Vital cull or heartless slaughter? The great badger debate

It's the great countryside controversy of the day: should badgers be culled to protect cows from TB? NFU president Peter Kendall and TV naturalist Chris Packham argue for and against – and yes, the fur flies

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Dear Chris,

Firstly, I would like to make it clear that if there was any other workable alternative, then this cull of badgers in two areas of England would not be happening.

But there is no other option, sadly. TB is out of control in some areas of England. Cattle and badgers both suffer from it and it is spreading east and northwards across the country. At the moment most of England is free of TB. But for how long?

TB is spread between badgers and between cattle. Last year, 34,000 cows were culled because they had become infected. The scientific evidence says that in a large proportion of those cases TB was spread from badgers. To be clear, there is NO cattle vaccine which can be used at the moment. The only option for cattle is to be culled. There is a badger vaccine but this does not cure an infected badger, it is nowhere near 100 per cent effective and it's very difficult to trap and vaccinate a wild animal.

In the meantime, the spread of TB is doubling every nine years. I've heard a certain amount of emotive language about the "extermination of a species" or a "mass slaughter". Neither of these is the case. The culls will only be carried out in two areas in the South-west, where disease is high and there are strict rules to ensure that not all badgers in those areas will be culled. This is a tipping point in controlling the disease. Who would want to look back at 2012 and realise, too late, that was the last chance to do something to stop this disease spreading throughout the country?

Peter

Dear Peter,

Let me be clear from the outset, if the scientific evidence pointed to culling badgers being an effective, humane, sustainable and economically viable solution to the increasing occurrence of TB in cattle then I'd be agreeing to it. But it is not. Indeed, through a thorough knowledge of their behaviour, I don't believe badgers are to blame.

Badgers can carry TB but so can many other animals and by far the most efficient vector are the cows. Through poor biosecurity, bad management and sub-standard animal care they are the benign culprits in the transmission of this insidious bacteria. Cattle identified through a slow and inaccurate test should be quarantined straight away but most farms don't even have quarantine areas. Proper husbandry and hygiene on farms would reduce the occurrence and spread of TB.

And when it comes to that spread, it's very difficult to blame a remarkably sedentary animal. Badgers are strictly territorial. The exceptions are young males who wander to find families (clans). But how far do they go? Would they travel from Northumberland to Essex in four days and all over the UK within a few weeks? No, 50 per cent never leave their territory and only 10 per cent leave permanently, only ever straying perhaps two to five miles, in a lifetime.

Chris

Dear Chris,

It is accepted by all sides of this debate – though surprisingly not yourself – that badgers spread TB. Even the Badger Trust acknowledges this. The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) estimate between 30 and 75 per cent of all TB breakdowns in cattle are caused by badgers.

I've been on so many farms where a disease-free herd has suddenly become infected with TB without any new cattle arriving. In those cases the disease must have come from wildlife. You have made some bold statements, but most of these are just plain wrong. You are mistaken to say that most farms don't have a quarantine area. All cattle and dairy farms are legally obliged to have an isolation area where the cattle are taken immediately after testing positive. They remain there until they are taken for slaughter within 10 days. Farmers adopt tight controls over which cows can be moved where. These restrictions were thought to have eradicated the disease from English cattle in the 1950s, but it was not understood then that badgers also spread it. So the disease came back and the cycle of infection continues to this day with more cattle being culled every year and more badgers becoming infected. In the meantime, the badger population has continued to rise. To correct you again, the latest science from previous trials shows that culling DOES have a long-term reduction on TB levels if it's done in a properly co-ordinated, sustained way.

Peter

Dear Peter,

I do not dispute that badgers can transmit TB to cattle, but cattle can, and do, infect badgers. In trials in infected areas 16.6 per cent of badgers had TB but only 1.7 per cent were infectious enough to be able to transmit it to cattle. It's important to understand why culling won't work. In 2007, the Independent Study Group (ISG) published its report of the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT). It had cost £50m, killed 11,000 badgers and the science had been rigorous.

In a stable badger population there is very little movement and any infected animals remain isolated. But once animals are removed others will move into the depleted territories. This increased movement will cause any original infection to spread over a much larger area.

When large-scale culling is performed there is a small reduction in TB in cattle within that area. But outside there is a 20 per cent increase for the above reasons. And for this to "work" more than 70 per cent of badgers must be culled. Now for the crunch... no one, DEFRA, the farmers, the conservationists, has any way of knowing how many badgers there are in the cull areas – so how will they know whether 70 per cent have been killed? That's why this cull is not sound scientifically. It will be expensive, inhumane and ineffective, and worse, it will be divisive. Some of the "anti-cull fraternity" are already calling for boycotts and sanctions to "hit the farmers where it hurts", in their pockets. As if they are not hurting enough already. As if the NFU's Great Milk Robbery report, hadn't highlighted this in 2010 when it found its members "missing out on their fair share of millions" due to ruthless and greedy retailers.

C'mon Peter, lay off the badgers and face up to the supermarkets and EU protectionism – they are what's crippling British farming.

Chris

Dear Chris,

I can only refer you to the very latest ISG research, which said in 2011: "The scientific evidence from the RBCT suggests that badger culling, done on a sufficient geographical scale, in a widespread, co-ordinated and efficient way, and over at least four years, will reduce the incidence of TB in cattle in high-incidence areas." The pilots are for four years, over a widespread area and, crucially, are bordered by hard boundaries (rivers, major roads etc) to minimise the risk of badgers travelling in and out of the cull areas.

The AHVLA figures show categorically that badgers are responsible for a high number of TB breakdowns. To reassure you on the numbers of badgers being killed – Natural England are currently doing some detailed sett surveys to ascertain badger numbers in cull areas.

I'm sure that you would be the first to say that boycotts are not the way forward. You are right, the farming community in many areas where TB is rife is suffering.

Without any vaccines available for cattle or any practical method of vaccinating enough badgers against TB… with cattle controls as tight as they can be: if you don't want to cull badgers and remove the reservoir of TB in wildlife to stop the cycle of infection, then what is your solution?

Peter

Dear Peter,

I am a pragmatist and realist. I couldn't say that I'm not motivated emotionally by this issue but for me, and many others, the science, the economics and the support of a sustainable future for British farmers comes first. We just don't want to slaughter wildlife if it serves no purpose.

Vaccination is the way to go. There are both oral and injectable badger vaccines but applying these over large areas will always be both difficult and expensive. Badgers are shy, nocturnal and live underground, they are thus inaccessible. Cattle are not. Ear-tagged, monitored and manageable – they could be easily vaccinated so why aren't they, when a vaccine is available? Well, although cattle are regularly vaccinated for other diseases, there is an EU ban on TB vaccines. This is because the bovine BCG vaccine interferes with the mandatory tuberculin skin test. Cattle that had been vaccinated would technically fail the test, meaning they couldn't be declared TB free and that farmers couldn't sell them overseas. We urgently need a modified cattle vaccine and then the guts to get the EU ban lifted – both difficult objectives. So instead let's blame it on the badgers and kill a few – much easier.

Our government's most respected scientific advisors have been queuing up to point out the fallacy of this cull... Lord Krebs has said that it is "crazy" and that vaccination and biosecurity are central to controlling TB. Professor Sir Robert Watson has said that "culling won't solve the problem". But I think it's appropriate that Professor John Bourne, chair of the ISG, have the last word. He has said: "I think the most interesting observation was made to me by a senior politician who said, 'Fine John, we accept your science, but we have to offer the farmers a carrot. And the only carrot we can possibly give them is culling badgers'."

Q. How could a badger possibly be a carrot? A. When it's a scapegoat.

Chris

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