British Wildlife of the Week (Special)
Today is National Badger Day – the perfect time to celebrate the UK’s largest living land carnivore. But although most people have a strong affection for this bumbling black-and-white creature, the badger is probably Britain’s most controversial mammal, commonly hitting the headlines – and almost always for the wrong reasons.
It’s all because of bovine tuberculosis, or bTB. Dairy farmers in particular, whose livelihoods may be threatened by this highly infectious disease, often blame badgers for passing bTB to their cattle and have long called for the population of this shy, stripy-faced mammal to be controlled. And that is indeed what is currently happening. Despite being a protected native species, badgers are being killed in huge numbers in an attempt to reduce bTB in cattle. In this special edition of British Wildlife of the Week, The Nature Nook looks at badger culling in England to see whether it is effective or even necessary, and what other options are available.
The Culling Controversy
Although culling badgers in an attempt to eradicate bTB is relatively new, badgers have been persecuted by humans for centuries. Badger baiting was once a common practice, whereby specially-bred dogs – particularly terriers and dachshunds (whose name is, in fact, German for ‘badger dog’) – would corner these animals inside their setts so that men with spades could dig them out. Sometimes, entire villages took part in these badger pursuits.
The UK’s government has been authorising badger culls since 1975 – just four years after bTB was first found in badgers (having been passed to them from cattle). First, they were gassed in their setts using hydrogen cyanide. Today, they are caught in cages and shot, or hunted at night. In nearly half a century, there have only been 10 years in which badgers have not been subjected to one form of cull or another.
The latest iteration of badger culling began in August 2013, in a move that was broadly welcomed by farmers but denounced by conservationists. Two ‘pilot cull areas’ were identified by Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) – one in West Somerset and the other in West Gloucestershire – with farmers being given licences to kill at least 70% of their local badgers.
However, in both trial areas, marksmen failed to kill the minimum number of badgers required under the licence conditions. Because the target had not been achieved, the pilot cull did not yield any useful information and it was repeated the following September, in the same locations.
In 2015, Dorset became the third region in England to implement the cull. The year after that, it was announced that culling would be extended to parts of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Herefordshire. By 2018, the cull had been expanded to 32 other areas in 10 different counties. Today, some 30,000-40,000 badgers are shot on an annual basis. The total number killed since the cull policy began in 2013 now stands at over 102,000.
Does badger Culling Work?
So the big question is: does culling badgers actually reduce levels of TB in cattle? Is it a necessary evil proven to stop the spread of a dangerous disease, or simply the latest iteration of centuries of needless persecution? Nearly 50 years after a dead badger was first found riddled with TB in Gloucestershire, the argument still rages.
The current cull is guided by a £49-million scientific experiment, the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT), which killed 10,979 badgers between 1998 and 2004. It found that ‘proactive’ badger culling could, in theory, reduce levels of TB in cattle by 12-16%. But after the trial, the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB reported and concluded that culling badgers ‘cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain.’
Despite this, many farmers believe that culling is necessary to protect their herds. The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) insists that proactive badger culling is currently the ‘best available option to tackle [the] disease and there is clear evidence that badger culling is working’, citing peer-reviewed research that showed a 66% reduction in new bTB outbreaks in Gloucestershire following the cull there. However, it’s relatively easy for people to pick the data that best suits their argument because incidences of bTB vary enormously from time to time, and from one area to another. Some areas where culling has been trialled have seen a decrease in incidence; others have seen an increase. And it should be pointed out that the 66% reduction in Gloucestershire was followed by a 130% increase the following year.
Perhaps surprisingly, badger culls could lead to more cattle becoming infected. This is because culling disrupts a previously-stable badger population. Each remaining badger ranges more widely, taking the infection with them if they have it and potentially interacting with more cattle herds. Even if the majority of badgers are removed from a culling area, the new territory that has now become vacant allows badgers to come in from the surrounding country. Immigrant badgers may pick up the infection from abandoned setts, and it is thought that badger-to-badger transmission – as well as badger-to-cattle transmission – actually increases.
Badger culling can also have huge and unforeseen impacts on the ecosystem at large. When you reduce the population of one species, you have a potentially huge effect on other species that live in the area. For example, in some places where there had been badger culls, fox numbers rose significantly by up to 57% over a two-year period, probably because they were able to use badgers’ setts to breed. This, in turn, led to a decrease in the hare population, as foxes prey more readily on hares – especially leverets – than badgers do.
And evidence is also mounting to suggest that badgers don’t even play a significant role in transmitting the disease to cattle in the first place, for badgers and cattle rarely meet. Most transmissions are cattle-to-cattle, with only around 5.7% being a result of badger-cattle contact.
When the culling began in 2013, even Defra’s own figures suggested that, at best, culling would achieve no more than a 16% reduction in bTB in cattle over nine years. One of the government’s own reports, ‘Report on the incidence of bTB in cattle in 2013-2016‘, revealed that ‘no statistically significant differences’ had been detected between bTB levels in cattle outside and within the cull zones.
This really shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Thousands of badgers had already been killed in previous culls and trials, and these made no significant long-term impact on the incidence of bTB. So it can easily be concluded that badger culling is a poor policy decision – one that will not generate the reductions in bTB, and its eventual eradication in cattle, that everyone wishes to see.
The Cost of Culling
Bovine tuberculosis is certainly a serious problem. On average, more than 30,000 cows are slaughtered every year after becoming infected with the disease, costing the taxpayer £100 million. But culling badgers has also proved very expensive – almost £70 million during the past seven years alone. Campaigners have long sought to stop the badger cull, believing that it isn’t worth either the financial cost or the lives of the badgers themselves, because of the minimal reduction of levels in bTB in cattle.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to badger culling. These include more rigorous testing of cattle, tougher restrictions on cattle movement, tighter biosecurity on farms, and the vaccination of both badgers and cattle. Progress on badger vaccination and, to a lesser extent, cattle vaccination has been made, but it has been painfully slow and as of yet a viable, accredited vaccine for cattle does not exist in the UK.
There are, however, many badger vaccination programmes across the country. The vaccination of badgers can cost about one-quarter of the price of culling – roughly £600 per km² per year, compared with £2,250 per km² per year (which is mainly attributed to the high levels of policing required in areas where culls take place). Vaccination is also clearly more humane. But critics state that there is little evidence at present to suggest vaccinating badgers would have a tangible knock-on effect on bTB levels in cattle, and there are concerns that it would be virtually impossible to vaccinate all badgers in hotspot areas against the disease and to keep vaccinating new arrivals.
Bovine tuberculosis is an insidious disease that presents many challenges and it is clear that there is no single measure that would provide an easy solution. However, conservationists have been recommending alternatives to culling for well over a decade and it seems that many farmers now agree with that way of thinking. Some farmers have stated that controlling TB is possible by introducing a better testing regime, along with making sure that where the cattle live is kept clean, and that what they eat and drink is uncontaminated. In other words, mainly by improving hygiene.
Carry on Culling?
In March 2020, the government announced that it would be phasing out badger culling in favour of vaccination. It was an announcement that was greeted with enthusiasm from many wildlife groups. But that doesn’t mean culling will vanish overnight. After all, plans to develop a vaccine for cattle have been heard many times before and have never materialised. Also, Natural England issues cull licences for a minimum of four years, so any existing licences would be expected to run their course. And even then, Defra reserves the right to carry on killing badgers for as long as it deems it necessary.
To prove this point, just over a month ago, the government announced that culling would not only continue this autumn, but be expanded – this year taking place in Derbyshire, Warwickshire, Shropshire and Oxfordshire for the first time. Although there was much outrage following this announcement, was anyone really surprised, especially following a summer in which the government lurched from one embarrassing U-turn to another concerning coronavirus, by this new one? The new expansion of the cull will allow up to 62,000 badgers to be killed by the end of 2020, bringing the total number killed since 2013 to over 164,000. And so, one of the largest massacres of a protected species in this country continues. At this rate, badgers may become locally extinct in some parts of England within the next decade.
But culling is little more than a dangerous distraction. It makes people disproportionately focus on badgers rather than the far more significant source of bTB: the cattle themselves.
‘Culling is an outdated policy that seeks to eradicate protected wildlife rather than addressing the real problem which is the main cause of bovine tuberculosis: cattle-to-cattle infection.’Jo Smith, Chief Executive of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust
Due to the industrial nature in which we now farm, cattle are always in close proximity to one another and huge numbers of possibly infected cows are moved around each year. So perhaps it is the livestock industry that needs to change. In recent years, as it has become increasingly obvious that people need to reduce their meat intake to help combat climate change, more and more people are moving to plant-based diets. If this keeps going at its current pace, the farming industry may not always be viable in its current form anyway.
Here at The Nature Nook, we firmly believe that badger culling is not the best way of controlling bTB. If anything, culling seems to increase the prevalence of the disease in badgers – surely the opposite of what a disease eradication programme should do? Claims that culling works seem to be largely based on cherry-picking data from the government’s already questionable trials. The reckless and largely unscientific massacre of hundreds of thousands of (mostly healthy) badgers just because it might help a tiny bit – especially when alternatives to eradicating bTB are seemingly being actively avoided – seems extremely twisted. Ultimately, the long-term solution will be to develop a viable vaccine for cattle, but the government is spending relatively little on this compared to the mass slaughter of one of our most charismatic mammals.
Despite all of the effort and money put into badger culling, bTB marches onwards. And the arguments continue to go in circles, with government ministers repeatedly ignoring good scientific and veterinary advice. Notwithstanding some positive signs earlier this year, it seems that there is little chance that the cull, or the heated debate surrounding it, will vanish anytime soon.
In the next British Wildlife of the Week, we’ll be looking at an arachnid that you might not expect to find in the UK, but which has been living here for more than 200 years – the yellow-tailed scorpion.