Badgers are at the centre of one of the biggest rural controversies of our time.
On the one hand, many farmers see them as disease-carrying pests that need to be controlled in the same way as urban dwellers control rats, with poison, traps or guns.
How can there be such a huge gulf between these opposing views? Is there a central “truth” that we can all agree about?
It is true that badgers can spread TB to cattle
There are some definitive facts. Bovine Tuberculosis (TB) is a complex disease which needs to be controlled to maintain the UK’s international animal health reputation. Control measures include improved on-farm hygiene, accurate identification of cattle, records of animal movement, regular testing of cattle by vets, and unfortunately for badgers, strict control of wildlife that can carry TB.
You see, there is no doubt that badgers can carry TB. If they become infected, they excrete the TB organism in their urine and faeces. When infected badgers wander around farmland, they can contaminate feeding troughs and pasture, passing on the infection to cattle.
But that is where the certainty stops. Just because badgers can carry TB does not mean that they necessarily are a highly significant reason for the perseverance of the disease in cattle in some parts of the UK. At a recent NFU conference on Bovine TB, a DEFRA scientist said that “possibly only 6 per cent of infection can be traced back to badgers”, yet when challenged by farmers, he acknowledged that there were “very high levels of uncertainty over the extent to which badgers are involved in the disease cycle”. Then later in the conference, he acknowledged that “it could be higher than this”, but in any case “it is probably less than 50 per cent.” The fact that a senior scientist is unable to be definitive is an indication of the complexity of the situation.
Farmers prefer to control badgers than to take even more farm-based measures against TB
Farmers, as a group, are keen to blame badgers: they are a useful scapegoat, and focussing on eradicating badgers from problem areas is more acceptable than tolerating the extra costs and inconvenience of higher levels of cattle testing, culling and movement restrictions. In fairness, farmers are already subject to very strict cattle-based controls, with 30,000 cattle being ‘culled’ in England annually to control TB in cattle herds, and 10-15% of herds in England suffering from strict movement restrictions every year. Farmers do not have a choice about these issues, and so it is understandable that they get upset when people campaign to allow badgers to be left out of the equation completely.
Even if it’s accepted that badgers need to be controlled, there are conflicting views about the best way to stop them from spreading TB. The ultimate aim, that everyone agrees on, is to prevent badgers from carrying the disease using an oral vaccine which can be given to them in baits.Trials of this type of vaccine are under way but in the mean time, there is a strong opinion that the most effective way to stop badgers from spreading the disease is to cull them. But even the evidence for this is complicated.
Badger culling may not work, it’s difficult to carry out humanely and it damages the natural ecosystem
Mass culls don’t work: badgers from surrounding areas tend to move into areas where badgers have been eradicated, and other badgers run away from areas where culling is taking place. This increase in badger movements (known as perturbation) has been shown to spread TB rather than helping to solve the issue.
So the new government alternative is focussed culls, tightly restricted to specific narrow areas where TB is a problem. But this is controversial too: the evidence for its efficacy is not 100%, and importantly, it is not at all easy to kill badgers humanely. That said, in this two-host epidemic, no single measure can be 100% effective, and the Republic of Ireland approach to the disease (which includes culling badgers as well as other measures) has led to a decline in cattle TB levels that has not been seen anywhere else in the British Isles.
There are three problems that people have with culling badgers, each of them valid in their own way.
First, some people believe that badgers have rights, just like humans. So deciding to kill them, even for a good reason, impinges on their rights. Even if it’s done humanely, it just should not be done.
Second, others believe that while there is an argument that badgers should be controlled (just like excessive numbers of rats, deer or other pests), it should only be done if they can be killed humanely, which is a challenge in itself. This is the view of the British Veterinary Association .
Third, others believe that even if badgers can be killed humanely, it should not be done in a way that affects the ecology of the rural landscape in a permanent way. In Ireland, badger culling has been the national policy for many years, with over 70,000 badgers being trapped and killed between 1995 and 2010. The total national population of badgers has been estimated at 70,000, suggesting that almost half of the national badger population has been eradicated. At the same time, Ireland has significantly improved TB control in its national cattle herd, justifying the badger slaughter to those who support it.
But even if the badger slaughter has helped the TB issue, it has been at a serious cost to Ireland’s natural heritage. Local badger populations have been decimated,with ancient badger setts permanently depopulated. In one area, there were over ten active setts in the 1980’s: now there‘s just one. Is it ever right to permanently alter the natural environment in this way?
On the other hand, recently published data from England shows that badger sett numbers have increased by 100% in the past 20 years, and badgers are causing serious damage to roads, railways, foundations of houses etc, leading to an increasing number of licensed moves of badger setts from one location to another. So the badger population in England could certainly not be said to be under threat in any way.
There is no perfect answer to the TB and badger situation. The issue is – and will continue to be – a challenging and divisive problem.