Archive for June, 2013

As if to prove a point made in my last blog To cull or not to cull, the RSPCA seems more intent on being divisive and misleading, rather than cooperating in battling the scourge of bovine TB. And, as a consequence, the organisation is back in trouble again.

This time it’s over an advertisement concerning the badger cull, which DEFRA Minister Richard Benyon has called “a disgrace”. The Advertising Standards Authority has apparently received more than 80 complaints about the advert being misleading. You can make your own mind up and while doing so consider the accuracy of its phraseology,  in particular the word “exterminate”.

"Vaccinate or exterminate?" The controversial advert

“Vaccinate or exterminate?” The controversial advert

Of course this verb can mean to kill or destroy, but more generally it means to  wipe out, eradicate or annihilate. The noun extermination equates to extinction. So what the RSPCA is really saying, or at the very least implying, is that the government’s actions are bringing about the extinction of the badger.

One has to wonder who the RSPCA is listening to these days, though one doesn’t have to look too far. The letter below, calling for a boycott of British beef and dairy products, appeared in the Independent newspaper just a few days ago. It states that the only way to stop the cull “is to hit farmers in their pockets.”  Given the difficulties faced by the farming community, with some harrowing stories of depression and worse making news headlines, this is a truly appalling comment and one that indicates the muddled priorities of some campaigning groups.

For those who don’t know, the letter writer is a founder member and spokeswoman of a group called Protect Our Wild Animals (POWA), an off-shoot of the League Against Cruel Sports. This was the group that supplied the many hours of video footage of the Heythrop Hunt to the RSPCA. The result was the prosecution that cost the organisation £327,000 and which the judge described as “staggering.”

The letter echoes calls from the RSPCA to boycott milk from farms on which the badger cull is taking place and to “name and shame” those involved, but it’s consequences go further than hurting farmers. If people heed her call to boycott British beef and dairy products isn’t the obvious step to then purchase imported products? Aren’t we sure that animal welfare standards abroad are usually lower than those of this country?  How exactly is this move supposed to improve animal welfare?

A call to boycott British beef and dairy products will not help animal welfare

A call to boycott British beef and dairy products – letter to the Independent 21st June 2103

There are no simple answers to the bovine TB problem. Somewhere along the line animals will inevitably suffer. I deeply regret that, as many farmers do too, but after years of prevarication and delay, the sooner this disease is brought under control the better it will be for both cattle and badger. Surely at such a time uniting to find that solution should be the priority and that may mean accepting certain methods that some dispute and find unpalatable.

However, politicians, the media and above all the RSPCA should not be listening to individuals who clearly cannot see the consequences of their short-sighted, prejudiced and often flawed thinking. Doing so will only prolong the difficulties and delay reaching a sensible solution.

There is a very clear parallel here with the hunting ban…and it’s precisely the same people who are the problem.

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Earlier this month a debate on the badger cull was held at the Cheltenham Science Festival…which may be surprising to some people. Surprising, in that a debate was necessary because according to the recently elected vice- president of the RSPCA Brian May, “The entire scientific community of the country has said this will not work.” 

This is patently not true of course, as the organisers of the festival debate recognised and which resulted in 81% of the audience voting in favour of a cull.  Yet while scientific opinion certainly differs on the trials involving the culling of badgers, it may not necessarily be along the lines that the anti-cull groups would have you believe.  In April DEFRA Chief Scientific Advisor Ian Boyd brought together 60 or so scientists at the Royal Society to debate the issues involved, saying  that scientific views were not as far apart as some reports have stated.

Anti badger cull demonstrators make their point

Anti badger cull demonstrators make their point

What has happened in the debate over how to tackle bovine TB is that instead of a calm and rational analysis of the various problems and difficulties faced by farmers and wildlife conservationists (and perhaps all of us in the longer term), the argument has been hijacked by those who want to see the situation in simplistic terms –  just as they did in the hunting debate. One is either ‘for or against’ and of course those in favour of a cull have to be demonised. Today, this ‘them and us’ attitude is a very easy thing to create, especially on an emotive animal issue and with internet specialists who can muster wide, but often uninformed, public support.  The coalition government didn’t help itself by creating a situation in which 100,000 signatures on an e-petition can trigger a parliamentary debate and certain sections of the media, too, have been selective their reports.  Unsurprisingly, some politicians have made this a party political issue, forgetting that the previous government had years to address this escalating problem.

The reality is that scientific opinion falls into various camps; those for the government’s plan, those for a cull, but against free shooting, those wishing to go down a vaccination route and those against any form of cull etc.  The proposed trials do not rely solely on killing badgers, they include vaccination as well as improvements in cattle movements and bio-security – that’s why they’re called ‘ pilot trials’ – but for some any form of killing is an anathema. Consequently, uncomfortable facts, awkward situations and difficult questions can be dismissed in the knowledge that the British public will not fully understand or engage with the problem, but will certainly join in an “animal protectors vs. animal abusers” battle.

Vaccination as opposed to culling will always win out in the public mind, but the efficacy of the Badger BCG vaccine, despite claims to the contrary, is not fully proven. An oral vaccine for badgers is in the pipeline, as is a vaccine for cattle, but these will take years to produce and approve. Vaccinating badgers sounds simple, but live cage trapping thousands of animals to be individually injected is a time-consuming and costly process and ensuring that all badgers in an area are caught cannot be guaranteed. The process will have to be carried out each year. Bio-security also appears sensible and this is happening, but how are farmers expected to keep badgers away from cattle which generally graze in open fields? Or are we looking to incarcerate all cattle in factory farms?

Views on the role of cattle movement in spreading bovine TB vary, but as Dr Roger Blowey indicated during the Cheltenham debate, the different strains of bovine TB found in cattle in given areas match the strains found in badgers in those areas, as shown in the diagram. Had cattle movements been an influencing factor in spreading the disease, the picture would indicate a sporadic mix of those strains. It is also the case that cattle to cattle transmission of the disease is rarely seen in the field – usually only two or three animals are affected in herd breakdowns.  The disease does not sweep through a herd as would Foot & Mouth disease. It is actually very hard to transmit the disease experimentally from clinically infected donor animals to susceptible in contact animals and this is due to the closed nature of bovine TB in cattle. Cattle do not readily shed the TB bacteria into the environment. The exact opposite is the case of the disease in badgers, many of which become what’s known as ‘super excretors’.

The strain of bovine TB in cattle in a given area matches the same strain in local badger populations

The strain of bovine TB in cattle in a given area matches the same strain in local badger populations

All the time incidents of bovine TB in cattle are escalating -up from 605 cases in 1983 to over 37,500 cases last year. And, as Professor James Wood, an infectious diseases researcher at Cambridge University said at the Royal Society meeting, “The other thing that is often left out of the equation is that this is a nasty disease for badgers as well.”

It was to highlight this fact that the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management produced a short film showing the effects of the disease in badgers and it doesn’t make comfortable viewing.

See:  www.vet-wildlifemanagement.org.uk

So it is odd to hear people who are opposed to any cull and who are concerned about badger welfare disregard this fact. Here’s what a spokesman for the Badger Trust said recently, “Clearly if any animal gets TB it suffers – rabbits get it, domestic cats get it, they all suffer. Why badgers should be picked out this way is incomprehensible and unscientific.”  Pauline Kidner, one of the speakers against the cull at the Cheltenham debate dismissed the issue of badgers suffering because all animals in the wild die awful deaths. It seems that provided no human is involved, the deaths of these creatures at the hand of nature is acceptable, no matter how much they suffer.  Presumably, even if infected animals could be identified, these people would still be against a cull. This prompts the question how do they see the reservoir of bovine TB in badgers ever being curbed or eradicated?

Whether or not free shooting is the right way forward will continue to be a matter for debate, but it does seem odd that the animal rightists who have joined this battle saw nothing wrong in arguing that shooting was a perfectly acceptable alternative to hunting with hounds when the Hunting Act was being debated and some still use the line in arguments against repeal.

Views on shooting foxes. Fine for the fox, but not for the badger.

Views on shooting foxes. Fine for the fox, but not for the badger.

What is at the heart of this problem is the lack of management of the badger population. That statement will infuriate certain individuals and groups, but the basis for complete protection for an animal when its numbers are high is simply not there. As a consequence, other species can suffer losses. The once common hedgehog is fast becoming a rarity and the rise in badger numbers is clearly a factor.

The animal rights lobby pick and choose their campaigns as easily as they pick and choose the arguments that suit them. Why is it accepted that the various species of deer, including many healthy animals, can be culled in their tens of thousands every year? Why is it that the culling of foxes is generally accepted?  It goes without saying that the methods chosen for such culls have to be humane (I and many others would advocate a law to underpin that situation), but problems such the bovine TB in badgers, and indeed mange in urban foxes, are symptoms of a lack of management.

Surely what most people want for the wide variety of species of our wildlife is a healthy population at acceptable levels. Wildlife management, as Dr Stephen Tapper says in his book  A Question of Balance,  has to be the key to achieving this, not blind protectionism.

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