Badgers are shy animals, but have in recent years been very much in the media spotlight. Gone are the times when they were appreciated for their unusual behaviour and strangely omnivorous appetites; now the word badger is usually appended by the word ‘cull’.
With the news that the cull is to be extended across as many as five new counties, the government scheme warrants a closer look. It has met with controversy from the beginning and is now met by yet more opposition – some state that the scheme simply does not work. Often cited is the lack of scientific evidence to support the accusations held against UK badger populations; the critical fact of their having anything to do with direct TB transmission to cattle hangs in contention. It is also apparent that more humane, or cost-effective solutions for TB outbreaks in cattle herds have not been given credence.
Just as the microbeads scandal can be seen as a political touchstone of the new cabinet under Theresa May, the revisions to the badger cull can be seen as indicative of attitudes towards environmental issues now to be expected from government. This being not least because of the appointment as Environment Secretary of the fox-hunt endorsing Andrea Leadsom, and the collapse of the Department for Energy and Climate Change. Leadsom has reputedly said that she favours the cull and would propose to extend it.
According to the 2010-2015 government policy on bovine tuberculosis, ‘the scientific evidence shows conclusively that badgers contribute significantly to bovine TB in cattle.’ But these claims have always been contended, and little is actually known about the methods of transmission. It was thought that badgers transmitted the disease to cattle by direct contact between the species, but this is now being re-evaluated. A study was carried out in Cornwall over 15 years, twenty farms, and involving hundreds of cattle and badgers, in order to determine whether transmission of bovine TB between the species was a result of direct contact or other factors. A recent BBC article stated that, ‘researchers found there was not a single instance of direct contact and there was also some evidence that if anything badgers avoid the bigger animals, with the tracking data indicating that the creatures preferred to be at least 50 metres away from the cattle.’
The increases in levels of knowledge about transmission, and the developed abilities and technologies to carry out research raise the question of why the methods of resolving the spread of the disease still seem so basic. Although science poses a potential solution to the epidemic, it is not being attended to as a viable option. Simplistic methods are being used to carry out something which could possibly have a scientifically-rooted cure. Mitigation is being substituted for annihilation. The badger vaccinating scheme in Wales used civil servants to carry out the procedure, and was said to be costly. Though the success rate is commonly over 70%, the Badger Edge Vaccination Scheme uses volunteers to carry out the work and is therefore much cheaper. The government clearly recognises the value of such schemes, with DEFRA recently awarding the project nearly £100,000 in funding. The BEV scheme is in place across the counties surrounding areas where there has been a high incidence of bovine TB, in order to provide a ‘buffer’ zone to prevent the further spread of the disease. Though vaccination has proven itself an alternative in these buffer regions, cost still seems to make it unviable in areas of high TB incidence. The problem with the cost and efficacy of vaccination projects there is that it gives pro-culling arguments added impetus. By suggesting that it is not cost-effective to be using government resources and financing to vaccinate badgers they are proposing that culling is more viable in today’s society. But in the long-term, a money-orientated focus could prove comparatively more damaging.
For after the cull has been carried out in certain areas, it has been shown that the incidence of bovine TB actually increases. Badgers are reportedly expressing the disease because they are suffering from the stress of the cull. So the promised solution could actually be fuelling the problem, in a vicious circle of political reluctance to tackle the issue sustainably.
There is no licensed cattle vaccine at present, due to complications surrounding the end point of the vaccine in products of human consumption. But renewed investment in these areas of research could be the panacea that is so urgently needed to avoid hasty and cruel measures against badgers.
Therefore it could be argued that the new measures being put in place to extend the cull are short-sighted. More research into the cause and transmission of the disease needs to be carried out rather than simply trying to stop the effects of bovine TB in any which way. Whatever is to come for badgers, they must not become pawns in political policy.