger Trust which has raised a legal challenge to the cull and which summed up the situation concisely.
“Badger culling, if it comes to pass, will represent a triumph of prejudice over science, a triumph of the feel-good factor over commonsense and a triumph of political expediency at the expense of a gullible industry.”