War on badgers: the call grows for a cull


Click to follow
The Independent Online

Beneath the rolling Gloucestershire hills they scurry, their noses wet as they feast on the abundance of slugs and earthworms that the temperate English countryside provides.

But there is trouble in badger paradise, with the Environment Secretary "strongly minded" to approve a cull on the much loved creatures on the grounds that they spread bovine tuberculosis through cattle populations.

In the impending war on badgers, Gloucestershire is Ground Zero. Almost a third of cattle herds in the county are infected, meaning costly restrictions on their sale and movement. But as scientists debate the effectiveness of a cull, which would be carried out after tests next summer and which would be met with widespread unrest from animal rights activists, many farmers are desperate to get started.

Jan Rowe, 66, who keeps 180 dairy cows, and as many beef cows on his 550 acres at Whalley Farm in Whittington, just outside Cheltenham, has had only one year free of TB in his herds since 2000. He is advancing plans for squads of marksmen to work their way through the area in a military-style operation to kill the badgers.

In the Seventies he says he had three badger sets. Now there are five or six, and several sub populations.

"The disease is on an ever upward trend," said Mr Rowe. His Gloucestershire farm has battled with the disease for more than 20 years. "It is spreading to the north and the east, it is spreading to llama, deer, sheep, pigs, even domestic cats. It is nigh on out of control. There should have been a cull 15 or 20 years ago. More badgers will die now than would have then. It is not the badgers we are trying to fight, it's TB."

TB spreads aerobically from animal to animal, much like the common cold. As badgers live in stuffy underground sets in such close proximity, it spreads uniquely quickly among them. Where more than one badger population exists within range of another, they mark out territory by building latrines, effectively fortifications of excrement around their setts. If the population is carrying tuberculosis, these latrines, which sit where cows graze, are rife with the disease.

The proposed cull leaves the problem of perturbation. Surviving badgers from a largely culled set have shown a propensity to go wandering around the countryside, dazed and confused, spreading the disease yet further.

The new cull proposes farmers join in syndicates, carefully designed to prevent this,and trained marksmen will shoot the nocturnal creatures by night.

But they will not do so without a fight. Adam Henson, the presenter of BBC's Countryfile received letters from animal rights activists last month threatening to "burn his children" merely for reporting on the cull proposals.

To be effective, Mr Rowe estimates the cull would have to go on for a minumum of four years, or until such a point as vaccines in development are ready.