Country: Country Matters: Time to badger the scientists?

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Tim and Sarah Pain, who farm near Tortworth in Gloucestershire, have lost their entire dairy herd. Once they had 80 Friesians; but again and again their cows reacted to routine tests for bovine tuberculosis - transmitted, they are certain, by badgers.

Two weeks ago the last of the cows went for slaughter. The farm is now "closed down" - no cattle are allowed in or out. The compensation paid by the Government is not enough to keep the Pains going, and they are desperate at the loss of their livelihood.

So it was that Tim's sister-in-law June called a public meeting to air the whole question of badgers and TB, and on Monday night more than 200 people crowded into a local roadhouse to hear the views of experts working on the problem.

But the gathering nearly did not take place at all, because in the middle of the day the manager of the hostelry temporarily lost his nerve: fearing disruption by animal-rights activists, he ordered the event to be cancelled, and it took the organisers three frantic hours to convince him that there was no need to panic.

Such are the tensions aroused by Brock and his way of life.

As it turned out, no extremists appeared, and the meeting remained relatively good tempered; but there were plenty of barbed exchanges, and explosive emotions simmered beneath the surface.

The various speakers sketched in relevant recent history. Badgers are now a fully protected species, and nobody may cull them or interfere with their setts without special permission. Immunity from persecution by humans has sent the national population soaring, from about 250,000 in the late Eighties to more than 400,000 today.

The only large-scale cull now carried out is the unintentional one on the roads: some 50,000 animals are killed by vehicles every year.

The correlation between badgers and TB in cattle was first noticed in the Seventies, and the earliest cull of badgers by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) was carried out on a farm in Dorset in 1975. Removing badgers from an area of 3,000 acres, by gassing and trapping, eliminated TB in cattle for the time being; a similar cull round Thornbury, in the Severn Vale, was equally successful.

Yet public sentiment in favour of badgers proved to be so strong that successive governments backed off from culling; gassing of setts was stopped in 1982, replaced by an interim policy of trapping and shooting, and in 1997 almost all control measures ceased.

Meanwhile, the number of herds infected with TB leapt from 143 in 1990 to 515 seven years later. The trouble is concentrated in Britain's South- west, Cornwall being the hardest-hit county, Gloucestershire the second worst.

Earlier Government inquiries - by Lord Zuckerman in 1980, and Professor Dunnet in 1986 - failed to devise a viable long-term strategy.

The latest report, published by Professor John Krebs last year, advocated further research - and on Monday the main speech was given by Professor John Bourne, the distinguished scientist heading the independent group appointed to carry out a new programme of trials.

The latest idea is to run comparative experiments in 10 separate sets of "triplets", each to consist of three contiguous areas of similar size. In one - the "proactive" area - all badgers will be caught in baited cage traps and shot. In the second, the "reactive" area, badgers will be culled only around sites of infection in cattle; in the third, the survey area, only general observations will be made. The first culls have already been carried out at Putford, in Devon, where more than 230 badgers have been eliminated.

Prof Bourne was at pains to emphasise the need for a full scientific investigation. "The wholesale eradication of badgers is not a strategy we can adopt for the long term," he said. His team is searching for a "sustainable policy".

There was no doubting his expertise or his sincerity. But he talked for far too long - 45 minutes - and when he drifted off into such rarefied concepts as the need for "multi-risk variate analysis of retrospective data", he lost most of his audience. Angry murmurs began to arise, in ripe Gloucestershire accents: "That's enough bloody science. Let's have some common sense!"

More down-to-earth was Dr. Chris Cheeseman, the man in charge of a long- running experiment, in Woodchester Park, near Stroud, where badgers have been baited with peanuts and golden syrup,captured, tested, released, radio-tracked and generally studied for more than 15 years.

Research in that area has thrown up many anomalies. Numbers of badgers in the long, wooded valley are extraordinarily high - 25 adults to the square kilometre; but there appears to be no relationship between population density and the incidence of disease.

On the contrary: infestations seem to go in cycles, and outbreaks of TB apparently occur as a result of badgers changing their patterns of movement.

Thus human intervention, in the form of culling and the creation of voids, may make matters worse rather than better. As Dr Cheeseman put it, "perturbation appears to be the downside of control".

In his view TB is mostly transmitted through urine, droppings and saliva deposited on grassland, especially permanent pasture, where badgers hunt for worms, and much of their contamination is placed along "linear features" such as walls, ditches and hedges. In conditions favourable to the TB bacillus, it can survive for up to 11 months in this environment.

All this was good, interesting stuff. Yet the burden of the evening was that scientists still have a poor understanding of the subject. Why - people wanted to know - has Maff been so dilatory and secretive about badgers for the last two decades?

Why are we still so far from producing vaccines that would immunise both badgers and cattle? What, above all, is going to happen in the seven years that, it is estimated, Professor Bourne's team will need to complete its trials? In the view of many, the situation in the South-west is already out of control.

What farmers want is a Government policy that will enable more badger culls to be made in hot-spots where the incidence of TB is particularly severe. As one woman put it, "The crazy thing is, it's illegal to kill the vermin that are causing the trouble. If it were rats or rabbits, we could take matters into our own hands. But because it's badgers, our hands are tied."

The difficulty is, most people do not see badgers as vermin; there would be an outcry if widespread culling were reintroduced. A notable absentee from Monday's meeting was Dr Elaine King, Conservation Officer for the National Federation of Badger Groups (NFBG) and a leading champion of the species.

The federation, which has 85 groups and 20,000 members, has been pressing for more open-mindedness on the whole question; but Dr King herself had been warned off attending, as it was thought her presence might cause chaos. She did, however, send a representative in the form of Pauline Kidner, who delighted the audience by admitting that the NFBG is in favour of culling animals known to be infected.

That was one of the few crumbs of comfort the farmers derived from an evening full of interest but offering little hope of immediate relief. As several speakers remarked, the issues involved - unlike the face of the animal under scrutiny - are anything but black and white.