With the recent government announcement of a pilot cull will occur in England and the subsequent petitions that have been launched against it what is the reality behind the calls for a general cull on badgers and the manner in which it will be implemented? Harry Raffal investigates.
Firstly I should state that I am not opposed on principle to a cull on badgers. If there is evidence there are too many of any species for the local ecosystem to remain balanced a cull of that species should be considered. However, in this case the calls for a cull on badgers are based on the spreading of tuberculosis (TB) to cattle. Again I am not opposed to a cull of badgers on these grounds if the effectiveness of a cull can be established. The question which must be asked about the government’s proposed scheme is whether it is able to significantly reduce TB in cattle.
Bovine Tuberculosis is a serious problem for the farming industry and cost the taxpayer £90 million last year after 25,000 cows were slaughtered in England alone. If the spread of TB continues in cattle stocks the government predicts it will cost the taxpayer £1 billion in compensation over the next decade. There is clear evidence that badgers carry TB and are capable of transferring TB and since they were made a protected species in 1973 there numbers have greatly expanded and there are now well over 250,000 badgers in the UK.
This being the case, one may wonder why the calls for a cull on badgers are so contentious. Importantly badgers are a relatively marginal spreader of TB. Even an effective cull is only estimated at making a fifteen percent difference to the spreading of TB to cattle. This is because animals such as deer, where the disease has been detected in 5 out of the 6 species of deer in Britain, are also able to spread TB and their contribution is both greater and harder to counter than that of the badger.
Bovine TB can remain in a herd of deer for up to 11 years which makes it a significantly more difficulty to eradicate their role in the spread of the disease but considering their numbers, estimated at around 2 million, it is clear that any effective strategy to eliminate bovine TB must include a policy towards the spreading of the disease through the deer population. This is all the more important when you consider that Fallow deer often graze on cattle pastures in large numbers and that roe deer often live alongside cattle herds frequently only separated by a hedgerow. In addition to this bovine TB is generally spread to wild animals through cattle and these animals then contaminate other wild animals and other cow herds. Until this issue is also focused on it is difficult to gauge the actual effect of any cull on badgers.
But leaving aside the other issues affecting the spread of TB to cattle the effectiveness of the culling scheme itself is questionable. This is because the scheme will involve farmers being able to kill badgers travelling across their land. This seems very reasonable, it will save the government the expense of organising a cull targeting whole setts and place the responsibility for action on farmers. However, the result is likely to be that TB from badgers will actually increase in the short-term.
Because the cull won’t destroy an entire sett, the remaining badgers, say twenty percent, will abandon their sett and spread out individually across a wider area contaminating more herds, known as the perturbation effect. During trials the perturbation effect was shown to significantly decrease over time making culling beneficial. However, these trials did not involve shooting but trapping the animals. Cage trapping will not be used in the trial as it is ten times more expensive than shooting, £2,200 per square kilometre per year, and the government would almost certainly have to subsidise farmers if this technique was employed. Because shooting is seen as more disruptive to setts of Badgers the perturbation effect may well be far more sever and drastically decrease the benefits of any cull. No-one knows what the actual effect will be because despite seven years of trials this technique wasn’t considered, therefore there is no evidence from trials upon which to form an informed opinion.
Nor is the plan considered cost effective and due attention should be paid to other factors before a cull is launched, in short culling was not an effective policy to end the spread of bovine TB. This isn’t the opinion of animal rights activists seeking to preserve walking shaving brushes at all cost but the opinion of the preeminent zoologist Lord Krebs. Lord Krebs is the leading government advisor on this problem and was the individual who wrote the initial report on badgers and TB upon which the current policy is being based on. Asked whether he thought the cull was a mistake he stated definitively that he thought it was. Despite this free-shooting, which Defra has recently renamed controlled-shooting, is likely to go ahead but is there an alternative to be explored?
That depends on your opinion on whether a new bovine TB vaccination for badgers is worth pursuing. Currently the vaccine is estimated at over 70 percent effectiveness, although this claim is disputed by some scientists. However, the cost of the vaccine is high as it involves trapping which as I’ve already mentioned is exorbitantly expensive. The government has provided £250,000 to vaccinate badgers but that isn’t enough to allow farmers to pursue this option, by contrast the studies and culling trials on badgers came in at £7 million. For opponents of a vaccination scheme the time scale of the vaccine is objected to, the real effect may take over 4 years to produce real drops in the spread of TB by badgers. Any decision taken by the government is likely to land it in hot water. If the government stalls on a cull the farmers will accuse them of procrastinating in the same vain as the last government. If the government press ahead with a cull animal rights activists, who can count on a great deal of public support on this issue, will object to the destruction of these furry animals. What is clear is that a cull alone isn’t the answer to the problem of TB in cattle.