Badgers are one of Britain’s finest native creatures and we are fortunate enough to host one of the largest species populations in Europe. As nature would have it, the badger’s nocturnal lifestyle means it is seldom seen and appreciated in the wild, only venturing from the sett to feed after nightfall. This is a crying shame, made worse by the fact that the blanket slaughter of British badgers (to contain the spread of Bovine Tuberculosis in cattle), is leaving us with nothing but their carcasses to look at.
Sadly, because badgers have been implicated in Bovine Tuberculosis transmission – something which has caused panic in farming communities as the infectious disease is easily transmissible to cattle – culling in ‘hot spot’ areas has become something of a sport. The disease also affects other non-bovine animals including pigs and sheep, as well as several species of domestic animal (cats and dogs included), but the fact the culling has so far only extended to badgers indicates they are the biggest culprit. Or does it?
Last year, pilot badger culls involving ‘free shooting’ took place in Gloucestershire and Somerset where badger populations are particularly high. The aim was to show that 70% of badgers could be humanely killed within 6 weeks. In fact, the trials were a complete disaster, proving only that a handful of animals could be cage-trapped and shot at. While the incidence of bTB in cull areas was reduced by a small extent, the incidence outside the cull area increased as the territorial nature of badgers drove the surviving animals further afield.
The culls were neither humane nor effective, and subsequent findings suggested that in some cases, badgers were incorrectly shot, taking up to 10 minutes to die."
Understandably, many people were upset that this had been allowed to happen. Besides their obvious concern for animal welfare, they also questioned the likelihood of bTB posing a real threat to humans and whether the action to kill the animals, rather than vaccinate them, was warranted. Badgers are one of the most legally protected wild animals in the UK, coming under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Therefore, many argued that widespread culling was both unethical and illegal.
But there was of course a motive behind the free shootings. Bovine Tuberculosis poses a very high risk to cattle and is one of the biggest threats facing the farming industry today. It is estimated that £30,000 is the average cost to a UK farmer of TB breakdown in a herd - a significant amount that takes into account the compulsory slaughter of cattle, costs of testing and loss of income. If TB were to enter the food chain, an outbreak of TB in the human population could be catastrophic. For public protection alone, the Government has wanted to pursue a heads-on approach to the issue, despite facing fierce opposition from the pro-badger community.
Their main argument: badgers are NOT to blame. It is cattle to cattle transmission that poses the real threat. Between 2008 and 2013, over 220,000 cattle have been culled because of bTB infection. Of this number, roughly 94% are thought to have contracted the disease from other cattle (this usually happens when cattle inhale the bacteria given off by the urine or faecal deposits of an infected animal), although this is subject to speculation. If left unmanaged, the cost of bTB to the British taxpayer over the next decade is predicted to push £1 billion.
Facing a similar crisis in New Zealand in the 1990s, the government made the decision to cull the common brushtail possum, the main vector for bTB transmission. As a result, the country saw a 94% reduction in cases of TB. This would suggest that culling can be effective, surely?
Simple science suggests that culling can actually increase the prevalence of disease amongst badgers and in turn, lead to more cattle becoming infected. This is known as the 'perturbation effect.' As some of the infected badgers are killed off, the remaining badgers roam outside the cull zone, spreading TB to non-infected hosts. While this does happen, it is more often the case that outside badgers move inside the cull zone to take advantage of abandoned territory. More animals are brought in, meaning more badgers quickly become infected. If blanket culling continues, the perturbation effect is only going to get worse.
But what are the alternatives to culling?
While many people are up-in-arms over a proposed extension to the strategic slaughter of more British badgers because they believe it to be inhumane and ineffective, the fact that a BCG vaccine (for cattle and badgers) costs less than it does to shoot an animal, is something that has prompted additional outrage.
At face value, the cost of badger vaccination per square kilometre per year exceeds that of culling over the same area and time period, but when you take into account policing costs (i.e. from protests against culling), vaccination is the far cheaper option. As badgers are nocturnal and only feed after dark, cage-trapping a badger to administer a vaccination is just as difficult as cage-trapping a badger to shoot it. Therefore, localised vaccination is considered by many the more effective method of defence against TB, without any potential for perturbation.
Another way of safeguarding cattle from the potential spread of disease is by maintaining biosecurity (good husbandry) and employing precautionary measures along with common sense where possible. Making sure cattle feed is inaccessible to badgers is the first step towards securing your farmyard as badgers will be attracted by feed and are therefore more likely to contaminate it. As badger latrines are the biggest breeding ground for TB transmission, keep cattle away from these high-risk areas and avoid badger setts when putting your cows to pasture.
If you suspect an outbreak of TB or that one of your animals has become infected, isolate it from the rest of the herd. Cattle to cattle transmission is much more common than badger to cattle transmission, so it is essential that animals are separated as soon as a TB outbreak is suspected.
What are your thoughts on badger culling? Should it be replaced with vaccination or be allowed to continue? Please share your thoughts with us and feel free to contact me directly with any further questions: firstname.lastname@example.org