Will badger cull stop spread of TB in cattle?

It's the great countryside controversy of the day. NFU president Peter Kendall and TV naturalist Chris Packham argue for and against the cull

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.

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,

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.

Badgers can carry TB but so can many other animals and by far the most efficient vector are the cows. 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.

You have made some bold statements, but most of these are just plain wrong. 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.

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."

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,

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?

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. But I think it's appropriate that Professor John Bourne, chair of the ISG, has 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'."

Chris

Badgers are shy, nocturnal and live underground, and are inaccessible. Monitored and manageable, cattle could easily be vaccinated

For and against badger culling: Chris Packham, top, naturalist and TV presenter; above, the NFU president, Peter Kendall

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