My big news this week was going to be 'I've quit my job'. But something more important than me has been on my mind today.
This morning I received a text from a good friend that has made me feel sad all day. It read:
Hi neighbours, whilst out dog walking keep your eyes open to help badgers not have to die slowly and cry in pain. Setts need surveying in the daytime daily for signs of disturbance and pre-baiting so we can be aware of when they're planning something and get rescue people in place before it gets dark.
It went on. It was an emotive text and every word drove home the fact that this could be happening in the fields and woodlands around my home. I know that there are many awful things happening to people in the world at the moment, and that there is war and suffering and hardship. I know. I also know that wildlife is something I really care about and I try to reflect this in the life choices I make (I work for a conservation charity and educate people about the importance of the natural world) and the current badger cull is an issue that will have a massive impact on both our wildlife and our farming communities. I care about human suffering as much as anyone else. But I care about this too and it’s part of who I am and what I do. I also understand that a part of wildlife conservation involves culling animals. I am not opposed to this per se, but I want to know that the reasons for doing so have a firm scientific basis, the process is transparent and it is done as humanely as possible.
For those who don’t know, the British government are currently carrying out a pilot cull of over 5,000 badgers in Somerset and Gloucestershire. Part of the Gloucestershire cull area falls within the Forest of Dean (although exact locations are kept secret) where I live. I am about to explain why culling badgers is happening at all. The government has granted licences to farmers and hired marksmen to cull at least 70% but not all of the badger population in the next 4 years. Seventy per cent!
But before I begin, let’s make one thing completely clear. ‘Cull’ is a nice way of saying ‘kill’. Whether badgers are culled, murdered, killed, destroyed or slaughtered, the end result is death.
There are two parts to the argument about killing badgers: the general debate about how to mitigate the role that badgers play in the transmission of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) to our cattle herds, and the current ‘trial cull’ of badgers in Somerset and Gloucestershire that aims to ‘test’ the most humane way of killing badgers.
It isn’t disputed that badgers carry bTB. It’s a disease that costs farmers lots of money every year, it costs the government millions of pounds in compensation to those farmers, and cows suffer and have to be killed. In 2005 more than £90 million was spent trying to tackle the disease. It is a massive problem and it needs to be taken seriously, not least because people’s livelihoods, and our food security, are directly affected by it. Not to mention that any badger capable of transmitting bTB will also be suffering.
It is scientifically acknowledged that badgers are a significant source of bTB infection in cattle (Krebs Report, see below). The fact that badgers transmit bTB to cattle isn’t in debate. It’s agreed that badgers transmit bTB to cattle and in high-risk areas badgers are responsible for as much as 50% of all cases of bTB (although this figure is given as an 'estimate' even by those who fully support the cull). The are no statistics as to how many badgers are infected by cattle. The debate is how best to tackle the problem.
Badgers are protected by law (Protection of Badgers Act 1992) which was brought in to stop farmers killing them because of bTB (based on the original Badgers Act 1973).
The current government policy is that in order to control bTB in cattle, badgers need to be killed. The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) agree.
The BBC provides a good summary and FAQspage.
Who and what is Krebs?:
Lord John Krebs is an eminent Oxford professor who published a large-scale scientific report (known as the Krebs Report) called ‘Bovine Tuberculosis in Cattle and Badgers’, published in 1997. It was an independent review, commissioned and paid for by the government using public money that looked at the relationship between cattle, badgers and the transmission of bTB in England. The report found that there was a lack of evidence as to the effectiveness of badger culls in controlling the spread of bTB. You can find the report here. John Krebs is considered the UK’s leading expert on bTB and he is opposed to the Badger Cull.
Following the Krebs Report, the government commissioned independent trails, known as the Randomised Badger Culling Trials (RBCT) - 1973-2007. Controversially, the trials killed over 11,000 badgers and concluded that culling was ineffective:
While badgers are clearly a source of cattle TB, careful evaluation of our own and others’ data indicates that badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain. Indeed, some policies under consideration are likely to make matters worse rather than better.
It also noted that other animals, including moles, foxes, mink, rats, wild deer and ferrets also carry bTB. The infection rate in ferrets is 3.85%, compared to 4.05% in badgers.
The argument against The cull:
Who better to eloquently explain how flawed the cull is than the great man himself, Sir David Attenborough, and friends:
As I see it, the main flaw in the planned cull is that healthy badgers are being killed. Most reports put the incidences of bTB in badgers at around 4% of the population. The cull is expected to reduce the trend increase of bTB in cattle by just 16%. That's not the same as 16% of all cases. The government plan to kill 70% of badgers. This means that 90% of badgers killed in this cull will be badgers that do not have bTB.
The Krebs Report also concluded that by reducing population density through badger culling the surviving badgers would move further afield to escape areas in which they are being hunted. This means that if those badgers have bTB, the area over which they are infectious then increases rather than decreases. So while killing the local badger population makes a difference in that specific area, in the short term, the problem becomes worse for farmers on the edge of the cull zone.
Which raises the question ‘then what?’. If you were a farmer on the edge of the cull zone who saw your neighbour conquering bTB in their herd and an increase of cases in yours, what would you do? Logically, you’d kill all the badgers on your land. And then your neighbour, on the edge of your cull zone …
Where does it stop? At the last badger in England? Are badgers going to be added to the list of ‘amazing-animals-that-we-used-to-have-but-got-hunted-to-extinction’ along with bears, wolves and lynx? Have we not learnt our lesson? At least in the olden days they were honest about it. They hunted animals because they thought it was fun, not because of economics or shoddy science.
Which brings me nicely on to my next point: the government are citing ‘scientific evidence’ to back up their actions. Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, defends the cull on the basis that it has been proven to be effective in 'other countries'. The country he is referring to is Ireland, which showed a reduction in bTB after a badger cull. However, what he fails to acknowledge is that the control in this cull was in Northern Ireland where results were the same, but without a single badger being killed.
Other evidence that is being used to support the cull is that it has worked in reducing bTB in Australia and New Zealand – both countries that do not have badgers, culls were carried out on invasive possums and ferrets, not a native badger species.
I’ve read in places that hedgehogs are being used to justify the cull. Badgers are one of the few animals that can kill a hedgehog. There is an argument that the badger cull will mean that the hedgehog population that is in decline will be able to recover. The use of insecticides and careless driving are much more of a threat to hedgehogs than badgers ever are. Even hedgehog charities agree that the badger cull is not going to help hedgehogs.
However, we shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of evidence, our government has gone to war on less.
Just like you and I, when we queued up at school for our BCG injection, with the faint rosette of the Heaf test glowing on our forearms, badgers can be vaccinated against tuberculosis. At the moment there is an effective vaccination for badgers against bTB. This has to be injected by trained and licenced people and therefore costs money (there’s that word again ‘cost’.) An oral vaccination is in development which means it could be put into food, and would therefore be cheaper to administer, but we are not at that point just yet.
At present, bTB vaccination is not allowed for cattle under EU law as it interferes with bTB tests and therefore herds cannot be declared TB free.
There are farmers who oppose the cull, the best known one being Steve Jones in the Guardian Online under the title Badger Cull: not in this farmer’s name. In it he cites cow-to-cow transmission as a major factor in the spread of bTB and calls for better animal husbandry and more controlled movement of livestock.
Obviously, there are farmers who are for the cull. However, (Vice President of the NFU) Adam Quinney’s statement of ‘scientific fact’ adds up to a total of 3 sides of typed A4. The Krebs report alone is 196 pages. In the article Quinney states that:
‘The NFU has always recognised that a comprehensive package of measures is needed to tackle bTB. And it's vital that any bTB eradication package includes dealing with the disease in wildlife so we can have healthy badgers, healthy cattle and a healthy countryside.’
The trouble is, there is no ‘comprehensive package’ available, so far it’s just shooting badgers.
The second part to the argument:
The current trial cull in Gloucestershire and Somerset isn’t about bTB. The plan is to kill 5,500 badgers but only 240 post-mortems will be carried out (some reports are saying just 120 dead badgers will be examined). None of the badgers will be tested for bTB, the post-mortems are being done to establish the most humane way of killing badgers. I have read reports that the marksmen themselves will be responsible for selecting the corpses to send for post-mortem. If this is correct (I've been unable to find any official confirmation) then I wonder which corpses they will opt for? The 'perfect kills' or the ones they messed up?
The government’s definition of ‘humane’ is this: The licences state that shooters have to use high calibre rifles in order to kill on the first attempt, with a clear shot at the heart and lungs and cannot be within 30m of a sett to stop badgers running to safety if the first shot fails and thus making a second shot impossible. While unpleasant this sounds ok until you consider that it will be done at range of 50 to 70 metres, aiming at an animal whose heart and lungs are somewhat protected by its four-leggedness and the fact that these animals are nocturnal. An amazing amount of accuracy is required in the dark. Shot guns are not allowed unless the shooter is within 10 metres. I don’t know many people that are capable of getting that close to a badger that isn’t emerging from a sett, but perhaps it’s possible?
Oddly enough, Paterson shares this view, so long as you're talking about foxes rather than badgers. In his letter to the Burns Enquiry into fox hunting (he is for hunting with hounds) he wrote:
The IFAW submission to you, p10, para.2., states night shooting is becoming ever more popular with gamekeepers and is humane. In fact it is indiscriminate; healthy adult foxes and nursing vixens will be just as likely to be shot as older foxes. In all my years of hunting, I have seen numerous foxes which have been wounded by inaccurate shooting. Most farmers own guns; they are not expert shots and shot is not powerful enough to kill a fox. The abolition of hunting would leave many foxes to die long, lingering deaths and I have no doubt that this is significantly more cruel than death by hunting. Farmers in my constituency are adamant that if hunting were stopped, they would eliminate foxes by shooting or snareing [sic].
Animal welfare groups talk about marksmen; however, given the current law and order debate, it is highly unlikely that any Government would wish to see a proliferation of rifles in the countryside. Although I have lived in the country all my life, I have never met a "marksman" and I fear such a proliferation, because most farmers are not highly skilled rifle shots.
The full letter can be read here.
Unfortunately the vast majority of the badgers in this cull will not be infected with bTB. This current cull isn't concerned with whether or not it will make a difference to the infection rate, or the suffering of infected animals - the government are not testing ANY of the killed badgers for bTB. They are 'testing' the most 'humane' way of killing badgers by taking a sample of less than 5%. The decision of whether to kill or not has already been made. The government have made this decision based on science that lacks any kind of rigour or integrity. There is no plan for future vaccination of badgers and economics and politics play a huge role in this. Farmers shouldn't have to suffer, or their livelihoods be threatened but the fact of the matter is that this action is based on shoddy science and the only thing that it will do for certain is reduce the population of a protected species. It will not solve anything. We will still be left with a bTB problem and will lose an iconic British wild animal in the process.
What am I going to do?:
My plan is this: I am going to join my local badger patrol, at least I can maybe help badgers that are suffering, or make the process more difficult for those who don’t support my view. At least I will be doing something and, in a small way, I will be heard.
I have volunteered to help with badger vaccinations on private land. It's a start.
While the cull is on-going and remains the only plan for tackling bTB, I will not be buying British beef or dairy products. I try my best to buy local and support British farmers, but while an iconic British wild animal is being killed in the name of that industry, it is an industry that I will not support.