Badger culls don't stop tuberculosis in cattle – the evidence is clearThe government is ignoring scientists' advice on bovine TB – killing badgers is not the solution. Members of the public who may know little about farming – or wildlife – could be forgiven for thinking that farmers' lives are being ruined by badgers.
Article was written by Julia Kaminski and first appeared on the Guardian's Website on Thursday 11th August 2011
It is a message being peddled by the farming press, by some – but not all – farmers, and even by the BBC's Countryfile programme. They say that thousands of cattle are being slaughtered every year (30,000 in 2010) because of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) – an airborne respiratory disease – at enormous cost to farmers and the taxpayer: £100m last year. This much is true. They also say that bTB is being passed to cattle by badgers. This I dispute, based on evidence from those who know better than me – scientists.
Those of us who want to protect badgers from such bad press are forced on to the defensive. Particularly now, as the government has said it is "minded" to authorise a massive cull of badgers in an effort to control bTB.
It wasn't always like this. Bovine TB was almost eradicated by 1970, when there were only about 1,000 cases. Eleven years of localised badger culling failed to reduce the toll further. But the end of annual cattle testing in the mid-80s, and the devastating effects of BSE and foot-and-mouth disease, when testing was abandoned altogether, meant that many farms lost thousands of animals, and afterward there was a rush to restock. Regulations were relaxed, so cattle were bought and sold and – crucially – moved all over the country. Bovine tuberculosis was back. These relaxations of the movement and testing regimes – not badgers – were to blame.
So, to the question of whether badgers are responsible for increasing infection rates in cattle. If they are, how have cattle remained free of bTB in Scotland, where no badgers have been killed? Why do they have it in the Isle of Man, where there are no badgers? And why are bTB rates twice as high in Ireland, where so many badgers have been killed that they are extinct in many areas?
Could it be possible that cattle are infecting badgers? After all, cattle far outnumber badgers – 9 million cattle to, at most, a quarter of a million badgers.
George Pearce, a wildlife consultant, used to be a farmer. In his new book, Badger Behaviour, Conservation and Rehabilitation: 70 Years of Getting to Know Badgers, he explains how his family's farm, which always had badger setts on it, managed to remain free of bTB from 1950 to 2008, when the herd was dispersed.
Since the 1930s, there have been four important measures used to combat bTB: very strict movement controls, thorough cleansing of livestock buildings, good ventilation and double fencing on all boundaries to prevent cattle in adjoining fields from exchanging saliva.
Pearce says that if we want to solve this crisis, we should be talking about cattle, not badgers.
Aside from these measures, he suggests that we look at the bloodlines of our cattle. All bulls, whether used naturally or artificially, should have blood tests to assess their susceptibility to bTB. The reduced gene pool of bulls over the past 60 years could be contributing to the problem.
Cattle that were largely bTB-free in the 60s and 70s, he adds – mostly British breeds – have gradually been replaced by continental breeds. Are they less resistant?
What's more, cattle are bred much more intensively now, and bTB is known to be a stress-related disease.
What about dietary deficiencies? Dick Roper in Gloucestershire was anxious to find out why one of his farms was hit by bTB when his others were not. On the affected farm, the cattle were fed on maize, which badgers also love. But maize lacks selenium, a mineral that – in humans and livestock – is necessary to maintain a strong immune system. So, Roper introduced selenium mineral licks for his cattle, and for the badgers on his land – to the amusement of his neighbours – and cured his problem, despite all the farms around him becoming infected. Are cattle getting bTB because their immune system is compromised?
In the past two years, improved cattle testing, biosecurity and movement controls in England have led to a 15% reduction in the rates of bTB infection. In Wales, during the same period, the number of cattle slaughtered because of bTB has fallen by 36%, and by 45% in Dyfed. The Welsh Assembly Government had proposed a cull, before being forced to drop the plan.
And this, without a single badger being culled – despite the fact that a few rogue farmers have been swapping the ID tags of cattle so that valuable animals with bTB were, illegally, kept on farms, while healthy, but less valuable, ones were sent to slaughter in their place.
David Williams, the Badger Trust's chairman, said in April:
"The effect of these offences is apparent: the guilty parties are harbouring and spreading disease by keeping infected cattle on farms. The cattle-based measures now in place depend absolutely on effective movement controls, honest and accurate record keeping and discipline. They have been producing heartening results without killing a single badger, particularly in Wales. However, if badger culling had been introduced last year, these improvements would have been claimed as 'proof' that culling had been necessary."
Meanwhile, the statistics about the number of cattle slaughtered every year because of bTB, and the amount this costs, have been very visible in the media, but no one mentions the other causes of premature slaughter.
In 2009, 120,000 cattle were slaughtered because they were infertile. In 2008, 75,000 were slaughtered because they were "not in calf"; 50,000 because of mastitis; 25,000 because of lameness; and 7,000 because they were "low yield". Not to mention the male dairy calves that are killed at birth because they are unprofitable. Compare these figures with the 30,000 with bTB that are slaughtered.
No one mentions these because they are not caused by wildlife. Several factors, including bad luck and bad husbandry, are at play. Farmers receive no compensation for these animals. They accept these losses as an unfortunate part of their livelihood – there is no one to blame.
Last year, the government announced a public consultation on whether we should have a cull. It ended in December, but the results had not been made public. Why not? A request for the information under the Freedom of Information Act was turned down because the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said releasing the information "would affect their policy". Isn't that what a consultation is meant to do? They have, however, now included the results as part of another consultation, which closes on 20 September. Those figures show that, of those who responded, 69% would not want to cull and 31% were in favour of culling but alongside vaccination. Not exactly a resounding endorsement of the government's proposals.
In other polls, too, the public have made their opposition clear: 97% against in a 2007 poll for the Labour government; 68%, both rural and urban, against in a recent BBC poll; 90.9% against in a Guardian poll in July. Even a recent poll by Countryfile, which largely has a farming audience, polled more than 60% against a cull.
Would badger culling help? The answer is no. And to support this conclusion, we need only look back at the evidence of the Krebs trial, a massive pilot cull of badgers over 10 years between 1997 and 2007, overseen by the Independent Scientific Group (ISG). It is a well-worn argument, but it bears repeating: the trial showed that bTB in the culling area was reduced only marginally. Outside the culling area, it actually rose, a result of what is called perturbation, where badgers who have survived a cull spread out to escape danger. This behaviour does not occur in any other species. The conclusion of this massive trial was that "culling can make no meaningful contribution to the reduction of bTB".
In the weeks leading up to the government's latest announcement, seven former members of the ISG wrote a letter to the Times opposing a proposed cull. They included Lord Krebs, who designed the 10-year trial and is now chairman of the House of Lords science and technology select committee, Professor John Bourne, the ISG's chairman, and Dr Chris Cheeseman, the principal scientist for many years at Defra's Woodchester Park study area in Gloucestershire, where farmers themselves were involved in research into badgers, cattle and bTB. They said there was "no empirical data on the cost or effectiveness (or indeed humaneness or safety) of controlling badgers by shooting, which has been illegal for decades".
In early July, Lord Krebs said: "The trial evidence should be interpreted as an argument against culling. You cull intensively for at least four years, you will have a net benefit of reducing TB in cattle of 12% to 16%. So you leave 85% of the problem still there."
It seems their arguments have fallen on deaf ears. Make no mistake, this is an argument the government does not want to hear.
If bTB is in decline, why is the government not saying this in public? This lack of openness appears to vindicate those who believe that a decision to cull is a matter of political expediency, to secure the farmers' vote, and is not based on the available evidence.
But those of us who have an interest in all animals, whether wild or farmed, are tired of badgers being the scapegoat.