Bovine tuberculosis is a long-term epidemic in the South West of England that spreads fear across farmers as cattle are slaughtered to control the spread of the disease. With the potential of transmission from badgers to cattle or humans, the badger cull pilot scheme was launched in 2013, with an aim to reduce Bovine Tuberculosis in British cattle herds. Since the cull, however, I have found myself stuck between articles stating the apparent success of the cull, whilst other groups are actively campaigning to stop the apparently useless and meaningless destruction of an iconic British species. Farmers generally promote the cull, and the Wildlife Trust stands firmly against, leaving me completely torn in two and needing to find the source of the dispute between two parties I care so much about. Unfortunately, I think I may have found the answer, and it’s a frustratingly simple one. The conflict rising between the two parties from such clashing beliefs are partly a result of governmental ignorance to scientific practice, and here’s why.
The threat of bovine tuberculosis in Britain is real. Since 2008, 227,835 cattle have been slaughtered in England as a result of this disease, and at the moment protecting the cattle with a vaccine is not an option either. Approximately 28,500 cattle per year have to be killed after testing positive for the bovine tuberculosis disease, and shockingly many of these deaths will be the result of an inconclusive test, meaning healthy cattle are being destroyed. There is also no legal vaccine due to the potentially inflicted interference with the test either, meaning options for freeing the country of bovine tuberculosis and the resulting economic burden on the farming are far and few between.
After a background of scientific evidence gathered to understand the connection between badgers and bovine tuberculosis, the government sanctioned the culling of badgers in the South West of England in 2013. In Gloucestershire, Somerset, and Dorset, farmers were appointed to control badger populations via both cage trapping, and free shooting.
In 2016, the culling areas were then widened to seven locations in addition to these previously existing areas, and the number of license holders commissioned for the disposing of badgers was also increased. Culling in these new areas will be carried out over the next four years, so you would hope this expansion would be a result of the successful pilot culls surely?
Unfortunately, due to a series of irresponsible errors on the government’s part, the answer to that is no. The disorganisation in conducting the cull has meant that we don’t even know if the cull is worthwhile, and because of this, both sides of the badger cull debate are up in arms.
The well-grounded scientific evidence supporting the cull states that the control of badger populations must follow an all or nothing approach. Heavily reducing the badger population size in our countryside would help reduce bovine tuberculosis. However, culling small numbers of badgers in patchy areas would be unlikely to have the desired effect. Whilst undisturbed badger clans remain relatively stationary so disease does not spread quickly, culling will disrupt this system. Badgers evading the cull or moving into land vacated by the cull will have a larger range that could increase the spread of the disease. To sum it up, not conducted carefully, the bovine tuberculosis problem could actually be exacerbated by the culling rather than solved.
Unfortunately from the moment culling targets were set, the project was not treated with nearly enough sincerity, given the risks at stake in this controversial cull. Following independent expert advice, a target to reduce population size by 70% was set in the three areas for 2013. To achieve this, a range was calculated based on population estimates, to cull between 1876 and 2584 badgers. This meant that if the lower limit of 1876 badgers were killed, there would only be a 1/40 chance that 70% of the population would have been killed. Of course, in an attempt to save time and money, the government took the 1/40 chance in order to remain realistic in meeting the target and set for 1876 badgers to be killed. Even before a single badger was shot, not enough effort was being made to ensure the highest probability of success for the cull.
If it wasn’t enough that the cull used a target that was unlikely to sufficiently control the badger population, this target was then given little chance of being met or adhered to. Firstly, culling was carried out by the farmers themselves, making an extra job for workers who may not have the adequate free time to effectively undertake badger control, and probably have a bias position in the cull too. It came to no surprise then that in 2013, only between 37-51% of badgers were culled in Somerset, and between 43-51% in Gloucestershire.
In 2014, the government discarded the independent expert monitoring of population size methods that revealed the previous year’s failures and left the farming marksmen to assess the population size as well. In 2014, no published estimates of population sizes were achieved.
Lastly, as the final nail in the badger culling coffin, restrictions on maximum cull duration, cull area size and percentage of accessible land, previously considered unduly inflexible, were proposed for abandonment by the government. These parameters were apparently no longer fundamental guidelines. It is no wonder that the ignorance towards scientific based and independent expert advice was soon followed by an announcement declaring that “despite killing badgers, cattle slaughtered for TB continue to rise in and around the area.” (DEFRA). Anger has since boiled from both sides, where the cull was neither taken seriously nor responsibly enough to be worth it.
Whilst it seems that there is little hope for the cull, new pilot areas are being rolled out across the country in what seems to be half hearted attempt to address bovine Tuberculosis in Britain. Following this reading, it seems that this movement has not been conducted to help the cattle industry, but as a means of being seen to be doing. The cull could provide a means of badger and therefore disease control, just as it is currently conducted with other species like deer and other forms of wildlife. Given the way the piloting procedure has been conducted, however, the success of the badger cull seems dubious unless the current practice is given a serious shake-up. If the cull continues to follow suit as it has in the past three years, I certainly won’t only expect anything other than a failure of the cull. Sadly, I don’t think we’ll be any the wiser as to how effective the cull could have been either – an unfortunate failure in terms of wildlife conservation and farming practice.
I would like to give credit to the resources used to write this article, and I would please urge you to carry on reading to form your own opinion on the matter. Thank you for reading.