The great badger battle. Friend or Foe?

The debate of the future of our friend the badger has been toing and froing for years now but with the badger cull targeted at summer 2013, what a political pickle the government have found themselves stuck in with such adamant opposition.

Bovine TB was once a disease affecting only a small percentage of the farming community, however it has now rapidly spread through the UK with new cases doubling every nine years. In 2011, farmers had 26,000 of their cattle slaughtered and over the past decade TB has cost the taxpayer over £500 million. It is estimated this figure will sky rocket to £1 billion in control measures and compensation over the next ten years unless something is done.

Badger strip tail

Andreas-photography

A Devonshire farmer wishing to remain nameless who breeds pedigree Friesian Holstein cattle and lost over a third of his cattle to Bovine TB in less than a year.

“It is ruining a lot of people’s livelihoods at the moment. I had the cattle for about 22 years and it was all of my own breeding. It’s heart breaking to see them being loaded up in the lorry and some of them got shot in front of me.”

To stop the spread of TB, the government planned two pilot culls in West Somerset and West Gloucestershire with the National Farmers Union (NFU). The aim of the cull is to reduce TB in cattle by approximately 16% over nine years in the immediate areas. Evidence from the 1997 Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) suggested 70% badgers had to be killed in these controlled areas to reduce the spread of disease.

The Welsh government has chosen a system of badger vaccination, as there are no cattle vaccinations approved by the EU, while Scotland is officially TB free.

Until October 23rd it was full steam ahead until these pilots were postponed following a letter sent to the Environment secretary of state Owen Paterson, by the NFU’s president Peter Kendall on behalf of the companies coordinating the culls, when it was realised the amount of badgers in the cull zones were significantly higher than expected.

The department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) have justified the cull with evidence of the RBCT, however Lord Krebs, one of the government’s most respected scientific advisers and whose research was cited in evidence, has described the cull as ‘crazy’.

Lord Krebs told the BBC that Defra has no way of knowing how many badgers are in one area and so will not know when they have shot 70% of the creatures in the cull zones.

“I would go down the vaccination and biosecurity route rather than this crazy scheme that may deliver very small advantage, may deliver none,” he said

MP for West Devon and Torridge, Geoffrey Cox who has been on the government’s select committee for the past five years believes Krebs’ comments are not based in science.

“Krebs’ discussions and remarks, I think are regrettable and irresponsible.

Geoffrey Cox. MP for West Devon and Torridge

Geoffrey Cox. MP for West Devon and Torridge

“It isn’t crazy; the only reason the scientists don’t accept it is because they didn’t think it would be economically and socially acceptable.

“If the science says there can be some reduction, and it does, then it’s judgement for politicians to decide whether it is socially and economically acceptable.”

Huw Rowlands, a farmer near Chester in Gloucestershire has organised his own badger vaccination plans on his farm at his own expense as he disagrees with the notion of killing to remove disease.

“I completely disagree with this idea that the way to control disease is by killing things. I’d like to see lots more money thrown into researching into a [cattle] vaccine and to see lots more negotiating with the EU to get it licensed.”

Only two days after the government announced the delay on the cull, the majority of the MPs in the House of Commons voted to abandon the controversial cull in England entirely. The debate was granted after over 150,000 people signed an official government e-petition to stop the plans for a badger cull. The motion stood at 147 votes to just 28 yet with the government not being legally bound by the vote, the cull still stands.

Is it a wise decision for the government go so directly against the views of the general public and of the parliamentary vote? Cox believes their decision is justified: “You can only when faced with opposition, search your conscience, but ultimately you’ve got to do what you feel is right and I firmly believe that on the limited lines we are proceeding it is the right policy. You can’t be ruled by numbers and sometimes the majority isn’t always right.”

What is Bovine TB?

Bovine TB is a form of bacilli caught by cattle breathing in droplets of fluid containing the cells. Unfortunately badgers can also catch TB, so cattle grazing in the same fields as badgers cause this to spread. When in the lungs, immune cells usually destroy disease by consuming the bugs but that’s what these bacilli want and inside multiples. Some instances mean the bacilli get trapped in a lump but unfortunately often the bugs get out and the disease spreads through the body even getting into the bones of the infected.

Gordon McGlone OBE, chief executive of the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust is concerned debate of the cull is distracting the general public from what else needs to be done to manage this disease.

“With the Badger cull people are talking 12-16% benefit, that leaves 84% of the problem still not tackled but this is rarely discussed. So whilst badger vaccinations similarly don’t solve the problem, there is 4-8% improvement, it certainly doesn’t make it worse.

“The cattle vaccine still requires good industry and political leadership and still we are hearing all the reasons why it can’t take place instead of all the reasons how the problem could be resolved.”

It seems the coalition has more than enough to tackle with arguments over the logistics and effectiveness of the cull, its financial benefit, it’s dealings with the EU in approving and the role of a farmer in controlling their land.

As the winter draws in the creature in question heads southward to begins its underground winter holiday but the badger is the only one to put this debate on hold for the season.

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