Environment: Government steps up campaign to cull badgers

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The Independent Online
About 10,000 badgers will be slaughtered over the next five years in the Government's latest effort to stop them spreading tuberculosis among cattle. But, says Nicholas Schoon, Environment Correspondent, experts believe developing a vaccine offers the best hope of ending the scourge.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food intends to embark on a huge new experiment in culling badgers, to see how effective eradication is in stopping the spread of cattle tuberculosis.

In one-third of the worst-affected areas of Britain, every badger will be trapped and killed, including mothers giving milk to their cubs. Under the current, discredited, slaughter policy, lactating sows are spared. In another third of these "hot spot" areas, the badgers will be left alone - even if TB cases in cattle are rising. And in the final third, badgers will only be killed on a farm after cattle there contract TB.

The experiment will cover at least 30 squares, each measuring about 10km by 10km - or some 40 square miles. They will cover most of the farms that have had the worst problems with cattle TB. Elsewhere, the policy of slaughtering badgers to control the disease will stop for the five- year experiment.

Farming minister Jeff Rooker said the Government accepted these recommendations from an expert, independent panel yesterday, although there would be two months of consultation before they were implemented.

"Next to BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy], this is the most serious issue we have to deal with," he said. The panel and the Government want to find ways of making farmers contribute more towards ending cattle TB. "They already pay now through the failure of current policy," Mr Rooker said.

Exactly how badgers pass the disease to cattle is not known, and other species can also harbour bovine tuberculosis. But, said ecologist Professor John Krebs, chairman of the expert panel, "the badger is a significant reservoir - you'd have to be perverse not to accept that".

The MAFF began gassing setts of badgers, a protected species, in 1975 in the worst affected areas but this was suspended seven years later because of an outcry over the cruelty involved. Current policy is to kill badgers on a farm where there is a TB outbreak in cattle if there is good reason to believe that the infection came from badgers. They are lured into cages with bait, then killed instantly with a pistol shot.

But the incidence of cattle TB keeps on rising - which is why the previous government commissioned an inquiry by Professor Krebs' panel. While only one in every 250 British cattle herds has an outbreak each year, in the West Country, the West Midlands, and South Wales the disease is much more common. Within these regions there are local hot spots where outbreaks are even more frequent.

Diseased cows have to be slaughtered, while animals cannot be bought for or sold from an affected herd. About 400 herds are covered by restriction orders at any one time. The ministry spends pounds 16m a year on research, killing badgers, compensating farmers and trying to control the disease.

The Krebs committee said that over the past 20 years, the ministry has never conducted proper experiments to find out how culling can actually work. The trial it advocates would not kill any more badgers over the next five years than the current policy, Professor Krebs said. That was many fewer than are killed on the road each year. As for Government, it should boost its spending on research well above the current pounds 1.7m a year. A cattle vaccine needs to be developed, but that is likely to take more than 10 years and will be difficult.