The absence of a thorough examination of this important wildlife policy in print led Canbury Press to commission a book on the cull. Badgered to Death by Dominic Dyer is a highly readable account which looks at the history and life-cycle of the badger and some of the relevant science.
As a journalist I am well versed in the possibility that a government (of any party) might act in the interests of a powerful group rather the public. But what first intrigued me about the badger cull was the number 16. I heard it a few years ago on a Radio 4 documentary (irritatingly I can’t now find a link) in reference to the percentage of the reduction in new hard outbreaks the cull was expected to achieve. In other words, culling would be deemed a success by the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) if it led to one in seven fewer new outbreaks of TB in cattle, over a nine-year period.
I was astonished: killing a much-loved protected species was always going to cause a significant amount of aggravation, which could be counted in letters, petitions, and other protests from nature-lovers. It might be worthwhile if it was going to eradicate bovine TB in cattle. But the transaction seemed out of kilter with the political price. Here was David Cameron’s government setting out on a policy that would kill thousands of badgers, at a cost to the taxpayers of millions of pounds, against the public’s wishes, on the basis that it would halt one in seven new cases of a cattle disease? Put more simply, badger culling wouldn’t cure TB in cattle. It would just help, a bit.
The government is quite open about this: it freely acknowledges that badger culling is just one part of its plan to achieve official TB-free status in England by 2038, which is largely centred on cattle-based measures, such as training farmers in biosecurity and improving early detection of the disease through better testing.
Yet. 16% seems very low for all the effort.
Except. It’s easy for me as a city-dweller to blithely dismiss one in seven fewer herds getting TB because I’m not a farmer. I haven’t seen first-hand the ravaging of a herd, built up over decades through careful breeding, wiped out at a stroke because of this disease, with all the gut-wrenching emotions, organisational upheaval and financial violence that ensues. And that’s true: I’m not a farmer and I haven’t seen the devastation of TB up close, though any farmer who loses his herd from disease has my sympathy.
There is also a rising cost to the taxpayer, which does affects all 64-million inhabitants of the UK. The government compensates farmers for the livestock slaughtered to prevent TB spreading. If we take the financial cost to the taxpayer alone, the Government’s official strategy for eliminating bovine TB from England in the past decade (presumably 2004-2014) bovine TB has cost the taxpayer £400m. The strategy warns:
If we do not get on top of the disease we will see a continued increase in the number of herds affected, further geographical spread and a taxpayer bill over the next decade exceeding £1 billion.
There are also the cattle themselves. In the 12 months to May 2016 the number of cattle culled because they have been infected with bovine TB totalled 29,766 in England, 8973 in Wales and 165 in Scotland.
Government ministers routinely mention the terrible toll among cattle themselves. Their media interviews on the badger cull often run along these lines: “Well it’s all very well protesters complaining about killing badgers but I wish they paid the same attention to the misery this disease causes to cattle and the cost to farmers and taxpayers.”
Another sentiment is evident: ‘We are the Government, and we have to take tough decisions in the wider interests of the country, even if that means killing furry wild animals.’
But let’s think afresh about the badger cull and examine it from a scientific perspective, and ask a somewhat basic question: What is the evidence that badgers are behind the rise in bovine TB in cattle?
Actually, first, let’s examine an even more fundamental question: do badgers actually pass TB to badgers?
In Badgered to Death: The People and Politics of the Badger Cull, Dominic Dyer shows that there is little rigorous science about the transmission of bovine TB from badgers to cows to cows. As Dominic writes, the theory that badgers spread TB to cattle leans on a single experiment scientists conducted in a government laboratory in Weybridge, Surrey, in 1975, when they packed TB-infected badgers and cows together. After months the cattle (one assumes it was the badgers who did this: there are other possibilities) became infected. Even then the scientists who conducted the experiment concluded that the risk of badgers spreading bovine TB to cattle “appeared to be low.”
Nonetheless, it is indisputable that both badgers and cows can contract bovine TB and both live in the countryside. Many farmers are convinced that badgers do spread the disease to livestock.
Sometimes they point to the phenomenon of ‘closed herds’. A ‘closed herd’ does not accept new cattle from elsewhere. If this uninfected closed herd becomes infected, the source of infection cannot be other new infected cattle, because there are none. Instead the source of transmission must have come from somewhere else, presumably other animals. And we know that badgers can carry bovine TB, perhaps it makes good scientific and public policy sense to kill badgers to reduce cattle outbreaks of TB? Well, there was a very large experiment to examine this very idea: the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT). Between 1998 and 2007 the taxpayer-funded RBCT slaughtered 11,000 badgers at a cost of £49 million.
What did it find? Professor John Bourne led the Independent Scientific Group which examined the RBCT’s findings. On 18 June 2007, he told the then Environment Secretary David Miliband:
"First, while badgers are clearly a source of cattle TB, careful evaluation of our own and others’ data indicates that badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain. Indeed, some policies under consideration are likely to make matters worse rather than better.
"Second, weaknesses in cattle testing regimes mean that cattle themselves contribute significantly to the persistence and spread of disease in all areas where TB occurs, and in some parts of Britain are likely to be the main source of infection.
"Scientific findings indicate that the rising incidence of disease can be reversed, and geographical spread contained, by the rigid application of cattle-based control measures alone."
So the top scientist in the field had determined three key things:
- Badgers do spread bovine TV
- Killing them won’t do much to reduce bovine TB in cattle
- Stopping cows infecting other cows would be better
Now let’s look at a fact which is strangely overlooked in this debate: almost every mammal living in the countryside has TB. (Humans can catch TB too: that’s why we pasteurise cow’s milk and cheese, so it doesn’t give us TB from infected cows). From page 24 of Badgered to Death, this is the list of animals that carry TB that are farmed or live wild in the English countryside:
To single out badgers for spreading TB is to look at a colourful world in black and white.
So where are we with the badger cull?
Two links for you
- In August 2016, the Government announced a drastic upscaling of the badger cull, with a target of killing around 10,000 badgers by December 2016. Given the number of farmers applying for licences to cull badgers, there is every sign that the badger cull will be intensified in coming years.
- New research by scientists at Queen Mary University of London has cast doubt ‘on the extent to which badgers spread bovine TB to cattle’. Using mathematical modelling the researchers traced the development of the disease within the two species to see if they could find a common pattern. They couldn’t: they found that badgers were infected by badgers and cattle were infected by cattle. As Dr Aristides Moustakas from QMUL’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences explained:
“There is little geographical overlap between farms with infected cattle and setts with infected badgers, and cycles of infections between the two species are not synchronised."
I am not a scientist. What do the top animal disease scientists say about the badger cull? In July 2016, they told the new Prime Minister Theresa May:
We urge you to review the considerable evidence that culling badgers is a risky, costly, and inhumane tool in the fight against bovine TB.
We submit to you that expanding this unpromising programme would fly in the face of scientific evidence. We publicly call on you at this time to halt – not expand – the failed badger cull.
I won’t explain why the Government is pressing ahead with a failed policy. For that, you would need a book.
Badgered to Death: The People and Politics of the Badger Cull by Dominic Dyer
Paperback, 240-pages, £7.99