Andreas Whittam Smith: Why I have changed my mind about badgers

The Government is proposing a political culling programme, not a science-based exercise
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Culling badgers is a shot in the dark. Actually in some cases that is exactly what happens. The problem which culling is designed to solve is that tuberculosis may pass from badgers to cows. That is why the Government is consulting on the principle and method of culling badgers in areas of high TB incidence in cattle. Culling in various forms has been under way for some time.

What the Government has in mind is a more extensive programme. The strong argument against culling is that not enough is known about the disease. It is for this reason that I oppose the policy, not just because, like so many people, I love badgers and their habit of living in underground passages under grassy banks. Or because I am charmed by their harmless nocturnal activities or because I like their very appearance, at once rugged and short-sighted. I would support culling if the scientific evidence strongly suggested that it was effective.

As a matter of fact, when I began writing this piece my sympathies lay with farmers and their strong belief that badgers bring disease to their herds. I have heard their opinions on this subject many times. When tuberculosis is found, the infected animals will be slaughtered and tight restrictions will be placed on the movements of the rest. These are harsh if necessary penalties. But the more I studied the latest research, the more I realised that the efficacy of culling the badgers is doubtful.

Of course it is often a horrific process. One method is by gassing with hydrogen cyanide. This has the risk that not enough of the noxious substance reaches the animals in their tunnels and they suffer the ill effects without dying. Or badgers can be shot as they emerge from their sets. They can also be snared or they can be caught in cage traps before being dispatched.

All this, however, I could take if the TB link were proved beyond reasonable doubt. But what weighs heavily with me is how little is known about the movement of tuberculosis between animals. Is it by urine, faeces, milk or through the air? We don't know.

Nor is is there firm knowledge about the direction in which the disease travels. Does it run from cattle to cattle, from badgers to cattle or is it the other way around, from cattle to badgers? Is other wildlife involved? And there are further questions which lack answers. What differences do farming methods make? Is geography a factor? Does the climate have a role?

Furthermore, few badgers actually have tuberculosis. By the time an earlier culling programme had been suspended, only 357 out of 3,189 badgers killed had proved to be infected. That is, eight out of nine were entirely free of the disease. And when badgers killed on the roads were recently analysed, it was found that around one in seven was diseased. Commenting on these findings, the Animal Health Minister, Ben Bradshaw, emphasised doubts about the role of badgers.

Culling programmes, too, are hit and miss. More than 20,000 badgers were culled between 1975 and 1997. But in the areas where this took place, some 30 per cent of landowners refused to participate. In any case, the cage traps which were used were avoided by 20 per cent of the badger population. Given, then, such extensive uncertainly and so many unknowns, why press on with a new and bigger programme of culling?

Mainly because the incidence of TB in cattle is increasing. In 1986, 599 cattle were compulsorily slaughtered because of TB. By 1999 that figure had risen to 7,000. In 2004, the number had increased to 22,570. And the out turn for the 12 months to 31 October climbed to 25,302. Tuberculosis in cattle thus seems to be rising at about 18 per cent per annum.

The fear is that it is getting out of control. And the cost of compensation, research and testing is running at nearly £100m per annum. But while it is prevalent in the South-west of England, some 60 per cent of the country is completely clear.

It is also worth noting that TB is not the only reason why farmers lose cattle. Mastitis takes away 90,000 cattle annually, some 125,000 are removed because of infertility, and even lameness accounts for the loss of 31,000 cattle each year.

But the knockout argument against further culling is this. While it appears to reduce the incidence of tuberculosis in cattle within the chosen area, this gain is whittled away by an increase in tuberculosis outside the area that has been culled. In one recent exercise, there was a 25 per cent reduction in confirmed tuberculosis incidents within the central area of the trial, a 13 per cent diminution in peripheral areas and a 25 per cent increase in confirmed TB incidents on the other side of the culling boundary. So once gassing or shooting or trapping begins, badgers naturally hurry to get out of the way. If they are carriers of the disease, then they carry it next door.

So I am inclined to accept the cynical explanation of the Government's culling initiative. This runs as follows. At the same time that the Government is imposing a more rigorous cattle testing regime, as it is, and more restrictions on cattle movements and reducing compensation, it feels the need to give the farmers what they want, which is more extensive culling.

In other words, what the Government is proposing is a political culling programme rather than a science-based exercise. One cannot agree to that.