Badgers: To cull or not to cull

A badger cull to control TB in cattle has been ruled out in England, but, as Julian Rollins discovers, the Welsh Assembly has decided to make eradicating the disease a national priority - whatever the cost

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The subject of badgers came up last week on the school run. A roadkill badger, lying on a verge outside our village, prompted the sort of debate on death and the afterlife that fascinates every primary school pupil. But I found myself thinking about more earthly issues and rerunning a debate I’d been part of at the bar in our local some time ago. That had been about badgers, cattle and tuberculosis (TB) and how – in the absence of action by the powers-that-be – local farmers were taking their own action. Could that have been the fate of our school run badger? Perhaps you shouldn’t take pub rumours too seriously, but then our bit of Pembrokeshire is one of the areas in Wales where TB in cattle herds is a constant problem.

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Talk of DIY action on badgers has clearly reached the ears of officials at the Welsh Assembly, where Assembly Member Elin Jones, the Rural Affairs Minister, had to remind farmers that badgers are a protected species.

Even after all this time the fate of the badger is a contentious issue, and to understand why we need to look at the facts of cattle (or bovine) TB. Simply put, bovine TB is a chronic, infectious, life-shortening disease caused by an agent called Mycobacterium bovis, and it can be passed to other mammals, including humans.

In the 1930s nearly half of all UK cattle herds carried the infection, but by the 1950s the incidence was just a fraction of 1 percent. Today the UK and Ireland top Europe’s bovine TB league.

To prevent the spread of the disease, herds are regularly skin tested and any infected cows are sent to slaughter. Once TB has been detected on a farm, cattle movement restrictions are imposed in the area and these stay in place until that herd has had two clear tests.

Farmer Steve James knows the frustrations of living under movement restrictions only too well. TB first appeared in his herd at Clunderwen, Pembrokeshire, in the early 1990s and is still with it.

His cattle should, in theory, be relatively safe as the farm sits within what are known as hard boundaries – a railway, roads and a river – and during the last five years only a bull has come on to the farm from the outside world, and it came from a TB-free area. But despite the family’s best efforts, TB reactors (cows that the skin test shows up as infected) keep turning up. Since 2001 James has lost 65 animals to TB, a draining financial and emotional cost.

And the disease continues to claim new victims. “Over the last 12 months we’ve had four tests and we’ve lost one on each test,” he says. “At the moment I think we are on top of it, but we just can’t seem to quite clear it out.”

He thinks the source of the new cases is wildlife, but he can’t be sure. But that makes him a convinced supporter of an official badger cull – though not of illegal vigilante action. “It is happening,” he says. “But when you have nobody else doing anything about it you’ve got to do something.”

He doesn’t condone farmers who choose to kill badgers, but he can understand their motivation. When groups of cows graze near a badger sett and pick up TB, it’s clear that the sett is the infection source, he argues. But for farmers like Steve there’s a sense that TB is their Catch-22 – the disease will only be controlled when the badger question is addressed.

Long-term analysis
But if badgers are the question then the answer has been a long time coming. First came a decade or so of science and then another half year of discussion in Whitehall before Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, announced last summer that there will be no cull in England.

He based his decision on the final report of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB (ISG), which assessed the results of a nine-year experiment to discover whether killing badgers would stem the spread of the disease. It concluded that although badgers “contribute significantly” to cattle disease in some parts of the country, “no practicable method of badger culling can reduce the incidence of cattle TB to any meaningful extent”.

New evidence
The evidence the ISG considered seemed to show that while infection rates were cut by nearly a quarter inside a cull zone, a cull can make things worse outside the area, pushing incidents of TB up by around the same proportion in surrounding areas, as disturbed badger groups break up and spread the disease into non-infected areas surrounding the trial zone.

At the time of the ISG report the then president of the Cattle Veterinary Association, Andy Biggs, went on record to say that this might be short-term pain for a long-term gain, and in the last month new evidence has come to light, indicating that there may have been some truth in his theory.

Further analysis of the ISG report and observation of the trial areas has shown that the rate of TB in cattle continued to fall since the trial ended, and was 54 percent lower than in the non-culled areas. The analysis also showed that detrimental effects were no longer observed on neighbouring land. But whether Mr Benn will consider this new evidence remains to be seen. At present, Defra is continuing on the road Benn set in July, highlighting the importance of tackling cattle-to-cattle infection and announcing that £20m would be invested over the next three years to develop useable cattle and badger vaccines. Indeed, in March this year, DEFRA announced that wild badgers will be vaccinated against bovine TB for the first time in 2010 at the beginning of a five year programme. The trial will take place in six areas of England and farmers and vets will be trained on how to use metal cages to trap badgers before injecting them. 

However, on her side of Offa’s Dyke, Elin Jones has decided to take a different tack. This approach involves more testing of cattle, better biosecurity on farms and, most controversially, a trial cull of badgers. Earlier this month the details of this trial were finally set out by Ms Jones. The plans are to trap and shoot around 80 percent of badgers in an area of North Pembrokeshire.

“This is a difficult decision to take and it has not been taken lightly.” Ms Jones told the Assembly in Cardiff Bay, making note that “due consideration to the divergence of scientific and political opinion” on the matter.

“I want to make it absolutely clear that the badger remains a protected species in Wales and the conditions of the Badger Act are firmly in force. Illegal action will not be tolerated,” she said.

At the same meeting Ms Jones also announced a one-off test of all cattle in Wales to get to the bottom of TB’s extent in the country, a test of 4,657 extra animals. 

Backing badgers
There is no doubt the cull will be challenged every inch of the way by badger enthusiast Steve Clark. The civil servant from Chepstow is a director of Badger Trust Cymru and has been watching, rescuing and campaigning for badgers for 20 years. This passion began following a chance encounter in the Wye Valley, when he found what he thought was a badger sett and decided to go back at dusk.

“On my first visit an inquisitive cub came up to me and sniffed my boot, looked me in the eye and then trotted off down the path. From that moment I was hooked,” he says.

Clark insists badgers will be scapegoated so the politicians can be seen to be doing something.

“In Wales they seem to have ignored the science, while in England they seem to be taking it on board,” he says. “It isn’t an easy decision for the minister, but I would have hoped that she would have followed the science.”

He welcomes the increase in testing Jones has already ordered, but wants to see it go further, claiming that a more sensitive blood test could detect cattle in early stages of the disease, thus removing sick cows from herds before they become infectious.

“If that test was used across the country it would identify more infected animals and the cost of compensation would go through the roof,” he says. Badger Trust Cymru would also like to see stricter cattle movement rules and on-farm biosecurity. Clark argues that the measures would bring cattle infection rates down and, over time, badger infection rates would fall too.

Eradication plan
But Clark’s arguments don’t wash with Wales’s chief vet Dr Christianne Glossop, the woman tasked with putting the TB control plan into action. She says that although people talk about the disease having been eradicated in Wales in the 1950s it must have been “lurking” somewhere.

“I spoke to a vet the other day who told me that he went to a dinner at Cardiff Castle in the 1950s to celebrate TB eradication,” she says. “I said to him ‘I might be an old lady when we have that celebration again, but I’m going to do it’.”

Her battle plan calls for more effort in the drive to remove all sources of infection. It includes tightening up on cattle-to-cattle exposure, but also factors in culling. Glossop won’t be drawn on how a cull will be carried out, but insists: “The enemy is TB. Don’t let anybody think that the badger is the enemy.” 

What she’s keen to stress is that she believes the “do nothing” option chosen by Hilary Benn puts the public at risk. Before milk pasteurisation, cow to human TB infection was common, she says, and now younger people are not vaccinated against the disease, which has been seen as a low risk. But Glossop believes the growing number of cases in a wide range of animals – everything from cats to llamas – suggest that TB is again becoming a human health issue. “It’s spilling over into other animals, and that’s a symptom of the increasing weight of infection that’s out there,” she says.

It’s difficult to know who to give the last word to. Steve Clark won’t ever accept a badger cull, but for farmer Steve James the sooner the war of words ends the better. He says: “Given the tools there’s no reason why we can’t eradicate TB. They did it in the 1950s and 1960s so we could do it again.” 

BOTH SIDES OF THE ARGUMENT

For:

  • Badgers can and do carry bovine TB and can pass it on to cattle.
  • A scientific review carried out in 1997 by Professor John Krebs concluded that there was “compelling” evidence for badger-to-cow TB transmission.  
  • The existing regime of testing and removal has failed to halt the rise in cases. While infected badgers are on a farm, cattle are at risk.
  • The cost of compensating farmers for the removal of TB reactors keeps growing.
  • Leading scientists, including former government advisor Sir David King, say it would have a significant effect on reducing TB in cattle.

Against:

  • A cull makes scapegoats of badgers, while not addressing the main problem – cow-to-cow transmission. Between the mid-1930s and mid-1960s, testing and removal of infected cattle pushed national infection rates down from around four in 10 to less than one in 1,000. 
  • Many believe culling thousands of animals that are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 would be unethical.
  • Improvements to the way cattle are tested and practical measures to keep cattle and badgers apart (such as electric fences around farm buildings) would cut infection rates. 
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This is an updated article which originally appeared in issue 16 of Countryfile Magazine (January 2009). To never miss an issue, subscribe here.