Environment secretary expected to green-light killing of creatures within strict limits in bid to protect cattle from bovine TB
Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 19 July 2011
The fate of England’s badgers will be decided at lunchtime on Tuesday in parliament, when the environment secretary will tell MPs whether a proposed cull of the creatures – blamed for helping to spread tuberculosis in cattle – will take place.
The decision, to be announced by the environment secretary, Caroline Spelman, is likely to be in favour of a cull, albeit one that is geographically restricted and including strict limits on how it can be carried out.
But a green light for a cull – which farmers have demanded for more than a decade – would be highly controversial. Badgers, though not endangered, are a protected species, and the efficacy of a cull in protecting cattle from TB is widely contested.
Lord Krebs, who as a government adviser in 1997 was the architect of a 10-year experimental cull, recently rejected culling as “ineffective” and said other measures would be more productive, such as improved security for cattle to prevent them coming into contact with badgers, and the use of a vaccine when one becomes readily available.
Culling badgers, according to the trials, resulted in a 16% reduction in “confirmed new incidence” of TB in cattle herds – an outcome that farming leaders have hailed as a useful strategy, but that Krebs said was not enough to justify a widespread cull.
He said: “You cull intensively for at least four years, you will have a net benefit of reducing TB in cattle of 12% to 16%. So you leave 85% of the problem still there, having gone to a huge amount of trouble to kill a huge number of badgers. It doesn’t seem to me an effective way of controlling the disease.”
However, the National Farmers’ Union favours a cull, citing evidence from Ireland, where experimental culls have been allowed, and from Australia and New Zealand, where culls of other wild animals have been credited with reducing disease rates.
Bovine TB causes tens of millions of pounds of damage annually, with affected farmers forced to discard milk, meat and other products from infected beasts, and sometimes to abandon livestock farming altogether. The worst affected areas are in the south-west of England and Wales, but “hotspots” for the disease occur around the country.
Under the proposals before the government, farmers would be allowed to kill badgers using “free shooting”. This would mean trained marksmen targeting badgers, a method that would be paid for by farmers and is likely to be cheaper than the alternative of trapping and killing badgers.
Farming leaders said free shooting would enable groups of farmers and landowners to club together to target areas of at least 150 sq km, the minimum likely to be allowed under any new culling rules, and they would only be granted a licence if it can be proven the area is a TB “hotspot”.
However, the farming experts acknowledged that, based on experiences in other countries, the cull would have to take place over as long as 20 years in order to have the effect needed.