For three years now, badgers have been shot in large numbers in the southwest of England. These innocent animals are being killed because farmers believe that badgers are the prime culprits in the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) despite the UK government’s own assertion that, “Bovine TB is mainly spread into new herds through the movement of infected cattle that have not been detected.” Yet, rather than instigating more frequent tests to better detect the disease in cattle, officials have allowed killing badgers to be used as a trial method of controlling bTB for the past two years. Unfortunately for badgers, this year is no exception and as well as resuming in two counties (Gloucestershire and Somerset) culling has been rolled out to a third (Dorset).
The controversial cull — which involves shooting free-roaming badgers at night — has begun again despite major public protest and leading scientific experts opposing it. The government has pushed forward with a third year despite its own 2014 assessment of the first pilot year revealing,”no statistically significant association between [badger culling] and cattle TB incidence.”
The badger cull is thus not only detrimental to badgers, but also largely ineffective. Indeed, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA)’s own data suggests that 98.4 percent of badgers pose no risk of contaminating cattle. DEFRA has also acknowledged that the “risk to public health is very low these days, thanks to milk pasteurization and the TB surveillance and control programs in cattle.”
What’s more, badgers are a legally protected species under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, which makes it an offense to kill, injure or cruelly ill-treat a badger, intentionally damage or obstruct access to a badger sett — a badger’s burrow — or dig for a badger. Licenses granted during the culls exempt holders from these legal obligations.
Free shooting, Dangerous and Cruel
A main aim of the year’s badger culling trials has been to assess the efficiency of “free shooting.” Free shooting was instigated as an attempt to reduce the cost of the cull, where badgers were previously caught live, kept in cages and then shot. But free shooting has raised a great number of concerns ranging from the safety of the general public to the cruelty towards the badgers themselves.
The RSPCA’s deputy head of wildlife Colin Booty explained that, “free shooting carries a high risk of wounding” because of badgers’ robust skeletons and thick skin, and in fact leaks reported by the BBC in 2014 revealed that up to 18 percent of badgers took more than five minutes to die.
Culling Healthy Badgers
The method also carries risks towards the general public, pets, and other wild animals, as colored filters used to mask spotlights and allow teams to approach the badgers without their knowledge also reduce visibility for the shooters. With shooters barely ascertaining that their targets are in fact badgers, culling is far from being selective. A BBC Q&A article states that DEFRA do not even test dead badgers for signs of TB infection.
Dominic Dyer, CEO of the Badger Trust — a non-profit working to protect badgers — said in a press release, “the real scandal is that the vast majority of culled badgers will not have had Bovine Tuberculosis,” and with “none of them tested for the disease either before or after they are killed” the culling method is “blind” and there is “no way of ever knowing if it has worked.”
According to the RSPCA, as many as six out of seven slaughtered badgers could be bTB free and perfectly healthy, merely victims of the cull’s “collateral damage.”
Badger Hunts Actually Spread Infection – Rather Than Prevent It
Scientists have spoken of “the perturbation effect,” whereby killing badgers disrupts the animals’ social groups, leading to surviving animals roaming further and establishing new groups, with the contaminated members taking bTB with them. With infected badgers spreading, the cull actually increases the proportion of badgers that have bTB and spreads the disease to other parts of the country.
Leading experts have joined together and called for the government to put a stop to the badger cull, explaining their reasons in an open letter to DEFRA. One of them, Professor Lord Krebs is the President of the British Science Association and a leading expert in bTB, his reports having led to the Randomized Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) — an eight-year government-funded trial in which the impact of culling was scientifically monitored. He has argued that, “the scientific case is as clear as it can be: this cull is not the answer to TB in cattle: I have not found any scientists who are experts in population biology or the distribution of infectious disease in wildlife who think that culling is a good idea.”
Professor John Bourne, who led the RBCT, has accused DEFRA of continuing to, “either ignore, cherry-pick or purposefully misinterpret the science.” The cull has also lost the support of the British Veterinary Association because of its inhumanness and the National Trust — a conservation charity and the UK’s largest landowner — has decided not to allow culling on its land, promoting badger vaccination instead.
Better Alternatives Exist
Other vaccination trials are being carried out in preference to culling, in Wales and also in Cornwall, and these vaccines have been used in the past by various conservation bodies.
Considering that cattle-to-cattle transmission of bTB accounts for 94 percent of cases, experts have reported that frequent testing of cattle is far more effective than culling badgers. Indeed, a new computer simulation has shown that more frequent cattle testing can eradicate the disease. The report also revealed that confining cows to sheds in winter was a major cause of contamination and could double the number of infected animals in a herd.
Moreover, while the cost of vaccinating a badger is £662 (the equivalent of $1,000), the cull has been revealed to cost £6,775 per badger killed (the equivalent of $10,280).
Under the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats — another protection legally afforded to badgers — badger culling is only permitted to reduce bTB if there are no suitable alternatives, but clearly satisfactory alternatives exist, which are not only better supported by the general public but also far more effective.
What You Can Do
It is important to reiterate the fact that badgers are being culled because of livestock interests. Like in the U.S., where animals like wolves and coyotes are unfairly targeted for the threat that they pose to livestock, badgers are being unjustly targeted in the UK. Despite the fact that badgers play an important role in the native ecosystem, they are seen as being less important than the livestock that can turn a profit.
The good news is that you can help make a difference for badgers (and other wildlife) in a number of ways. One of the easiest things you can do is to reduce your consumption of meat products. The cattle industry is driven by profit and will continue to expand and take precedence over other animals as long as there is a high demand. Consider leaving beef off your plate a few times a week or removing it entirely to help give other species a chance at survival.
You can also use this RSPCA form to email the UK’s Environment Secretary, Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP and urge her to call off the culls once and for all (you don’t need to be a UK resident to do this).
Finally, if you want to remember how adorable badgers are or need an incentive to protect them, read our previous article and video showing a badger rescue in the UK.
Lead image source: Kallerna/Wikipedia