The Government is in a difficult place when it comes to the culling of badgers. With bovine tuberculosis – which can be carried by the creatures – ravaging Britain’s dairy and beef industries, the authorities are under pressure to be seen to be doing something to help the thousands of farmers whose livelihoods are in jeopardy. The decision to pursue a cull of badgers, which will start this weekend, is the triumph of political expediency over scientific evidence, however.
Historically, this newspaper took the view that the risks from bovine TB were so great, and the link to badgers so clear, that a cull, while regrettable, was necessary. Subsequently, however, scientist after eminent scientist has concluded that there is little hard research to justify the decimation of badger populations, which is also passionately opposed by animal lovers. In fact, for all the sound and fury in favour of a cull, Lord Krebs, the eminent Oxford zoologist who conducted the last detailed review of the practice, is just one of an array of experts who have denounced it.
Why? Because trials have shown that killing territorial animals such as badgers only exacerbates the problem. Vacated areas are soon colonised by other badgers, and more movement of badgers means more movement of TB, and that means an increased risk to cattle on the fringes of the culling area. There may be some small benefits for farmers in the central part of the killing zone, but for the rest the situation is worse than ever.
The Government insists that this weekend’s pilot cull in two areas will address this fundamental flaw by using rivers, motorways and other boundaries to limit badgers’ movements to and from the killing zones. But no one knows how effective the technique will prove to be.
Neither is there a clear-cut economic case for going ahead with a cull. One recent assessment, for example, found that for every 150km² plot of land where badger-culling takes place, the total costs – including the policing required to deter protesters – come to more than £1.5m. Meanwhile, the savings in terms of TB prevention in cattle amount to only about £970,000. Hardly the best use of all-too-scarce public money.
The Government cannot sit back and do nothing when the livelihoods of thousands of cattle farmers and a £15bn-a-year industry are threatened with devastation. Some 115,000 people are employed in the dairy and beef industries, which generate exports worth about £2bn a year. And there is a real problem here. Since the 1980s, Britain has seen a dramatic increase in the number of cases of bovine TB, with the number of cattle testing positive shooting up from just 235 in 1986 to more than 28,500 in 2010. Behind these numbers lies real hardship for affected farmers and their families.
Furthermore, ever since bovine TB was found in badgers in 1971, the finger of blame for spreading the disease has pointed at the endearing creature immortalised as the gruff and solitary Mr Badger in The Wind in the Willows. There is good scientific evidence that badgers do help to spread TB in cattle, although other animals, both domestic and wild, may also play some role. But the central issue is how to limit the spread of the disease. Better biosecurity on farms and improved vaccines are both parts of the solution. According to the scientific and economic evidence, culling is not – no matter how much the Government wants it to be.