Badgering the bodgers

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Cards on the table: I am a badger loving softy. My single best wildlife moment was seeing four badgers in a dusky Norfolk wood. They froze and stared at me; I held my breath and marvelled at them. 

However, I am also a farmer’s daughter. I am passionate about supporting British farming and believe it is the backbone of our society and countryside. I know how difficult farming can be, particularly for small family farms, coping with the challenges of price-cutting supermarkets, international competition and tough economic times.

As a result, the call to cull badgers to prevent the spread of bovine tuberculosis leaves me in a confused spin. Do I stand up for our natural wildlife or do I support people’s livelihoods?

It’s all pretty emotive, so let’s look at the facts. Bovine TB is a devastating disease that can cause crippling financial losses to farmers and lots of suffering to cattle. It is carried by badgers, although originated in cattle.

So, is culling badgers any different to killing other wildlife? We must not forget that, like it or not, it is a commonplace activity in the countryside. Rabbits, foxes and deer, all beautiful animals, are routinely controlled across farms, estates and nature reserves nationwide. It is done to protect game, crops or even to help rare species survive. This doesn’t make the headlines, so what is different here?

The major factor is that where badgers are concerned, culling has not proved to be effective. It is clear that with rabbits, fewer bunnies mean fewer nibbling mouths to eat your young wheat crop – this is simple and guaranteed. However, with badgers it is more complex. There are many views, but it seems a strong possibility that their slaughter may not actually lead to reduced levels of tuberculosis in cattle.

Firstly, you do not know if the badger you are aiming your rifle at is actually carrying TB. Consequently, any given death will not automatically remove a degree of risk. Secondly, studies on the effects of culling show that it can make the problem worse, not better. Animals will move; some leaving sites to seek safety elsewhere and others moving into vacant territories. The effect of increased roaming from infected badgers will inevitably lead to more exposure for cattle.

A pilot cull is happening now in two areas of Somerset and Gloucestershire. Those hoping for it to shed some light on whether this cull could help are likely to be disappointed. It has been criticised because the ‘success’ of the pilot isn’t actually based on whether or not TB is reduced in local cattle, but instead on how many badgers, infected or not, are killed.

Every penny that is invested in expensive cull attempts, which are only a short term measure unless you eradicate the whole population, is a penny less to invest in finding a permanent solution. Vaccination options are currently imperfect, but are surely the way forward, alongside ever more stringent cattle testing and livestock movement controls.

Bodged badger bashing is not the answer because it isn’t going to help farmers or tax payers. All this sorry situation highlights is how few cards wildlife holds in the sad game of policy poker.

First published in the EDP and EADT on 27th September 2013

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