THE BLOG

Looking at the Badger Issue with a Fresh Pair of Eyes

11/06/2013 12:58 BST | Updated 07/08/2013 10:12 BST

As the badger cull sanctioned by the government started earlier this week, I must admit I haven't been paying much attention to the situation, I personally have been more concerned with the effect ash dieback is having on our woodland. All I know is that badgers are potentially spreading bovine Tuberculosis to cattle. So I set out to do some research and look at the facts objectively; why are so many people outraged by the government's decision to cull the badgers, and what are the factors that drove them to this conclusion?

Bovine tuberculosis (bTB) was discovered by Robert Koch in 1882, and in 1890 he developed the first tuberculin used in diagnosis of the disease. At this time many people died after contracting tuberculosis from drinking the milk of bTB affected cows. The chance of humans developing bTB is now very low as the vast majority of milk we buy has been pasteurised, killing all of the bacteria, but contracting the disease is still an issue in developing countries where drinking milk straight from the cow is commonplace.

The problem with badgers contracting bTB is that they roam widely at night marking their territory with urine which can contain a very high proportion of bTB bacteria. Cattle grazing on the land infected badgers have roamed on can then contract and spread the bTB bacteria.

Bovine Tuberculosis is caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium bovis and is spread through direct contact, aerosol droplets, being exposed to the bacteria in the environment, or even bites. The disease affects a wide range of mammalian hosts including: deer, llamas, pigs, cats, wild carnivores, omnivores, cattle and badgers obviously, and even humans. One report written by Professor David Macdonald and Dr Dawn Burnham even suggested that to eradicate bTB from the UK control measures would have to be put in place to stop the spread of the disease in deer.

Between 1973 and 1998 a number of different methods of culling badgers were tested to try and halt the spread of bTB, but none seemed to work. In 1998 the Krebs Review suggested the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) to quantify the impact culling badgers had on the incidence of bTB in cattle. The RBCT took over 10 years to complete and cost about £50,000,000. Over 11,000 badgers were trapped in cages and subsequently shot. One of the main findings of the RBCT was that culling the badgers every year caused a decrease in the spread of bTB in the areas of land they were proactively measuring, but it also led to an increase in bTB in cattle situated on land near the culling zone. The culling of badgers caused the remaining badgers to become more susceptible to the disease as well as increasing the badgers' ranging behaviour; in turn causing an increase in the spread of bTB. It took 4 years of hugely expensive culling before there was an overall drop in cases of bTB in cattle. One of the key conclusions of the RBCT was 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."

From this evidence the government's choice to cull badgers seems rather odd. All the evidence suggests that the cull is essentially going to spread the disease and be vastly expensive; not to mention the new method of shooting badgers on site will be extremely traumatic to any badgers that survive a shot for hours or even days. Another solution would be to try and vaccinate the cattle and badgers, which is the only way to eradicate the disease entirely in the long run, as well as being vastly more humane. The report from Professor Macdonald and Dr Burnham has suggested the best way to control the disease would be

"an integrated programme involving surveillance and pre-movement testing of cattle, improved herd biosecurity and diagnosis and, eventually, cattle vaccination, together with vaccination of badgers."

The vaccination, like all vaccinations, will not cure any badgers that have already been infected. If the percentage of badgers with infection is particularly high in one area, it may already be too late to use the vaccination there. Vaccinating the badgers in these areas will have very little effect on the spread of bTB to cattle, and will cost a vast amount of money.

The opposition to culling badgers is fairly obvious, it is potentially inhumane if done without care and can be quite expensive. But on the other hand vaccinating in particularly troubled areas could be even more expensive than a cull and have very little impact on the cattle, and additionally would have negative consequences on the farmers who need healthy cattle to make a living. Choosing just one of these options is a very tough decision, and the possibility of trying both options at once in different areas may have been the best decision.

Having looked at the situation with a fresh pair of eyes, my personal opinion is that the best solution would have been to go down the vaccination route, similar to the vaccination programme taking place in Wales, purely due to the fact that no badgers would have to die at human hands. I can understand why the government decided on a cull, as it will target the farms that are being affected right now, but in the long run it may not be the best decision. It will certainly be an interesting 4 years before we can truly see what impact the cull has had on the spread of bTB.