“I can’t believe this is still happening – it was an issue when I lived in the UK a million years ago.” So wrote a friend of mine from Namibia this week when I mentioned that Nature England has issued a badger culling licence to landowners in Gloucestershire and another to farmers in Somerset.
The cull of badgers is intended to control the spread of bovine tuberculosis (TB) in cattle. Culling badgers is definitely not the right way to deal with the problem as I will explain in a moment. But the decision worries me for another reason. It marks a new assault on British wildlife by commercial producers that have already ‘verminized’ one after another of our native species. Culling of wildlife by game keepers has a long history with predators like red fox, stoat, hen harrier, peregrine falcon and many others facing the heaviest persecution. Foresters view red deer and roe deer as pests. Farmers growing crops add wild geese to the mix not to mention a huge array of insects. Now it is the turn of livestock husbandry. Without protests from the British public, commercial producers would surely win unlimited support from our parliaments for vermin control. It is a real threat to our countryside and our biodiversity.
Let me be clear. I am not against control per se. What I am against is trapping, poisoning, gassing and shooting wildlife when less invasive methods are available, such as better husbandry, smarter barriers to movement, improved vaccination strategies, and a host of other intelligent ways to control the interaction between wild animal populations and productive systems using our growing knowledge of wildlife biology. Nor am I asking farmers to foot the bill for testing out new control methods. This is the responsibility of government and our research institutions.
Suppose we give the green light to DEFRA and license commercial farmers to blast away until every son of a boar and daughter of a sow badger has been exterminated. What wild species will suffer the misfortune of being next in their sights? A likely target is migratory geese. They have the potential to carry zoonotic diseases – those that can be transmitted to humans. And after the migratory geese are exterminated, what then? This kind of management thinking – the culling of vermin – is a never-ending recipe for conflict between us and our natural environment.
Permit me to explain how I see the conflict progressing.
In the first place we create the problem. In the case of poultry, we provide the incubator for the evolution of new diseases within industrial farm systems in Europe (and elsewhere) or in densely populated rural locations with poor animal husbandry, as for example in southern China, Laos and Cambodia. In the case of bovine tuberculosis in UK, we are responsible for spreading the disease to badgers. TB was first identified in a wild badger in 1971 on a cattle farm undergoing a prolonged herd breakdown (i.e. a prolonged TB outbreak). Since then bovine tuberculosis has been spread about England and Wales by cattle movements, both legal and illegal ones, causing infection of other badger populations.
In the second place, we reach for an easy solution – to cull wildlife. Not only is that something we find easy to do, but it has a big impact factor. Much of politics is about being seen to do something, apparently. In culling badgers, landowners and the general public see that government is definitely doing something drastic. It is easy to pretend that it will also be effective.
In the third place, we are left with an unintended consequence. Well I hope it is an unintended consequence. By creating a national acceptance of the need to continue killing ‘vermin’, our appreciation of British wildlife is diminished. Wild migrating geese are no longer the harbingers of the autumn months, but carriers of disease. Badgers are no longer the noble keepers of the wood but bio-terrorists. It is a dreadful negative spiral.
Do we have an alternative? Assuredly yes. The first thing to do in my opinion is to put away the guns and seek to understand exactly how transmission of the disease between cattle and badgers is taking place. TB is a respiratory disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium bovis. The transmission rate is low. But how exactly does it occur? And what are the optimal conditions for transmission? We know something about that. It is transmitted primarily via the airborne route but it can also be transmitted via contaminated food or pasture. Beyond that the facts are few and far between. Is close proximity required for transmission of the bacterium from one animal to another via the cough aerosol? Is transmission more likely under moist conditions? Would UV lighting in cow sheds reduce transmission of the bacterium? Would an improved drainage system that provided a dry floor assist in reducing transmission? Are badgers attracted to cow feeding-sheds by the presence of accessible animal feed? Are there alternative ways of delivering feed to cattle that would reduce the problem? How about placing badger barriers around feeding sheds? Specially designed fences are needed to be an effective barrier against badgers; that may make them too expensive for large scale application but the cost of fencing a feeding shed should not be prohibitive. Could provision of areas of improved habitat exclusively for badgers (they are known to prefer earthworms) play a part in separating them from cattle? Could M. bovis be transmitted in blood such as in the placenta following birth? What are the management implications?
I have not studied badgers and no doubt there is much I have missed but surely there is room for further work on the behavioural ecology of badgers and livestock with regard to epidemiology. Such work would provide a rich context of information for the next step – implementation of effective cattle husbandry and non-invasive badger management to reduce disease transmission. This kind of research work need not be expensive: a few well-placed PhD students could do wonders. Currently Defra’s annual expenditure on bovine TB is in the order of £100 million. If 0.5% of this had been directed at focussed studies designed to answer these questions over the past 5-10 years, I am confident we would now know how to manage disease transmission successfully. A few well-placed grants today in the right hands – independent universities with a reputation for mammal and wildlife epidemiology research – could quickly deliver a herd and badger management system to supplement vaccination strategies of the future.
Returning to the current culling decision, what is government hoping to achieve? According to independent scientific studies, farm managers need to kill more than 70% of all badgers in an area in order to reduce TB in cattle by some 16%. If they do not achieve 70% dead, the spread of TB may actually increase as the disturbed badgers disperse across the countryside taking TB with them (Donnelly et al 2003; Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, 2007). Most people would agree with Lord Krebs that it is crazy to cull under these circumstances. After their uncompromising stance in favour of culling, the Welsh Government rescinded, accepting the scientific logic and opting for a system of vaccination instead. This courageous action is greatly to their credit. Scotland is free of TB but doubtless the same issues would arise should TB spread north of the border.
I hope the above convinces you that it is worth trying to find a different way to manage our countryside. (This is what I call for in my book, The Storm Leopard.) In relation to badgers, perhaps you would consider signing a petition being supported by guitarist Brian May to stop the cull. This petition will make a difference because 100,000 signatures is a realistic target and should get the issue debated in Parliament. Thanks from our furry friends. PS I used to have them visit my front door at night looking for peanut butter sandwiches – magic!
Donnelly et al (2003) Impact of localized badger culling on tuberculosis incidence in British cattle. Nature 426: 834-837.
Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB (2007). Bovine TB: The Scientific Evidence; Final Report of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB Presented to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs The Rt Hon David Miliband MP, June 2007.