At this moment in time, there surely cannot be a more controversial animal in the United Kingdom than the badger. Accused of transmitting bovine tuberculosis (bTB) to cattle, which has cost £500 million in the past ten years to control, the badger has divided opinions across the country. Some people, especially farmers whose livelihood depends on the health and wellbeing of their cattle herds, label the badger as a primary carrier of the disease; others, particularly environmental groups, claim that the badgers’ role in transmitting bTB is much less than commonly quoted. So what’s really the truth in this agenda? And, supposing badgers are to blame, is culling the answer?
Well, badgers do carry bTB and they can pass it on to cattle. Though relatively few cows acquire the disease directly from badgers, those that have been infected quickly pass it on to other members of the herd. Because of this, the government has decided that the best way to control bTB is to cull a significant proportion of our resident badger population. In late August 2013, badger culling began in two pilot areas in West Somerset and Gloucestershire. If the culls are deemed successful, the government will roll out the programme to another ten areas in 2014.
Except that culling almost certainly isn’t the best way to control the disease. The best case scenario is that bTB levels will fall by 12% over the next nine years. The worst case scenario is that more cattle will actually become infected. This is because culling disrupts a previously-stable badger population. Once the majority of badgers are removed from a culling area, a new territory opens up, allowing badgers from the surrounding area to move in. Immigrant badgers pick up the infection from abandoned setts and badger-to-badger transmission, as well as badger-to-cattle transmission, actually increases.
The government seems to have ignored these warnings, however. Its plan was easy. By telling the public again and again that badgers were overrunning the country and destroying the livelihood of farmers, they hoped it would become gospel. Those people who disagreed with the cull were labelled ‘badger huggers’ and ‘animal activists’ by several government officials, terms carefully chosen to convey such people as extremists. The way the government made out, such people were an insignificant minority.
The fact is, of course, that many people opposed to the cull are just regular intelligent people who are aware that the cull is inherently wrong. And then there are the myriad of scientists, conservationists and naturalists – not to mention quite a few farmers – who are also opposed to it.
There is a reason why the government has kept its plans regarding the cull as vague as possible, and that is because too much information on the matter might turn people’s views and opinions around. They even misled people by claiming that badgers are too numerous because ‘they don’t have any predators’. While it is indeed true that badgers have no natural wild predators, this is completely ignoring the fact that 50,000 of them are killed on our roads every year.
Thankfully, only a matter of days ago, the government’s plans to expand the badger cull to other areas in England were halted. An independent assessment declared that the culls in the two pilot areas were complete failures, and raised questions not only about the humaneness but also the cost of the campaign.
Of course, that’s certainly not going to be the end of it. If bTB is not controlled, the bill will rise to £1 billion over the next decade. Vaccinating badgers is a costly alternative, but it’s an approach that Wales has been taking for some time now, and it might be the only other option. It all depends on where the government decides to go from here. If they continue with the same sly tactics they have been using in recent years, a badger cull could still be on the cards. And if a nationwide cull does eventually materialise, a huge proportion of Britain’s badgers may be inhumanely wiped out – and the country’s farmers are unlikely to gain a thing from it.