The Government has announced the culling of badgers will be extended to Devon, Cornwall and Herefordshire, adding to the existing cull areas in Gloucestershire, Somerset and Dorset in the attempt to curb bovine TB. In addition, new scientific work has shone further light on how the disease is transmitted.
Whenever a new aspect to this heated debate is added, the calls to re-evaluate the culls come thick and fast and invariably claim such ‘new information’ backs the case for ending the cull. It’s an easy thing to do when the science appears to be so divided and complex.
I can remember doing jury service many years ago and when the arguments both for and against in any case became too difficult to follow or understand, it was the smaller, simpler things about the defendant or a witness that seemed to decide whether the person in the dock was guilty or not. I know that wasn’t the right way to make a decision, yet I’m fairly sure that many verdicts are reached on just such a basis.
It’s really no different in the case of badgers and the attempts to control a disease that has already cost the tax payer well over half a billion pounds, quite apart from the animal welfare concerns. The science surrounding this serious problem has been used, abused, exaggerated and cherry-picked. Add into the mix a fair amount of lies, intimidation, ‘celebrity’ campaigning and a degree of political nervousness and you have the situation we face today.
While no one should decry any genuine science on this, or indeed any other issue, I know there are numerous experts in this field who are slightly bemused by the conclusions of a recent report by Professor Rosie Woodroffe of the Zoological Society of London. The findings, which indicate that the disease is more commonly spread from badgers to cattle through urine and faeces in the environment, seems to confirm what many scientists have been saying for years. The Guardian newspaper, which has been vocal in its opposition to any badger cull, implies that this study somehow justifies their stance. It does not.
A response to the report was submitted to the newspaper by the secretary of the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management and while it sums up the situation perfectly, it’s no surprise that the letter was not published, but it can be read here:
As your perceptive readers will realise Professor Woodroffe delivers us a dazzling glimpse of the obvious from her recent study on the transmission of bovine TB from badgers to cattle (Carrington, report 5.8.16). With over 30% of badgers in large areas of the country infected with bovine TB and the advanced clinical cases shedding vast numbers of tubercle bacilli into the agricultural environment it doesn’t need much imagination to realise how cattle sharing the same pasture and yards become infected.
Furthermore, Ms Woodroffe is clearly ignorant of the striking difference in the pathology of the disease between cattle and badgers. Whereas badgers suffer a protracted fulminating disease that eventually spreads to all body organs, cattle wall off the infection in fibrous tubercles. Cattle do not therefore shed large numbers of tubercle bacilli into the environment as do badgers, which accounts for why cattle to cattle transmission is not a major factor in the spread of disease. This was declared by the Chief Veterinary Officer as long ago as 1995 and it won’t have changed since then.
Dr Lewis H. Thomas
This new study and the calls for a re-think on how bovine TB is tackled should not be used to suggest that the culling of badgers is fundamentally flawed. Infected badgers suffer over long periods before death and it is unrealistic to think that this can be prevented by vaccination. Some protesters opposed to a cull argue that animals in the wild die awful deaths in any case, as if that somehow justifies a lack of action by humans – a very strange version of animal welfare.
It’s not helped by press reports that are completely untrue and misleading. I like Rod Liddle, the Sunday Times journalist, and get on quite well with him, but his latest piece on the badger cull almost deserves an award for cramming so many falsehoods into one article.
“There is not the slenderest scientific evidence to suggest that killing badgers will stop the spread of bovine tuberculosis to cattle” writes Rod. Really? How then are the figures for a dramatic decrease in cattle reactors in the two culling areas of Gloucestershire and Somerset explained? In the 11 month period to November 2014 the number of cattle showing signs of bovine TB dropped by 42% and 39% respectively and stand in stark contrast to surrounding counties where no culling took place. Furthermore, veterinarian Roger Blowey, an expert in this field, feels that the number of badgers in these areas was over-estimated. This put the numbers to cull (70%) at an unrealistically high level, thereby giving credence to the argument that the operation had failed.
The data produced by the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT), which took place between 1998 and 2005, has been re-examined. This latest report includes recent information from the Animal and Plant Health Agency which appears to refute the allegation that culling has a significantly detrimental effect on surrounding areas by infected badgers moving further afield (known as perturbation). The RBCT is often quoted by anti-cull groups as evidence against the effectiveness of culling, yet even this research showed a 23% drop in reactors to bovine TB. The review further states that it is not until the fifth year that the true benefits of a cull were seen, which clearly has implications for trial culls over a shorter period.
Rod claims, “Checking the spread of the disease — which these days is of scant threat to the public — is best done by stopping the spread from cow to cow, or by vaccination.” Sounds sensible, doesn’t it? Well, apart from the fact that it doesn’t work. Cattle to cattle transmission, while it may happen in certain circumstances, is far less likely to occur as bovine TB reacts differently in the animals. The nature of the disease in badgers is quite different from that in cattle, effectively walling off the infection in fibrous tubercles, hence the reason why whole herds are not slaughtered when reactors are discovered. The badger, on the other hand, becomes what is known as a ‘ super excretor’ thereby further spreading the bacterium.
Vaccination, quite apart from being a time-consuming and sporadic process, is simply not proven in the field. It is only partially successful even in humans and does not help badgers already infected with the disease. Added to this is the fact that there is now a world-wide shortage of the vaccine.
Rod continues, bringing in his dislike of hunting with hounds, “This mindset is hugely out of step with public opinion. There is no appetite whatsoever for a repeal of the Hunting Act.” I can’t believe that Rod really thinks Government policy should be decided on the back of e-petitions or dodgy polls commissioned by pressure groups. How, for example, can the tens of thousands of signatures on an e-petition be equated to, say, a few hundred dairy farmers battling to avoid bovine TB? Come on Rod, get real.
As usual, there are no answers or concerns about the suffering of badgers or the disruption and cost of testing tens of thousands of cattle. No real worry about their slaughter either, just calls to ‘save the badger’ from those who claim to care for the animal.
While the shooting of badgers will continue, DEFRA is rightly looking at other control methods. Identification of infected setts is currently being explored, as is the use of humane fumigants, though frankly this should been done years ago. How do the pro-badger people feel about this route? It would be nice to hear some answers, because all the time there is a significant reservoir of the disease in badgers, the inevitable link to cattle will always exist unless all cattle are removed from all pastureland – surely a situation no one wants.
Further information on badgers and bovine TB can be found at the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management website: