Badgers and Bovine TB, 3 options in the UK

Badgers and Bovine TB, 3 options in the UK

badger

badger (credit sure2talk)

The news that the High Court has ruled against the Badger Trust and pretty much  given the go ahead for the badger  cull in England is disappointing. It means that there are now  three different trials either under way or about to get underway in the United Kingdom.

England is planning on shooting badgers in two trial areas of Somerset and Gloucestershire. Wales has opted for a trial of vaccination of badgers to try and reduce the prevalence of the disease in its population. In Northern Ireland they have opted for a mixture of the two. Badgers there will be caught and tested for TB. Those found to be carrying Bovine TB will be killed while those that are free will be vaccinated and released.

While the Human Society International are going to take the argument against the badger cull in England to Europe as a breach of the Berne Convention it’s unlikely to be successful. In December 1999 when the last cull was proposed the Standing Committee on the Bern Convention dismissed a case that the cull would be in breach of the convention. It’s unlikely that the EU will rule against the cull plans.

The High Courts ruling does leave us with the interesting position that three of the countries most affected by Bovine TB have all decided to go different ways in order to tackle the issue.

Scotland has no control of badger numbers planned because Bovine TB is at a low level and badger numbers are only at moderate levels. Though Scotland also has some interesting numbers to play with.  Over the last 10 years badgers have been growing in numbers in the country and this has led to an increase in application for badger control licenses. Some figures show a 4 fold increase for badger control licenses as badger populations have expenaded. But despite the increase in numbers of wild badgers in Scotland the prevalence of Bovine TB in cattle has remained virtually the same apart from the year 2007-2008 which saw a sharp spike in reactor cattle before quickly falling back to normal levels.

Of the three different strategies that have been taken up it really is only the culling strategy in England that has been tested in previous studies. Those studies have shown that culling is not a long-term solution to tackling the bovine TB problem. In the short term it can even make the spread of bovine TB worse by disrupting badger setts, breaking up badger units and dispersing them over a wider area.

While culling badgers may have some effective, the amount of Bovine TB that will be prevented is small. Even government figures put the potential reduction of Bovine TB over a 9 year period at between 12% and 16% – a small amount for the 70%  badgers due to be killed during the trial period.

Professor Lord John Krebs, who ran the 10 year Randomised Badger Culling Trials, told the Farmers Guardian in July last year that, “You cull intensively for at least four years, you will have a net benefit of reducing TB in cattle of 12 per cent to 16per cent. So you leave 85 per cent 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 be an effective way of controlling the disease.”

It is important not to underestimate the number of badgers that need to be killed in one of the trial areas to get that – at most – 16% drop in bovine TB occurrence. 70% of the badger population in the area needs to be killed to bring about that drop of between 12% and 16%.

It’s also important to realise that the two proposed pilot areas in Gloucestershire and Somerset are just the start of the culling programme. The trial is expected to begin this autumn and if everything goes to plan in those two pilot areas then 10  areas will be licensed to undertake culling in  Autumn 2013.

When the badger cull gets into full swing in England then Natural England has estimated that a total of between 90,000 and 130,000 badgers could be killed over the 4 year period. They also accept that local extinctions could not be ruled out in cull areas.

Culling badgers has not worked in the past in order to reduce bovine TB and England’s plans to up the scale of killing is unlikely to accomplish much. With Wales – and to a degree Northern Ireland – opting to try a new approach with vaccination we can only hope that a successful trial will lead to England following suit.

Unfortunately farmers have decided that badgers are the culprit in this situation and that could be a real problem if the proposed cull does not work – as it’s bound not to work. Will the farmers then demand the total eradication of badgers from agricultural areas?

Cattle to cattle transmission is the  biggest route of the TB infection. The rates of bovine TB has increased in partnership with modern farming practices. Cattle no longer get born, raised and shipped off to slaughter all from one farm. Cattle can go to market two, three and four times during their lives. Each of those trips increase the chances of coming into contact with infected cattle.

Before the option of mass culling of badgers are undertaken it’s important for farmers to commit to improving their bio-security measures and adhering to those already in place.

I regularly go to Abergavenny livestock market as I live in the town and can say that easily 80% of market visitors totally ignore using the foot baths to help reduce the spread of bovine TB. There’s a lot of things can be done before we reach the stage of having to cull up to a third of England’s badger population.

External sites:

Farmers Guardian: Badger cull would not work – Krebs.

The Guardian: Cull could wipe out badgers in some areas.