A controversial culling campaign targeting badgers is to be extended into five new areas of England over the next month, it was revealed yesterday, despite no evidence that previous targeted killing of the protected species has had any effect on controlling TB in cattle.
Badgers, nocturnal omnivores that eat mostly earthworms and small animals, are one of the last surviving large native mammal species left in the UK. There are an estimated 250,000 to 400,000 badgers living in Britain, but as many as 50,000 are killed each year on the nation’s roads. Although they’re not endangered, they are protected by law.
However, the BBC yesterday reported that, starting in early September, badgers will be shot by contractors in South Devon, North Devon, North Cornwall, West Dorset, and South Herefordshire, as part of the UK government’s 25-year-strategy to eradicate bovine TB.
According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), England has the highest rate of the disease in Europe, which results in thousands of cattle being slaughtered every year. Defra has apparently received 29 applications and expressions of interest for extensions of the cull, mostly in the south west of England.
But previous culls have been heavily criticised by many groups, including the RSPCA, who say they result in the animals suffering a pointless, prolonged and painful death. Evidence suggests that up to 22.8% of badgers shot during pilot culls were still alive and suffering after five minutes.
— RSPCA (@RSPCA_official) August 23, 2016
Opponents, including several scientific experts, maintain that all available evidence indicates the culls are an expensive waste of time, and also that badgers are not the primary cause of infection in the first place. Other animals carry and communicates the disease, including deer and domestic animals such as cats, dogs, goats, horses and cows themselves.
‘It really is not a good use of taxpayer money, and it’s going to cost thousands of badgers their lives for no benefit at all to farmers,’ says Jenny Pike from the campaign group Devon and Cornwall Against the Badger Cull, who state that only 6% of TB cases in cattle came through badgers, and argue that the government would be better off focussing on curbing cattle-to-cattle transmissions.
Paul Wilkinson, head of living landscapes at The Wildlife Trusts, agrees, saying: ‘The evidence shows that badgers are not the primary culprits in the spread of TB in cattle—the primary route of infection is via cow-to-cow contact. A vaccine for cattle should be a priority.
‘Culling has been shown to be more expensive, less effective than other bovine TB control mechanisms and the free-shooting of badgers has been shown to be an inhumane method of killing.’
Back in 2007, final results of trials conducted (at cost of a £50 million) by the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB were presented to the government, with the report stating: ‘We are still of the opinion that research into viable vaccines for use on badgers and on cattle remains an important weapon in the battle to control the disease, and the best hope for a widely applicable, long-term solution to the problem of cattle TB… farmers must also accept that culling cannot become the cornerstone of a Government TB policy as it would not be suitable as a control method in all areas.’
An independent assessment subsequently revealed that culls were not effective or humane when they were initiated in 2013, and yet, despite all this, the killing continued in the south of England in 2014 and 2015, with 3,943 animals shot in total, at a cost of £7,262.21 per dead badger. A petition against the killings on the government’s e-petition website gathered 304,255 signatures by the time it closed on 7 September 2013, setting a new record (since broken by an anti Brexit petition).
The continuation and extension of the cull by the British government under a new prime minister has deeply disappointed campaigners, who had hoped Theresa May’s government would drop the divisive strategy. Just days after May became PM, a group of scientists, including some of those behind the 2007 report, called on her to end the ‘failed’ policy, which they say flies in the face of empirical evidence.
The debate will be further stirred up by a new report, produced by researchers who fitted badgers with GPS collars in Cornwall, which specifically shows that TB is not spread through direct contact between badgers and cattle, with the latter becoming sick through exposure to infected urine and faeces, both from other cows and wild badgers.
The GPS results showed that, contrary to popular opinion, badgers and cows are almost never in close proximity, with the wild animals actively avoiding contact and staying at least 50 metres away from the cattle. These findings have prompted the lead author, Professor Rosie Woodroffe of the Zoological Society of London, to urge a complete rethink of current strategies, which she described as a ‘blunt’ weapon against the disease.
‘There are loads and loads of things that farmers are being advised to do and there is no certainty that any of them will actually work,’ Woodroffe told the BBC.
With some opposition groups now openly stating their intention to ramp up tactics designed to disrupt the cull, the South West of England could become less bucolic and more like a badger battleground over coming months. In March, hundreds of people marched on the streets of Plymouth to protest against the planned cull in Devon, and a sizeable policing operation has been scheduled in case of disorder when the shooting begins in new locations in September.
Jay Tiernan of the protest group Stop the Cull—which has begun publishing a list of farmers involved in the cull and has previously been involved in disruptive activities, including the breaking of traps laid on land where badger shooting is taking place—has implied that the organisation will now shift tactics.
‘We have spent the last three years just in the fields,’ he told The Guardian. ‘We haven’t ever once stood outside a farm with a banner or blockaded a road or put locks on to a business’s gates to stop their business from working.’
‘We are going to change that to specifically look at policing costs… We are going to start looking at making the culls expensive.’
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