Why the Proposed Cull of Badgers Won't work

January 2013
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In October 2012, the coalition government announced a delay to a proposed cull of badgers in Gloucestershire and Somerset aimed at reducing the incidence of bovine TB in cattle. This cost the livestock industry over f90 million last year and led to the slaughter of 26000 cattle. Bovine TB is an infectious disease caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium bovis that can also infect other mammal species such as deer or badgers.

Scientific evidence has illustrated that bovine TB can be passed on from badger to badger, or from badger to cattle or even from cattle to badgers by urine, faeces or even airborne droplets. It has not been proved conclusively how big a role badgers play in the spread of bovine TB. The badger is also just one species in the same family of mammals such as the weasel, stoat or the humble ferret. Any one of these species is just as capable of carrying bovine TB as a harmless germ but transmitting to other hosts and not just cattle. The so-called Krebs trial was a E5Omillion study to collect scientific evidence that badger culling could control the spread of bovine TB. The data suggests but does not prove that culling could reduce the incidence of TB by an average of 16% over nine years as long as certain criteria are met. The trial in England also noted that killing badgers disrupted their social groups so badgers moved further afield taking TB with them. The impact of this was reduced over time.

The success or not of any cull will examine if badgers can be killed humanely and effectively and if this method is deemed to eliminate the spread of bovine TB. Trained marksmen will shoot badgers at night after putting food outside their setts. Bovine TB has cost the UK taxpayer over f500 million in the last 10 years to control this disease.

The costs of the cull will be met by farmers who desire badgers to be killed on their land. Other measures to reduce transmission include more bio-security such as preventing access by badgers into farm buildings so that they have no access to animal feed or are unable to come into contact with cattle.

The scientific community appears to be very divided concerning the behaviour of the germ that causes bovine TB and how it spreads from one species to another. This is where research needs to be targeted. Other animals such as rats or water voles can also get other forms of TB. Little scientific evidence has been amassed as to whether the germ is transmitted to cattle or from cattle into the general wildlife population.

No-one is trying to minimise the impact of bovine TB on the livestock industry but farmers and other groups have to realise that wiping out one species will not necessarily solve the problem. Much more needs to be done to understand the spread of bovine TB and how to prevent cross-contamination between species. If the germ is carried about in the wild, it will become near impossible to stop and containment only emerges as a cost effective solution.

Badger vaccination is also continuing in Wales and liable to get underway in Northern Ireland.

(See www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-19637936)

Mark Sandford - Permission granted to freely distribute this article for non-commercial purposes if attributed to Mark Sandford, unedited and copied in full, including this notice.

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