To passers-by, the red-brown earthy mound rising up from the path would probably warrant little more than a cursory glance. It looks like part of the steep bank which flanks the footpath cutting through this quiet corner of the Gloucestershire countryside.
But the mound is actually a badger sett, home to an unknown number of the animals. Someone has crudely blocked most of the entrances with soil and stones. Spade marks are visible; so too are footprints. Tree branches and undergrowth have been chopped back. Tyre tracks from a quad bike cut through the vegetation.
Who blocked the sett, and why, remains unclear – police are investigating a number of allegations that badger setts in and around the village of Forthampton, near Tewksbury, have been illegally blocked in recent weeks. But badgers across west Gloucestershire face another threat: the area is one of two pilot zones for the controversial badger cull that will see up to 5,000 animals shot as part of an experiment into tackling bovine tuberculosis (TB) in English cattle herds.
Badgers are blamed for spreading the disease, and the trials are expected to pave the way for a much larger cull of up to 100,000 animals in the next few years.
The disease devastates affected farms because current policy dictates that after a positive test, a farm must effectively be locked down, with infected cattle carted off to be destroyed, along with, in many cases, animals who are later found to clear of the disease. Any notion of normal business is suspended. The financial and emotional toll on farmers is huge.
Supporters of the cull - including the Government, National Farmers Union (NFU) and other countryside groups – say it’s a vital tool for trying to limit the spread any further and for assessing whether badgers can be effectively culled through shooting.
But an investigation by The Ecologist magazine and The Independent has found that a growing number of farmers – including those whose own farms have been blighted by TB – are now questioning the nature of the cull and its likely effectiveness.
Some believe that administering vaccinations, either of cattle or badgers, should be used instead of “free shooting” with rifles, or “cage trapping and shooting”, the two fatal options allowed under the trials.
Others are warning of a consumer backlash. They fear such widespread killing of wildlife could result in a “PR disaster” for an already beleaguered industry, particularly following the fallout from the recent horsemeat scandal, and with memories of the foot and mouth debacle with its images of burning carcasses still lingering in the public’s mind.
Such “dissident” views, according to the farmers, are common - yet many within the industry fear they could become ostracised or targeted if they speak out.
“I find it difficult that for me to farm I have to rape the countryside. It’s got to be wrong,” says Dave Purser, sitting in the kitchen of his quintessential Cotswolds farmhouse.
The farmer, who, along with his wife Gill, runs a 48-hectare beef and sheep operation near Bourton-On-The-Water, is bitterly opposed to the badger cull and believes that instead of “blasting away at thousands of badgers with high powered rifles”, the Government and farming bodies should urgently be looking towards a programme of cattle vaccine trials.
“If you look at the [Defra] website we’re this far away from a cattle vaccine,” he says, “but there needs to be political will to make it happen.”
He’s referring to the fact that there is actually a TB cattle vaccination available – the BCG jab – but EU legislation currently prohibits its usage, largely because it interferes with skin testing, the main diagnostic for identifying TB in cattle.
BCG-vaccinated cattle can become positive to the skin test, and thus the animals concerned cannot be declared TB-free for trading purposes. A so-called DIVA test, which can differentiate between infected and vaccinated animals, has been developed, but approval is expected to take up to 10 years.
The farmers, who are within a TB hotspot but outside of the initial trial zones, are also worried the cull will drive a further wedge between a sceptical public and an undeniably worn down industry.
“My customers, consumers, have expressed concerns [about the cull]”, says Dave. “If it goes ahead it’s another scar on the reputation of farmers, [with the] same reputational impact as with bankers [following the banking crisis].”
He acknowledges that some farmers favour a cull, but says many “know it’s not the answer... some understand that it’s a PR disaster. Some get it, some don’t.”
Similar concerns over the cull’s impact are held by Chris Dale, based near Ross-on-Wye, at the northern edge of the Forest of Dean. The beef farmer says that the killing, from a PR point of view, “could be the final straw, will they [farmers] keep dairying? They’ll get out of dairy and [go] into another sector.”
Chris believes many in the industry support the cull because “it’s the only thing on the table”. But he also argues that “all farmers would vaccinate tomorrow if they could”.
He says: “They’re vaccinating for every other [livestock] disease, TB testing involves [such an] upheaval, is stressful – one single vaccination each year [is all it would involve].” Chris’s own cattle herd was hit by TB several years ago, and he was forced to endure his animals being carted off to be destroyed: “You lose money every time...you can’t believe the human cost of this.”
James Price, an organic beef farmer, has also been through a positive TB test on his 100-acre farm in north Devon. He saw a number of pedigree cattle shipped off in early 2012, an experience he describes as “devastating, stressful, [with] many sleepless nights.”
“I lost half my herd, 11 in total, with four cows in calf – baby calves inside – when they were killed,” he says. “But some didn’t have TB.” The farmer says a post-mortem revealed that some of the animals had been incorrectly diagnosed as TB positive.
“Twenty per cent of tests, on average, are incorrect... I’ve lost thousands of pounds, and the organic status is not compensated for,” he says. The Government’s compensation package following a positive TB test controversially makes no distinction between conventional or organic cattle, something several farmers complained about.
“There could be £30-40,000 lost, and it’s stressful loading your animals for slaughter, [especially] when they’ve not got TB,” says James. “I’ve had enough – but my father did this for 70 years.”
He believes the impending badger culls will prove to be fruitless and wants to see a cattle vaccine trialled: “It’s not going to work, [around here] there’s 30 to 40 per cent more badgers than was estimated... high powered rifles in the dark? Why not vaccinate?”
The farmer, who was a slaughter-man during the foot and mouth crisis, admits that in his area most farmers are in favour of the cull, and that his opposition to the killing has led to tensions: “I’ve got a lot of stick at markets,” he says. “But the cull’s not right, for the countryside, for badgers, for cattle.”
The main anti-cull lobby, made up of animal welfare and wildlife groups, argue the cull will have little impact on halting TB, could spread the disease by dispersing infected animals, and risks an “animal welfare disaster”. They want the Government to vaccinate badgers – as is currently being trialled in Wales – or to lobby the EU to allow the use of the BCG.
The opponents accuse the Government and farming lobby of ignoring evidence from the biggest-ever research project into cattle TB, the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT), commissioned by the previous Labour government, which concluded that “badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain”.
Many believe the decision by the Government to allow the cull is bound up with the last election, where promises to introduce culls were made in an attempt to secure votes from the countryside community.
Although initially focused on galvanising public opinion with the “cruelty factor”, campaigners have recently evolved their strategy by tapping into consumer concerns – heightening the worry for those that believe the cull could damage the reputation of farming, and farmers.
Some farmers argue that more could be done to prevent the spread of TB at the farm level. Steve Jones, a dairy specialist based in the Forest of Dean, says that, instead of killing badgers, the solution to combating the disease is “a combination of stringent testing, controlled movements, vaccinations, quarantine and biosecurity.”
“In this country we have such lax biosecurity,” he says. “It’s not expensive and it’s the best thing a farmer can do to keep his herd healthy. To clean the cows drinking water. The water can pass infection from cow to cow and from cow to badger. I’ve seen it so many times.
“We learned so much about this from foot and mouth. We need to do the same with bovine TB,” he says. “It’s a bacteria, and without [these measures] it doesn’t matter how many badgers we cull. Unfortunately farmers are being given the wrong information and are being told that the cull will solve everything. This isn’t true.”
The farmer, who has worked in the industry for 35 years, is critical of the high number of cattle movements made as stock are repeatedly bought and sold. “We have a bovine merry-go-round in this country. There are 13 million movements of cattle a year, they’re moving them around all the time. The movement needs to be controlled,” he says.
Controversially, he also argues that the TB problem is being exacerbated by the gradual intensification of the dairy industry. “The industry is being indelibly drawn, by a lack of sustainable milk prices, towards intensification,” he says. “This means that we’re losing small family farms which were the bedrock of the industry, and being pressured by supermarkets to reach high targets at low costs.”
He continues: “The industry is under pressure and impoverished and this makes it hard for individuals to care for such big herds properly. To get by farmers have had to increased the herds in size from 70 cows in the 80s to 140 today. When one man is caring for such huge herds they lose the ability to do it properly and this leads to all kinds of problems and disease, including bovine TB.”
A fuller version of this article can be found at www.theecologist.org. Some farmers names have been changed at their request