Badger cull sett to continue; is the argument as clear as black and white?

badger

Badger in Woodland © Scott Bland

To say the debate and evidence surrounding badgers (Meles meles), bovine tuberculosis (bTB) and transmission to cattle is as simple as black and white would be misleading. Based on unscientific and unclear links, the iconic and much-loved badger has become vilified throughout much of the farming community and the nationwide media. The reactionary approach taken by the UK Government has been to carry out culls of badgers in a bid to control the spread of bTB. Whilst there is no doubt that bTB is a real problem for farmers, the degree of implication of badgers and the culling approach has been widely spoken out against. In 2012, before pilot culls began, a group of over 30 eminent scientists spoke out against the cull branding it “a costly distraction from nationwide TB control” with the RSPCA backing this.

So, a short Q&A to clue you up on the culling debate:

How is bTB transmitted to cattle?

The majority of transmission is actually cattle-to-cattle through close contact, while badgers appear to have a role in sustaining the presence of the disease.

Does culling badgers prove effective?

At this point evidence suggests that badger culling must be done to high levels or not at all to control bTB spread. An extreme cull would probably help, but anything in between has been seen to only worsen TB levels in cattle. This appears to rule out an intermediate level of culling which would aim to please the farmers and the public.

Why won’t intermediate levels of culling work?

Although this middle ground may seem the most appealing compromise, it does not appear to work due to the disruption of badger territorial systems. This leads to badgers which are more likely to be infected travelling over wider ranges leading to an increase in infection rates in both badgers and cattle.

How is the cull carried out and how much does it cost?

The culling efforts at present are mainly carried out by contracted shooting with high powered rifles. A major criticism of the culling efforts is the high costs involved; it currently costs the taxpayer around £7000 per badger killed and in the region of £50,000,000 to date. An unclear number of badgers have been culled so far, and included in this will be the unnecessary death of healthy badgers; as high as 80% according to the Badger Trust.

Are the culling efforts humane?

Ultimately, this depends on your own definition of humane. An independent expert panel report concluded that death within first 5 minutes of being shot is considered humane. This was strangely based on evidence from human gunshot victims, who were often too shocked to feel strong pain in this time window. During the pilot culls, many of the shot badgers were found to still be alive after this initial five-minute window; as high as 22% in 2013 and 18% in 2014.

What are the alternatives to culling?

Alternatives to culling include improved handling of cattle with regards to testing and biosecurity. Another alternative to culling is the vaccination of cattle and/or badgers. Vaccination of badgers appears to be a promising prospect; however extra research is needed on this. It is already seen to be cheaper than culling and looks to develop a method of oral vaccination which could be carried out by volunteers.

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Badger vaccination © S Freeman

What is happening now?

The culling debate still rages on to this day. As recently as the 10th November, a leading vet has supported badger culling on a larger scale, in response to the Welsh government’s refreshed approach to tackling bTB on a smaller scale. Additionally, in October of this year the badger cull was extended into three additional English counties making a total of six.

If you would like additional information on the badger cull or find yourself opposed to the cull, visit the Badger Trust’s campaign website and help #canthecull.

By Scott Bland

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