Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Badger Cull in England.

I sometimes blog on the most controversial of issues. More likely to spark a debate. And today there is nothing more controversial than the badger cull which is about to begin in England.  Its not at all  a straight forward issue. I've been involved in the debate for a very long time. Its complex. But bottom line is that I support the cull - even though I'm not wholly convinced it will succeed in making a big difference. This is why I support only a 'pilot' targeted cull.

As an adult I have always been a lover of wildlife. When out at night with calving cows and lambing sheep as a young man,  we rarely saw a badger. Any sighting was a talking point over breakfast. When I drive out over the same fields today, badgers are a common sight. Coincidentally (though I think not) I never see another much loved creature that was common then, the hedgehog.

Also when I was a young man making my way in livestock farming, bovine Tb was rare. My 120 sucklers were tested on a regular basis, and we never had a case. Today my neighbours are losing cows by the dozen, and are regularly under restriction. Bovine Tb is causing absolute havoc throughout the cattle industry, and is costing the Gov't huge sums in compensation. Because badgers suffer from and carry the bovine Tb infection, many people believe there is a link, and that badgers should be culled as well as any suspicious cattle.

Spent a lot of time on this when chairing the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee in the National Assembly for Wales, including a visit to Ireland to discuss the lessons of badger culling there. On first consideration, the Irish experience strongly supported a cull of badgers. Bovine Tb, which had been much worse than in the UK, had been dramatically lowered. But the sheer scale of slaughter of cows, deer and badgers across the nation was bound to lower incidence of disease, and I felt we could not conclude with certainty that there was a definite link - though the Irish believed there was. Also we had the Krebs Trials in England, which again failed to give support for a cull - though I didn't have much confidence in the integrity of the trial. The pilot areas were too small, and the trials were disrupted by opponents of culling. In fact there was some suggestion that the position was made worse because badgers moved into the space vacated by culled badgers.

Since then my stance has been that we need a proper trial - over a much larger area than Krebs. I would not support a widespread slaughter of badgers unless this 'pilot' showed clear evidence. 3 years ago, the then Welsh Gov't decided to implement such a pilot, but messed up the paper work, and it never happened. The new Welsh Gov't has no intention of taking things forward, except in a hopelessly impractical PR exercise (in my opinion). Seems to me this is an irrelevance.

 The UK Coalition Gov't is now going forward with a cull which has won legal backing. Not sure this post needs to go into the details of how the cull is to be carried out. That's another issue. This is about where we go from here. Lots of my farming friends want to see the cull extended. I'll not support that unless there is evidence from a pilot that culling badgers is an effective control. Biggest danger is that disruption of the cull will nullify the evidence - and ironically, lead to other more extensive culls in the future. There's also the case that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the farming industry will continue to blame the badger - with inevitable consequences. I just hope we conduct an effective cull and discover with some certainty whether culling badgers works. In the long run we may find an effective treatment that eliminates the case for culling altogether. Its what we all want, But over the 20 yrs I've been involved, an effective vaccine has  always been about 10 yrs away! It still is.


Tanya Hill said...

As a farmer you can answer my question. Why can't the millions of pounds spent on culls be given to farmers to provide badger proof fencing?

Anonymous said...

Badgers and cattle co-exist all over the UK and in many of those areas there is no bTB problem. This one fact should explain why badgers are not the cause of the bTB problem.

Next, you can look at the differential rates of bTB in beef cattle and dairy cattle.

In mixed herds, the dairy cattle are 3 times as likely to be bTB reactors as the beef cattle. Amongst cattle in the same area (amongst the same wildlife including badgers), dairy cattle are 5 times more likely to be bTB reactors. Further proof the bTB problem is largely unrelated to badgers.

If you want to solve the bTB problem, look to cattle management and leave the badgers alone.

You could start by pressing DEFRA to commission some basic research (eg into correlations between bTB and stocking densities, nutrition, dairy bloodlines, hygiene management arrangements on individual farms, etc).