As we welcome in 2012, ironically the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Protection of Badgers Act, hard times loom for Britain's badgers.
With the government twisting the available science to justify a mass slaughter, Humane Society International/UK is looking to the Strasbourg-based Bern Convention to prevent the massacre of tens of thousands of these iconic mammals.
On 14 December last year, Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State for Environment, confirmed our worst fears when she said that the government will forge ahead with its plans to sanction the killing of large numbers of badgers in a misguided attempt to control tuberculosis in cattle.
This year's proposed 'pilot studies' alone, which are likely to take place in Gloucestershire and Somerset, could result in the death of at least 3,000 badgers. If the plans are rolled out, more than 15,000 badgers could be killed in each year of the four year programme. Most of these animals will be shot at night and many will undoubtedly suffer wounds leading to slow and agonising deaths.
Tragically, everything we know and the best of science tell us that this latest round of slaughter will not solve a thing.
No-one disputes that TB in cattle has been a serious problem for many decades. Indeed it is currently one of the most important animal welfare, economic and social issues facing the agriculture sector in England and Wales (Scotland is officially free of the disease).
Cost to taxpayer
Since 1950, British cattle herds have had to undergo statutory testing for TB with compulsory slaughter of infected animals. Associated testing, compensation, surveillance and research activities reportedly cost the UK taxpayer £90 million in 2010. Add to that the distress suffered by affected cattle, farmers and their families and we have a problem that desperately needs a solution.
Sadly, the ability of badgers to contract, spread and maintain the disease has resulted in them being used as a convenient scapegoat. It is far easier for the government to sanction the slaughter of badgers and show farmers that they are 'doing something', rather than face the challenge of implementing fundamental changes to cattle farming necessary to get bovine TB under control.
Since the first badger with TB was discovered in the 1970s, many tens of thousands of these animals have been slaughtered under the banner of TB control, despite the fact that the case for badgers being a significant source of the disease in cattle has never been established.
Culling can make 'no meaningful contribution'
In fact, it is clear that the main source of TB in cattle is not badgers at all, but other cows. This was acknowledged by the Randomised Badger Culling Trial, instigated by Professor John Krebs (now Lord Krebs) in 1997. The 10-year programme and subsequent report by independent scientists objectively examined the role of badgers in the spread of TB among cattle and concluded that "badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain" and "that the rising incidence of disease can be reversed, and geographical spread contained, by the rigid application of cattle-based control measures alone."
Rather than act upon such seemingly clear scientific advice, our current government has instead chosen to twist and reinterpret the trial's results in order to claim that the mass slaughter of badgers represents an essential, 'science-led' approach. It is neither.
In these days of modern technology, the tests available to detect bovine carriers of TB are still unreliable. Cattle continue to be extensively moved around the country, herds are mixed together and reports abound that some farmers avoid or circumvent testing requirements in order to move or sell valuable animals. European regulations and the protection of export markets still prohibit the use of TB vaccines in cattle.
Cattle movement and testing
According to DEFRA's own figures, stricter controls on cattle movement and testing introduced in 2008 resulted in significant reductions in the number of cattle culled without a single badger being slaughtered. Instead of a nonsensical focus on badgers, these controls tackled the real problem - how we manage the farming and movement of cattle. An expanded nationwide strategy, including the decentralisation of slaughter facilities, would remove the need for much of the cattle movement that currently takes place.
It's really quite simple; to solve farming problems we need to look at farming itself. However, farmers and ministers appear to prefer rifles to reform.
Humane Society International/UK is challenging the government's slaughter plans by issuing a complaint to the Bern Convention under which badgers are listed as a protected species.
The UK government ratified the convention in 1982 and HSI UK argues that the proposed badger cull places the United Kingdom in breach of its commitments because:
- The government hasn't sufficiently explored alternative methods of controlling TB in cattle
- The government cannot guarantee that the plans will not be detrimental to badger populations at a local or national level
- The government's plans will not significantly improve the situation in cattle
A broad range of conservation and welfare organisations, including HSI UK, are now working together to challenge the government's plans.
All involved agree with the farming and veterinary community that we need effective and sustainable answers to TB in cattle. One thing is clear - we need to stop persecuting our wildlife in the name of protecting farm animals. For the sake of badgers, cattle and farmers, we need to seriously rethink our approach to this important issue.
For more information on bovine tuberculosis and the work of Humane Society International/UK, visit www.hsiuk.org.