Pauline Kidner and Liz Mullineaux: Cull helps neither farmers nor badgers
Wildlife rescue and welfare campaigner Pauline Kidner and vet Liz Mullineaux take issue with Farming Minister David Heath’s view that a badger cull is vital to control bovine TB...
Farming Minister David Heath’s article in the Western Daily Press on Friday described the dreadful ongoing problem faced by farmers in the South West – tuberculosis in cattle.
Unfortunately, like many politicians before him, he has taken the easy option of believing that culling badgers can solve this very difficult and complex situation. This view does farmers no favours and detracts from the real issue of the Government needing to spend time and money investing in useful tools to control this disease.
It is correct to say that other countries that have had TB have culled their wildlife but in none of those countries have badgers been the species infected by cattle. Badgers are very different to feral water buffalo (in Australia) or introduced possum (in New Zealand). In his defence of culling Mr Heath states that “evidence has shown that culling, when carried out properly, can play a significant role in helping reduce the spread of bovine TB”.
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This is simply not true. There is overwhelming scientific evidence that culling badgers will have no positive impact on the disease in cattle and in many cases will actually make it worse. This is not just our view, but that of many eminent scientists and veterinary surgeons who the Government choose to ignore.
The Randomised Badger Culling Trial was the largest experiment on bovine TB ever undertaken in the world and cost the UK taxpayer over £53million. Over 11,000 badgers were killed, 85 per cent of which showed no signs of the disease even though they were in areas of high incidence of bovine TB in cattle.
The findings of the RBCT, published in international journals, concluded that “culling could make no meaningful contribution to the control of TB in cattle in Britain”. The reason for this is that when badger populations are disturbed and distressed, animals move away from their strict territorial areas and this spreads disease, the well-described perturbation effect.
In the RBCT, teams of professionally trained staff killed badgers by cage trapping and then shooting them. As this method of culling is too costly, the Government has suggested several variations from the RBCT in its pilot culls. These include a longer culling period and shooting of free-running badgers. These changes will increase the perturbation effect, make the spread of bovine TB worse and reduce any benefits of culling.
Apart from all the scientific reasons for culling being wrong, there are also concerns for the welfare of the badgers. Shooting of free-running badgers has never been carried out before and is likely to be extremely difficult for the marksmen involved, resulting in injured live badgers. From our own records over 20 years, we know that dependant badger cubs will die underground at either end of the proposed culling season. We are not at all reassured by the measures that have been put in place by Defra to monitor badger welfare and believe badgers will suffer once again in this new government experiment.
We agree that there has been an increase in the number of infected cattle and we do not underestimate the problem that is faced. It should be pointed out, however, that 30,000 more cattle have been tested this year compared with the previous year due to annual testing being introduced in new areas.
This increased figure purely illustrates how many infected cattle had been being missed by the previously inadequate testing regimes. It is of course extremely difficult to test for, protect against, and indeed treat TB. No simple single method is the answer and any such suggestion is of no benefit to farmers struggling with the disease in their cattle. Politicians like simple answers and find it hard to accept that solutions are complex and expensive. There are, however, measures other than culling at our disposal.
The movement of infected cattle around the country must continue to be controlled, through rigorous testing using all the available methods. Recently published evidence also illustrates that simple bio-security measures such as electric fencing are extremely effective in preventing badger-cattle contact around farmyards.
There is a licensed badger BCG vaccine and it should be used throughout the South West, not just in isolated areas. The vaccine is effective in reducing disease in badgers and everything suggests that it will have a positive impact upon the disease in cattle. The current vaccination method by injection is not ideal. However, research into an oral vaccine is progressing well and requires government support.
Mr Heath is incorrect in stating that every badger needs to be trapped every year. The use of annual vaccination is purely to catch cubs and any unvaccinated adults missed the previous year. The cattle BCG vaccine already exists and is used in other countries such as Ethiopia. We also already have a differential test to distinguish between vaccinated and infected animals. Licensing of a cattle vaccine will take time, but if there is genuine political will and funding to make this happen it will not take ten years.
Culling of badgers is not the answer to the tuberculosis problem in cattle. Until the Government accept this and move forward with real solutions, this dreadful problem for farmers and animals alike will not be solved.
Pauline Kidner is founder of Secret World Wildlife. Liz Mullineaux is a consultant veterinarian.