A close cull
Two views on badger culling
‘We must manage creation responsibly’
The inexorable rise in bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in Britain’s wildlife and cattle must be brought under control; it causes large numbers of animals to be culled and wild animals to suffer painful deaths; it has spread to other animals; and is devastating to farmers who see their livelihoods destroyed – leading to stress and suicides.
Much effort has already been made to halt the spread of bTB: strict controls on the movement of cattle have been imposed, and there is a rigorous testing and culling regime in place for the dairy and beef sectors. Nearly 200,000 cattle have been culled since 2008. But bTB in wildlife – mainly badgers – remains largely untouched.
Up to one in three badgers have bTB in affected areas. Culling is one of the key weapons for the welfare of badgers and other wildlife, as well as the farming community. In Ireland, where culling has been used since 2004, rates of infection have dropped by more than one third. In Northern Ireland it has risen by nearly 50% in the same period.
Vaccinating badgers is a process fraught with problems. The vaccine is only available in injection form, so badgers need to be cage trapped annually for at least five years, and every trap has to be visited daily. The cost is over £3,000 per animal, and there are questions over the efficacy of the vaccine, as it will not cure a badger already infected with bTB.
The badger population has exploded since it became a protected species. Badgers eat hedgehogs, the eggs and young of ground nesting birds, and disrupt bees for their honey, while badgers themselves have no remaining natural predator. The number of hedgehogs has declined sharply, and although this has several causes, it highlights the need to manage wildlife to maintain a balance. The deer population is rigorously managed and culled to ensure it doesn’t outgrow the ability of the environment to sustain it. A similar argument can be put forward for badgers.
Our biblical role is that of stewards, which means we have to face up to tough decisions as we try to manage creation responsibly. No one wants to cull cattle, badgers or other affected animals, but we have to strike a balance as we consider: food production, human welfare, the health of our wildlife and controlling the spread of this devastating disease.
Jerry Marshall is CEO of the Arthur Rank Centre
‘Culling badgers could make the problem worse’
Lord Krebs’ described the government’s badger culls as a “crazy scheme”. This from the scientist whose research is currently being misused, cherry-picked and otherwise misrepresented to justify the culling of badgers.
The main conclusion of Krebs’ nine-year £50m randomised badger culling trial (RBCT) was: “Badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to the control of bTB.” It could hardly be any less equivocal. Monitoring in the RBCT culling zones several years after the trial found a reduction of bTB in cows of between 12 and 16%, which is the statistic cull-proponents latch onto (though they habitually quote the upper figure and forget to mention that bTB increased in areas neighbouring the zones).
But a possible 16% reduction is better than doing nothing, eh? Well, no, because the chances of even that small improvement happening are vanishingly small and the cull could actually make the problem worse. Here are just three (of very many) reasons why:
1. The culls’ free-shooting method is scientifically untested (the RBCT used the much surer “trapping then shooting” technique) so no one knows if farmers will be able to kill 70% (the target figure) of the badger population, especially since they have to do so at night, in all weathers, without shooting members of the public, in just six weeks per year, for four years.
2. No one knows how many badgers are in the zones to start with, so judging if 70% have been killed will be impossible.
3. Because of the perturbation effect (bTB-carrying badgers fleeing the shooting and moving into previously bTB-free territories), if any farmer pulls out before the four years are up because, say, they can no longer afford it, it’s pretty much guaranteed that bTB will increase in that area.
But don’t take my word for it. The final report on the RBCT by the Independent Scientific Group concluded that “licensing farmers to kill badgers will risk increasing and spreading bTB in cattle.” Again, pretty unequivocal.
The government calls the two culling zones “a science-led trial” but what scientist organises a trial with just two experiments and no control group? It’s a politics-led decision, a classic case of doing something simply because “something must be done” which, as Krebs says, is crazy.
We should look instead to Wales whose government has wisely abandoned culling in favour of vaccination and stricter farm bio-security.
Dixe Wills is a journalist and author
This article was published in the September 2013 edition of Reform.