Control landowners, not badgers – that’s the real answer to bovine TB
Culling badgers risks spreading TB, government research concludes. But the NFU wants blood
It’s one of those issues, like mad cow disease, that begins at the distant margins of public life, then explodes into the centre ground of politics. Anyone can see it coming – except, perhaps, the government. Tuberculosis in cattle is spreading rapidly: moving east and north from the south-west of England and south Wales. Isolated outbreaks are sparking up all over the country – in some cases hundreds of miles from the reservoirs of the disease. The white plague wrecks the lives of farmers. It cost the government £63m last year alone in England, £120m since 2000 in Wales. Contact with badgers is one of the means by which cattle catch the disease.
The governments of both countries believe they can help arrest TB by killing badgers. The Welsh government will do it by sending in its own contractors; the Westminster government will do it by licensing farmers to kill badgers on their own land and at their own expense. Both governments’ consultations on the killing end next month.
There is only one rigorous scientific trial of badger culling. This is the work carried out by the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, led by Professor John Bourne. It took nine years and cost us £49m, and it is now being comprehensively ignored. Both administrations claim to be basing their culls on the outcome of this trial. Both are doing anything but.
You don’t have to read far to discover this. Bourne attached a covering letter to his report, in the vain hope that this would prevent anyone from misrepresenting his findings. Here is what it says: “Badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain. Indeed, some policies under consideration are likely to make matters worse rather than better.” The main source of infection, it continued, is transmission not from badgers to cattle, but from cattle to cattle. “The rising incidence of disease can be reversed, and geographical spread contained, by the rigid application of cattle-based control measures alone.”
At an electrifying meeting in London Zoo last week, Professor Bourne and one of the other scientists who conducted the trial, Dr Rosie Woodroffe, attacked the misuse of their work by both governments. Badger culling, they pointed out, reduces the proportion of cattle herds with TB inside the kill zone, but temporarily raises it outside the zone. It breaks up the badgers’ social structures, pushing them out of their territories, which means that they spread the disease to healthy populations, and to cattle. Even when carried out rigorously, culling does very little to help. But the Westminster government has chosen the worst of all possible options: licensing farmers to kill badgers. This, Professor Bourne’s report points out, “would entail a substantial risk of increasing the incidence of cattle TB and spreading the disease”.
While the badgers in the scientific trials were trapped in cages before they were shot, the government, to reduce their costs, will allow farmers to shoot badgers as they roam around freely. There has been no trial to test this kind of culling, but models suggest that it will kill a smaller proportion of badgers than the trapping and shooting method. This means that it’s unlikely to control the disease even within the kill zone.
Worse still, the government appears to have understated the costs. Woodroffe estimates that the government’s projections would be accurate only if skilled marksmen were paid £3.23 an hour – just over half the minimum wage. Stuffed so far down the appendices of the consultation document that it takes major surgery to locate it (appendix F, par 6.3 if you’re interested) is an admission that, even on the government’s optimistic figures, the killing will cost farmers more than it’s likely to save them in disease costs. When they discover that the price is higher than they thought, the kill rate is lower and the trouble they get from animal rights activists more than they can bear, they’re likely to give up. This would create the worst of all conditions – spreading infected badgers far and wide while doing nothing to control the disease even in the killing fields.
As Bourne points out, the two governments are ignoring not only the science but also the history of bovine TB control. In the 1960s the disease was almost eliminated through rigorous testing of cattle herds and strict quarantine. It was when these measures were relaxed, at the behest of the industry, that the disease began to spread. Tests with a low sensitivity, which were designed to detect TB in a herd, are now misused to clear individual animals. The quarantine period has shrunk from one year to 120 days. (The safe period, Bourne says, should be two years, as the successful Australian programme shows.) The infections springing up far from the hot zone are caused not by badgers but by cattle movements.
As for the badgers, they should continue to be trapped in cages, but vaccinated and then released, as this prevents their social structures from being disrupted. By 2015 an oral vaccine for badgers could be ready to roll, which will be far cheaper than the current options. The best means of controlling the disease is to bring in more rigorous tests and longer quarantine periods now, and wait for the oral vaccines to arrive. Instead the two governments have chosen to launch a programme whose best possible outcome is to make “no meaningful contribution”, at high risk and great expense.
So why commission £49m of research then shred it? Because the National Farmers’ Union wants to see blood, and it is neither prepared to wait nor to accept measures as tough as Bourne proposes. Up and down the country it is whipping up farmers to demand that badgers are killed. Yesterday I spoke to a tenant farmer who had just attended an NFU meeting that unanimously supported the cull. A question revealed that not one of the farmers in the room had read the consultation document: they simply accepted the NFU’s word that the killing had to happen.
Under this government, the NFU rules. According to the small farmers I know, it tends to be dominated by the biggest and most arrogant landowners – rather like the Tory party. Last week the government quietly abandoned its commitment to stop the de-beaking of chickens and to stop game birds from being kept in cages. The badgers are just another lump of meat to be thrown to the beast. The cull might help to destroy the industry these bloody-minded dolts claim to defend. But they don’t seem to care, just as long as something is done other than imposing rigorous controls on their business. Killing wildlife will do just fine.
• A fully referenced version of this article can be found on George Monbiot’s website