OK... the big question... What about the badger cull?
It is a question I got asked almost daily at the end of last Summer, and now with the inevitable news last week that it is going to go ahead I thought I would put some thoughts out there.
Before I start, I need to point out two things...
Firstly, this may turn in to a bit of a long post. So for those of you that want an abridged version:
I am against the cull of badgers. I do not believe it will work, and think it may possibly make the situation worse.
Secondly, the opinions on this post are mine and not necessarily those of the British Wildlife Centre.
Now of course, you can find many opinions all over the web about the cull, from both sides of the story, but not often in the same place. Being both a wildlife enthusiast and the employee of a former dairy farmer, I know many people from both sides of the story. So here is a brief (yes, I could of rambled on even longer), explanation of the situation as I see it. Please feel free to correct any of my information if you believe me to be mistaken. This is only what I have gathered/picked up from various people and sources.
Now I assume that any one interested in reading this knows what TB is. And it is true that badgers can carry it, as can cattle. So can many other mammals including wild deer species. It is also true that it is possible for cattle to get TB from badgers, as can badgers from cattle, badgers from badgers and cattle from other cattle.
Tackling the spread of TB amongst cattle is believed to have costed £500 million over the past 10 years, with 26,000 cattle slaughtered in 2011 at a cost of £90 million. So it is a big problem.
What has been decided?..
Last week, after last years delay, the badger cull was given the go ahead. What this means is that in two areas, one in West Somerset and one in Gloucestershire, a cull on badgers will take place. There is also a third reserved area in Dorset for the pilot cull.
The cull is due to take place from the 1st of June for 6 weeks, and then annually over the next 4 years, and will be independently checked on its efficiency and effectiveness.
The cull will be done by open shooting.
The aim is to cull up to 70% of the badger population in these areas, an estimated 5,000 badgers over the 4 years, at a cost of around £4 million.
Will it work?..
Well, no one knows for sure. Some independent tests in Ireland seem to show a possible decline in TB cases due to culling of badgers and in New Zealand, a cull in animals carrying TB and stricter movement controls reduced infected cattle and deer herds from over 1,500 in the 90's to less than 100 in 2011.
However. Back in the 90's/early00's a badger cull trial took place in this country, known as the Krebs trial. Here a series of culls in different situations were done. It was found that were the conditions were met, there may have been up to a 16% reduction in TB over the 9 years. But it also showed in test areas, that the disruption of the social groups of badgers by the cull increased their dispersal and increased the cases of TB found making the situation worse than before the culls took place.
It is also argued that the stricter control in movement New Zealand adopted is the main reason behind the their reduction in TB cases, and even so, the main vector over there is the possum... which of course acts and behaves very differently to the badger.
What are the alternatives?..
Vaccinating badgers - Vaccination of badgers is expensive, it is difficult to monitor how many of the population have been successfully done, and at the moment would have to be repeated annually. This seems like a large undertaking, and for what gain? Vaccination of badgers would only reduce the risk of them getting TB and seems almost impossible to do to the scale it would be needed to be done at to have a significant effect. Wales seems to be looking at vaccination of badgers as a trial, and so it will be interesting to see what reports find. Ultimately of course, it would be ideal to create a vaccine that can eradicate TB in badgers. Something currently underway in New Zealand with their problem with possums.
Vaccinating Cattle - Vaccination of cows is possible, there is a vaccination. The problem is that the vaccination is prohibited by EU legislation, any cows vaccinated could not be sold in the EU and this currently is worth £465 million a year! There is also a test to see if an animals has been vaccinated, but it isn't fully compatible with the test and so can not reliably tell if an animal has been vaccinated or actually has TB. Even so, if a test is found that is reliable, it would still have to go through the EU before it has been accepted, which could of course take many years.
So to sum up... It's a difficult one! TB is a big problem, and it is costing us as a country a lot of money, and in the terms of the farmers affecting their livelhood. It does need to be looked at, and something needs to be done.
However, I really don't think culling badgers is the answer. I find it bewildering that with all the scientific evidence pointing to a cull not working, and possibly making the situation worse, that a cull is even being considered! Either the government isn't even reading these reports, or is choosing not to listen. It really does seem like the badger is being used as a scape goat, and just as a method to say to the farmers... Look, we are trying something.
It seems logical that a reliable cattle vaccination test needs to be developed, and one that the EU will allow. But this could take many years, and it may be a case of tackling the problem from more than one angle. From a cattle management point of view, and from the badgers in terms of vaccination to help reduce the number of badgers carrying TB.
But something does need to be done! Our farmers need our help. And I worry that with this cull, that many people will turn against farmers and boycott their produce which would be very counter productive. We need to support our famers and in turn the farmland and countryside that makes up the vast majority of this country, and supplies our wildlife with its habitat.