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Badger Cull Facts and Key Arguments

The question of Bovine TB (bTB) and how to stop it is a difficult one. The disease has rampaged through cattle, with many thousands dying each year over the last few years. Farmers, understandably, are desperate to find a way to reduce, or stop, it.

But where do badgers come in? The whole debate boils down to two key questions:

  1. Do badgers spread bovine TB?
  2. If they do, will a badger cull stop bovine TB?

Care for the Wild believes that the answers are:

  1. Once badgers have caught bTB, they can potentially give it back to the cattle population. However, we believe that the impact of badgers spreading the disease is extremely small compared to the impact of cattle passing the disease to other cattle through poor farm practices, flawed testing for bTB, and mass cattle movements around the country
  2. No. All the key scientific findings show that culling badgers will have very little impact on bTB, and may well make it worse.

The message is very clear – a badger cull will not stop bTB. In fact, we believe the whole focus on badgers is a distraction from the true cause of bTB – farming conditions. We understand that some farmers truly believe that badgers are the cause of this devastating disease, and must be killed before the problem will be resolved. But the facts and the science simply do not back this up.

Latest Report – The Time to End the Cull is Now!

As part of Team Badger we have has just released a new joint report full of facts in response to the leaked IEP (Independent Expert Panel) report, which stated that the cull had failed not only in its targets, but also in the humaneness measures. This leaked document shows two things that can no longer be denied by the Government – the cull failed to achieve its own critical targets and the cull was inhumane. Working with MPs we have forced a Parliamentary Debate and we ask you to ensure your MP votes no! This is the time to end this cull. You can read the full briefing document here.

Do Badgers Spread bovine TB?

Has bovine TB ever been controlled in the UK without culling badgers?

Yes. Outbreaks throughout the 20th century, and prior to 1970, were dealt with through cattle measures alone. Rates were generally low. While the disease was not eradicated completely in some areas, this was understood at the time to be due to contamination on the farms, flawed testing, and ‘reservoirs of infection in other species’. These other species included pigs and goats.

Btb was first detected in badgers in 1971. Gassing of badgers took place in the south west of England for 10 years from 1975. Bovine tb rates were low at the time, and remained at a similar rate despite the culling.

What caused this latest outbreak of bTB?

With a very low rate of bTB through to 1990, movement controls on cattle were relaxed. This coincides exactly with a sharp increase in the rate of the disease. Over the next 15 years, rates soared. This also coincided with the BSE and Foot & Mouth crises, when testing for bTB was suspended. This impact can be seen graphically on this image from the Badger Trust:

How many badgers have bovine TB?

Despite the government giving the impression that huge numbers of badgers are sick with bTB and passing the disease to cattle, in reality this is not the case. The Randomised Badger Cull (10 year trial of culling) found that just 1.67% of badgers had the disease at a level which would make them contagious.

More recently, Owen Paterson (Environment Minister) suggested that many of the badgers being shot during the 2013 culls were sick. However, it was admitted that this was only from ‘visual’ evidence from the people doing the culling. Using the same method, during the Welsh Badger Vaccination Project in 2012, out of 1200 badgers captured and vaccinated in a TB hotspot area, none showed any signs of having the disease.

I’ve read that there are over a million badgers in England now.

There is no evidence to prove this. The last count of badgers put the numbers at around 250,000. Observation in some areas may suggest that numbers have increased over the last few years, but there is no firm evidence to back this up. And even if numbers have increased, the statistics above show that this will be having very little impact on bTB.

Is it true that ’50% of all cases of bovine TB in hot spot areas are from badgers to cattle’?

This has never been proven, although it is often quoted by pro-cull advocates. This was a suggested figure within ‘scientific modelling’ which was examining the disease and the way it is transmitted. This level of transmission has never been found in reality. The reality can be seen in the statistics above.

Will a Badger Cull Stop bovine TB

What impact will culling badgers have?

The figure that is most quoted comes from the 10-year Randomised Badger Cull, the biggest ever scientific study of badger culling. This suggested that at best, a 16% reduction in the rate of bTB might be achieved over a period of nine years.

Some will argue that this is enough to justify killing thousands of badgers, we would argue that it is not. But the other side of the coin is that the report said that the disease could actually be made worse by culling. Therefore they summarised that ‘culling can make no serious contribution to cattle TB control’.

an make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control’. – See more at: http://careforthewild.com/badger/qanda/#sthash.BGSPBg9C.dpuf
an make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control’. – See more at: http://careforthewild.com/badger/qanda/#sthash.BGSPBg9C.dpuf

As scientists with expertise in managing wildlife and wildlife diseases, we believe the complexities of TB transmission mean that licensed culling risks increasing cattle TB rather than reducing it. Professor Patrick Bateson, President of the Zoological Society of London, and 30 other leading scientists, in a letter to the Observer, October 2012.

Why could culling make the problem of bovine TB worse?

By nature, badgers live within a social structure and do not travel far. Therefore any disease within the sett will remain local, and any diseased badger attempting to enter the area will be turned away. However, culling badgers disrupts this, and leads to badgers travelling further afield, and potentially taking the disease with them. This is called the ‘perturbation’ effect, and is why the leading scientists say that culling simply is not the answer.

Did culling wildlife work in New Zealand and Ireland?

Owen Paterson is keen on saying that no other country has dealt with bTB without culling wildlife (although this in itself isn’t true – the UK managed it prior to the 1970s). He refers to New Zealand, where thousands of possums are killed, and where bTB rates are being reduced.

However, the situation in New Zealand cannot be justifiably compared to the UK. Firstly, the exact impact of killing wildlife cannot be separated from the impacts of other farming measures. Secondly, comparing possums with badgers in the context of culling is not scientifically viable. As nature expert Simon King says:

When people start talking about possums in NZ, how phenomenally ignorant can you get? Possums are an invasive species that doesn’t hold territory or a clan. This is completely irrelevant but it’s used as a big guiding light as to what we should do. No it shouldn’t, it’s completely irrelevant.

Culling in the Republic of Ireland has also been used to justify a cull. Thousands of badgers have been killed, and the rate of bTB has fallen by 3 percentile points since 2002. However, across the border in Northern Ireland, the rate of TB has fallen by 4.5 percentile points – and not a single badger has been killed. The success in Northern Ireland has been put down to improvements in farm management, and it is likely that this has also been the cause in the Republic.

Can better farm management really reduce bovine TB?

Until a cattle vaccine is developed and able to be used, it is the only effective way. History in the UK prior to 1970 showed that it worked, and the recent history in Northern Ireland shows unequivocally that it works.

In England, gradually improved management, movement controls and testing have helped bring the disease under control, and the government’s own figures show that the rate of TB is actually trending downwards (this goes against their statements that it is ‘out of control’.

At the turn of 2013, new EU legislation forced more stringent farming management practices on farmers – and since then the rate of disease has been falling every month, as reported by Care for the Wild. These figures – which come from before the 2013 culls started – show a 10% reduction in the number of cattle slaughtered because of TB compared to 2012. That’s a very significant figure.

When people start talking about possums in NZ, how phenomenally ignorant can you get? Possums are an invasive species that doesn’t hold territory or a clan. This is completely irrelevant but it’s used as a big guiding light as to what we should do. No it shouldn’t, it’s completely irrelevant. – See more at: http://careforthewild.com/badger/simon-king-badger-cull/#sthash.yuS2lpcg.dpuf

Is badger vaccination something that can be done now?

Yes. The government and National Farmers Union say that it is not, because “the cost and practical difficulties of administering it mean it’s just not feasible at the present time”. (Adam Quinney, NFU Vice President, Huffington Post, August 2013).

However, these arguments do not stand up. The cost of the 2013 badger culls worked out at £4000+ per badger, while the Welsh Vaccination Project was able to vaccinate at around £600 per badger. With volunteers lining up to help vaccinate badgers across England, however, the actual cost of vaccinating will be much less, and thus a fraction of the cost of culling.

The ‘practical’ difficulties cited refer to trapping badgers to vaccinate them. But during the 2013 badger culls, free shooting of badgers failed, so those doing the culling turned to trapping and shooting. The practical difficulties between trapping & shooting, and trapping & injecting, are very small.

A badger vaccination won’t stop a sick badger from passing on the disease.

True. But as mentioned above, the actual number of badgers passing on the disease is comparatively very small compared to the number of cattle potentially passing it on. Tests on badger vaccination carried out by the government in 2012 showed that if badgers in a sett are vaccinated, then the immunity to the disease passes onto the cubs. This shows that vaccination is a long-term solution to protecting badgers from the disease, compared to culling which would have to be continued indefinitely.

Why can’t cattle be vaccinated against bTB?

This is because a vaccine hasn’t been developed properly yet, and because of European Union rules regarding the sale of vaccinated cattle. Cattle vaccination will be the ultimate solution to stopping bTB, so we believe that the farming industry and government should be focussing on testing the vaccine, and sorting out the politics, rather than killing badgers.

Summary

To summarise, the impact of badgers on the rate of bovine TB has been grossly exaggerated. This could be due to a misunderstanding of the way the disease is spread, a political decision to appease farmers, or simply a desperate need ‘to do something’. Either way, the fact is that badgers are just a very small part of this problem.

And even if badgers were playing a larger part than they do, culling them is completely the wrong thing to do. Even without the moral argument that says wiping out wildlife in our path is inherently wrong, the scientific argument is clear – culling won’t work.

We will continue to ask the government and the farmers to focus on farming management, cattle movement and better TB testing, as these, alongside a cattle vaccine, are the ways that the disease will ultimately be beaten.

Read more on the badger cull.

Find out about our badger cull campaign.

Find out about our badger cull protests.

Read more from Simon King on the badger cull.

Read Care for the Wild’s latest news on the badger cull.