Today the badger cull was reinstated in areas of Somerset and Gloucestershire despite vociferous opposition by celebrities, the RSPCA, scientists, charities and members of the public. The government has set a target to shoot at least 316 badgers in Somerset and 615 in Gloucestershire. Marksmen involved have said that they are confident that they will meet these expectations despite failing to make their goal of 70% last year, even after up to five weeks of extensions. 1,861 badgers were killed at an approximate cost of £4,100 per badger.
So why is this happening? Badgers can be carriers of a disease called tuberculosis which can spread to cattle. Last year over 32,000 cattle were slaughtered because of the disease. Bovine TB costs farmers a lot of time and money and is infectious so the government have put badger culling forward as a solution to the problem as part of a four year culling plan which is itself a component of a 25 year long strategy to manage the spread of the illness. The NFU have stated that they believe badger culls are “the only answer to controlling TB”. Cull companies are allowed to shoot badgers trapped in baited cage traps and also free-running badgers if and when they are spotted.
The problem is that a lot of scientists don’t support the cull, saying that vaccinations and culling infected cattle are key to maintaining the health of livestock. They have also thrown into question the extent to which badgers are actually responsible for the spread of the disease. The DEFRA secretary, Liz Truss, argues that other countries have eradicated the disease with a combined action of culling and vaccination. As such the government have announced plans to vaccinate badgers on the fringes of the cull areas to create a “disease-free buffer zone”.
So, if there are vaccinations available, why is a cull necessary at all? Well unfortunately a vaccine is preventative but cannot cure a badger that is already infected. The theory is that, while vaccination has the potential to limit the spread of the disease in badgers, it doesn’t reduce the numbers of badgers who currently have it, whereas culling will. The issue with this idea is that culling isn’t selective, meaning that healthy badgers are at risk as well as infected ones.
Meurig Raymond, NFU President, has said that while there is “no other choice” than to implement the culls it is also unacceptable that there is no vaccine for cattle against this disease and that the NFU “will do everything it can to get this process speeded up”. Vaccinating cattle against the disease would likely prove far more effective than vaccinating and systematically killing a different species with tenuous links to the cross-contamination of TB.
Dominic Dyer from the Badger Trust and Care for the Wild has stated that he believes that the culls are “ill-conceived and incompetently managed” and has pointed out that, though DEFRA and the NFU only cite successes that included culling, there have been areas that have effectively reduced the numbers of infected animals without killing badgers. He also points out that, while badgers are blamed for the spread of disease in “closed herds” (where the herds are kept together, secluded and not mixed with other cows) the testing currently in place misses 20% of infected cows so, in effect, the conclusion of the studies are invalid. In addition Wales has reduced the number of cattle slaughtered because of bovine TB by 48% just by increasing the amount of testing and, as a result, limiting the movement of infected cattle.
The RSPCA agree that culling is ineffective and unnecessary. Their website documents the catalogue of errors that have been made throughout the culling process, including “overstating” the figures that justified the culling and blundering statements by politicians claiming that “badgers moved the goalposts”. They also add that the way the badgers are killed is often inhumane and drawn out: up to 22.8% of badgers killed in last year’s botched culling efforts survived for five minutes after being shot.
If you’d like to know more about Badgers the RSPCA website has plenty of facts about this woodland creature as well as information about last year’s cull, this year’s plans and the next stage for their campaign