The Blog

The Problem Isn't Badgers, It's (Politically Led?) Bad Science

National Farmers' Union and the majority of farmers - but not all - may believe that badger culls will do the trick, and a lot of politicians want to keep the farmers onside. And it will probably pay electoral dividends for a while. But longer term this 'solution' is could even make things worse...

After years of posturing and shadow boxing, it looks like the 'War of the Rurals' has finally begun.

This very week will, extraordinary intervention excepted, see the beginning of a massive badger cull authorised by DEFRA to eradicate Bovine (cattle) TB - aka bTB - across parts of the English countryside which some see as our enduring, unchanging birthright: a place where contented cows, cosy badger setts and comfortable farmers all happily co-exist.

In reality we know the English countryside is no such thing. Of necessity it changes, in its physical shape and in its function, all the time. 'Rural' is by no means essentially 'rustic', but that's not what we like to think.

And so it is with the licenced firearm badger cull to come.

A conservative response

The conservative (little 'c') response to the bovine tuberculosis problem is to start the hunt - a traditional way to extinguish vermin which also happens to be the strategy of choice of significant numbers of Conservative (big 'C') supporters. Sorting it all out in time-honoured mode is in this view the obvious manoeuvre.

Unfortunately it's not really going to work. The National Farmers' Union and the majority of farmers - but not all - may believe that badger culls will do the trick, and a lot of politicians want to keep the farmers onside. And it will probably pay electoral dividends for a while. But longer term this 'solution' is could even make things worse, not better, if by 'better' is meant permanently halting the spread of bovine TB in milk-producing cows.

The evidence-based debate about badger migration ('social perturbation'), natural ('badger impermeable') barriers to habitat, other sources of infection (e.g. deer) and so on rages still. It does not however point to massive cullings as the primary way forward. There's a lot more to it than that: short term 'saving' of public money by passing the buck to individuals (hunters) won't deliver long term.

Extended, expensive and elusive

Lessons more or less learnt from the disastrous 'Foot and Mouth' cow pyres of a while ago, DEFRA and large numbers of scientists have been in a grossly expensive huddle on bTB for several years; the cost (whether justified or not) by now must be incredible. And for a while it looked as though progress might be made. Vaccine development programmes have been scheduled, with the hope that TB would start to be eradicated, perhaps by blanket vaccination, without recurrent recourse to shotguns, gassing, snares or poison.

At least (and at last) it looked like the gold-plated veterinary-political pow-pows would come up with a good result for financially challenged farmers, cows and badgers, all.

Now most of the British trials have been abandoned. The Welsh Government has chosen to continue vaccine development, but overall diminished investment in research suggests conclusive clinical resolution of bTB will remain elusive.

It is strange indeed that a vaccine for TB in humans has been available for years and is, where appropriate, routinely used, whilst one for badgers and / or cows remains beyond our grasp.

Shunning the science

Most farmers, and most politicians, are not scientists. One might imagine that the production of food - which is surely the prime purpose (along with management of the total environment, and land husbandry) of farming - is a strong candidate for the application of science. Verified knowledge is however often trumped by tradition.

Reluctance to adopt the obvious strategy - a TB vaccine for cows - is rooted in costs, regulations and commercial interests around certified 'free from' herds and, say some, premium milk prices. But I, a human mammal, was given TB protection as a child; and so probably were you. The case at every level of governance for more scientific, less 'traditional-action' policies on protecting herds from tuberculosis is strong.

Complex, yes. Retro, why?

The veterinary epidemiology of bovine and badger TB is complex. It involves factors as varied as those already discussed (e.g. badger perturbation patterns) and wider issues such as biosecurity and how factory farmstressors influence infection in cows. And that's before we get to issues around deveoping vaccines: direct costs, timelines and who - very critically - should take the lead on this, whether for badgers or cows.

Nonetheless, acceding to farmers' incessant, voluble (though not unanimous), evidence-denying, 'traditional' demands for a big badger cull, with guns and individual licences, is a backward-looking response to the genuine and serious problem of bovine TB.

We should not be surprised that most farmers in Britain are not scientists and are not, it seems, much interested in what the research has to say.

But science in our food and eco-industries is at least as important as important as in other areas of production. It is worrying that the disinterest in research of farmers also apparently applies to DEFRA ministers - politicians who, with civil service advisers, are supposed to take shape policies and initiatives in accordance with the best evidence and resources they can procure.

If they they were doing so, the badger cull in England would surely not be progressing as currently proposed.

Not cuddly and not competent?

This isn't 'just' about cuddly badgers (actually, they aren't), nor is it 'only' a matter of respect for the natural environment and how these animals for some symbolise green issues (critical though these are).

This is at core about political judgement and leadership. It's about not playing to the gallery. It's about looking to use and enhance validated scientific knowledge, to find real answers and ways forward.

Government ministers may not have training in natural science or environmental studies, but we can reasonably expect them to develop policy underpinned by what, on balance, these disciplines tell us or could tell us. What hope for the future, as food and other natural resources become more stretched against climate change and rising population, if politicians fail to give rational leadership and realistic support even on bovine TB?

The Government's go-ahead for licenced firearm badger culling suggests that science is less important than nebulous notions of ruritania, by-passing state responsibility, and short term political advantage.

Hilary Burrage was previously a member of the DEFRA Science Advisory Council. She writes in a personal capacity.