Badgers, bTB and the badger cull – update

Following the hugely controversial badger cull of 2013 in Somerset and Gloucestershire, we present a round-up of the latest news and scientific findings.

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Following the hugely controversial badger cull of 2013 in Somerset and Gloucestershire, we present a round-up of the latest news and scientific findings.

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The cull was introduced after a previous culling trial – The Randomised Badger Culling Trial (1998-2007) RBCT found evidence that badgers transmit bTB to cattle and that culling 70 per cent of the badgers in a given region could reduce bTB infection by up to 16%. 

bTB is an infectious disease in cattle and causes huge financial and personal hardhip for farmers.

The pilot badger culls in 2013 were intended to test whether free-shooting of badgers was an effective and humane method for culling. The RBCT used cage traps but this method was deemed too expensive to roll out nationwide. For a detailed Q&A on the badger cull, see BBC News.

Welcomed by many farmers, the pilot culls – especially the free shooting aspect– were criticized by some of the scientists involved in the RBCT as likely to increase the spread of bTB. 

An Independent Expert Panel appointed by Defra found that the 2013 pilot culls had failed to kill enough badgers to have any impact on bTB infection and that too many badgers had been killed inhumanely. The Government later abandoned plans to roll out the badger cull to other areas of the country but insisted that it would continue culling in the two western counties.

In July 2014, the new environment minister Liz Truss said that she will follow the plans of her predecessor Owen Paterson to continue the trial culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire in the autumn of 2014. 

There is still strong support at Defra and among farmers for culling badgers as the most effective method of restricting the spread of bTB. Interviewed by Tom Heap on Countryfile 6 April, Princess Anne claimed there were too many badgers and, more controversially, that gassing was the most humane method of culling them.

Dr Chris Cheeseman, who worked on the original badger gassing trials in the 1970s, disagrees

In July 2014, The Journal Nature published new research that suggested culling of entire herds of cattle, more bTB testing and cattle vaccination are needed to halt the disease. It said that badger culls were ineffective. However, farming minister George Eustace and the government chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Boyd expressed concerns that this approach would devastate the dairy industry

Meanwhile, the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine is currently undertaking research into how the TB bacteria is transmitted between badgers and cattle – something that is not currently understood. 

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The Zoological Society of London is also conducting research in Cornwall into how badgers and cattle interact and come into contact – in order to understand how bTB is transmitted between the species. The research is funded by Defra.