Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Badgering the Farmers

There can be no doubt that bovine TB has a devastating effect on farms that have the misfortune to suffer from the disease. It’s not just the loss of prize animals (for which you are only partially compensated) and the movement restrictions (which limit your ability to trade – without compensation), it’s the feeling that you are going backwards and you are powerless to do anything about it and with the test regime you are effectively under notice the entire time.

The science on TB seems to be comparatively sparse. The case for better understanding of animal health after BSE/vCJD, Foot and Mouth, Swine Vesicular Disease, Schmallenberg virus, Blue Tongue, Bird Flue, etc. is surely made. Yet animal health seems to be a sword of Damocles hanging over farms and farmers.

So it is understandable that farmers want a solution now and in the absence of one will in some cases thrash out. Illegal killing of badgers or disturbance of their setts is a “rural crime” that many are prepared to condone. Many farmers see wildlife – particularly badgers as the only cause that they can see for their problems.

The current second trial of badger culling as a “solution to bovine TB” has now started. Either the science behind this has been atrociously communicated (I suspect many farmers are not too worried about the science – they just want to see action) or this cull is more political than scientific.

Badgers are thought to pass on the disease to cattle through their urine, faeces or through droplet infection, in farmyards or in pastures

However, the extent of their role in the spread of bovine TB is not clear since the cows can also pass on the disease

Defra scientists estimate that culling badgers could reduce the number of new cases of TB in herds by 12% to 16% over nine years
BBC News Website 27 August 2013 Badger cull begins in Somerset in attempt to tackle TB

12% to 16% over nine years seems a very partial solution to the problem. Other causes of infection also need to be considered – is air-borne infection (from other herds) for instance a cause? Foot and Mouth showed that air-borne distribution was horrifically effective.

Lord Krebs, who led the Randomised Badger Culling Trial in the 1990s, said the two pilots “will not yield any useful information”.

Farming minister David Heath admitted in correspondence with Lord Krebs that the cull would “not be able to statistically determine either the effectiveness (in terms of badgers removed) or humaneness of controlled shooting”.
BBC: ibid

If the pilots are not going to prove anything, are they nothing more than a blood-letting?

There has also been some concern about the content of a redacted copy of a proposal for monitoring the humanness of badger population reduction control by shooting, obtained by the Humane Society International UK under the Freedom of Information Act.House of Commons Library Briefing Note SNSC-5873 27 August 2013: Badger Culling

Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary, Mary Creagh, said the cull was “not the answer”.

“The government’s own figures show it will cost more than it saves and it will spread bovine TB in the short-term as the badgers are disturbed and spread infection to neighbouring herds.

“We agree with the scientists that it has no meaningful contribution to play in tackling bovine TB.”
BBC: ibid

Rosie Woodruff of the Zoological Society of London on PM (BBC Radio 4 27 August 2013) agreed that badgers are giving TB to cattle – about half of all infections, but it was necessary to ask whether culling will work.She said that it disrupts badger behaviour and increases the chances of badgers being infected.

There is little doubt that “something must be done”, but is the cull happening because we can’t think of anything else? (The Welsh and Northern Irish have.) Will the effect of this trial cull be small or even adverse?

It strikes me that if a cull is to happen it should be a total cull with steps taken to ensure that cleared areas stay cleared. Surely a total cull is more easily evaluated that the present trial (which proposes to kill around 70% of the badger population)? This presumes of course that the government will have the appetite – if such a trial was scientifically shown to be effective – to propose the national elimination of a species that is much-loved by the suburban animal loving lobby. They live in marginal constituencies; on the whole farmers don’t.

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  1. Pingback: Striking Syria (or something must be done …) | Outside the marginals

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