Badgers, TB and Culling – The Facts

In view of the prominence that the current Badger Cull has in the news, I have researched edited and pasted below, relevant facts and information taken from a number of reputable websites, for anyone, who wishes to read-up on these issues. I have attempted to construct this article from an unbiased viewpoint. This also includes some personal views and observations from my working life spent in the Sussex countryside.

September 2019.  For an in-depth review of the current situation as of autumn 2019 and the raising of concerns and possible solutions, view Wild Justice’s letter to DEFRA and Natural England –  

February 2019.  Enter the new testing technique, Actiphage.  Around for decades for human use, it is safe and proven technology.  You might have thought that a blood test that can spot and ID low density of live mycobacterium would be grabbed and championed.  PBD Biotech’s novel Actiphage® testing technology was recently the winner of the Royal Dairy Innovation Award at Dairy-Tech 2019, being presented with the award by Princess Anne.  It’s an innovative new test for the rapid detection of bovine TB and other mycobacterial infections.  It has the potential to perform food safety checks on milk and dairy products; revolutionise livestock disease management, the industry and the wider public.

PBD Biotech’s Actiphage fits into current animal health testing practices and is the only diagnostic able to detect live mycobacteria, differentiating between infection and vaccination and delivers results within 6 hours.  “Globally there is growing concern regarding the presence of live mycobacteria in milk that may have human health implications. This prestigious award is recognition of the opportunity this technology provides to ensure dairy products are free from these organisms as part of routine dairy quality control,” added Dr Clarke.

The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) validation of Actiphage may now be delayed until 2020, when its use beyond the highly restrictive Exceptional Use protocol is likely to be a decisive game-changer.  Probably, a determined Minister and Chief Veterinary Officer together could fast-track the process but have they been advised not to by someone?  Is DEFRA blocking this new technology as politicians don’t want to admit the livestock industry to hospital, where it belongs, even when the price of acting now is far less than that of the livestock meltdown of the current policy, with a multi-billion price-tag awaiting the taxpayer down the line?

In the UK alone, bovine TB results in almost 44,000 cattle slaughtered annually with an estimated cost to the taxpayer of £100M.  (Incidentally another mycobacterial infection which Actiphage could assist with, Johne’s Disease, costs UK farmers and industry at least £13million and an increasing number of retailers are removing suppliers from their milk pool if they are not engaged in Johne’s Disease testing).

Born Free reacts to 2018 Badger cull figures – Reacting to the news that 32,601 badgers were killed across 30 licensed culling zones covering large parts of 10 counties in the west of England, veterinarian Dr Mark Jones, who is Head of Policy at Born Free, said: “This year’s cull brings the total number of badgers slaughtered under the government’s policy since 2013 to almost 67,000. Yet the government has failed to produce a scrap of credible evidence that the slaughter is preventing the spread of TB among cattle.  In spite of overwhelming evidence that the problem lies with cattle testing and the way cattle farms operate and trade, the government continues to inflict this devastating slaughter on a supposedly protected wild animal, at the behest of cull proponents at the National Farmers Union whose only interest seems to be in deflecting culpability for the bovine TB epidemic away from industry.”

Dr Jones added: “Of the badgers slaughtered this year, almost two thirds were killed by ‘controlled shooting’, a method rejected on welfare grounds by both the government’s own Independent Expert Panel and the British Veterinary Association.  Just 89 of these controlled shooting events were monitored by Natural England, indicating a woefully inadequate level of oversight of the paid shooters.  In spite of this, Natural England’s Chief Scientist has the audacity to suggest that the humaneness of the culls is acceptable, and DEFRA’s Chief Vet has advised that the culls should continue.  Their apparent lack of consideration for animal welfare concerns, and the lack of evidence for the efficacy of the culls, truly beggars belief.  This unscientific, ineffective, inhumane and unnecessary slaughter of one of our few remaining wild mammals must end.”

What does the Godfray Review mean for badgers?  Rosie Woodroffe,             November 14th, 2018.

The science of bovine TB control is like a cherry orchard: it offers an abundance of evidence that you can pick through, selecting fragments that seem, on their own, to support almost any position on TB management. There is evidence that badgers transmit TB to cattle, and also evidence that most cattle herds catch TB from one another, not from badgers. There is evidence that killing badgers reduces cattle TB, and also evidence that it increases cattle TB. To scientists, this seemingly conflicting evidence forms a coherent picture. But in the wider world it feeds a controversy which rages on social media and spills out into the countryside, where the government last year spent over £4 million on police efforts to keep the peace between those killing badgers and those protesting against it. Sadly, controversy helps neither the thousands of farm businesses affected by TB each year, nor the thousands of badgers slaughtered in hopes of controlling the disease.

In this context, a new review of TB strategy, conducted by a team chaired by Professor Sir Charles Godfray, provides a welcome reminder to all sides of just where the weight of evidence lies. The report states clearly that TB control efforts have focused too heavily on managing badgers, when most transmission occurs from cattle to cattle. The report makes some bold proposals about how to prevent such transmission, including using cattle tests which detect a higher proportion of infected animals (at a cost of also generating more false positives), improving the tracing of traded cattle, and punishing farmers for poor biosecurity through substantially reduced compensation.

Importantly, the review calls out Defra ministers on their repeated statements that “no one wants to be culling badgers forever” and gives the first proper consideration to how government might sooner or later exit from its culling strategy. It identifies badger vaccination as a potential alternative, and refers repeatedly to the “great importance” of obtaining evidence on how vaccinating badgers might reduce TB in cattle. Godfray’s team therefore propose a trial in which culling areas transition, after their four-year culling licences expire, to either annual vaccination or periodic repeat culling. This proposal is positive for two reasons. First, it implies an end to “supplementary culling” after four-year culling licences expire, a practice which is not supported by scientific evidence. Second, it provides a concrete opportunity to explore alternatives to culling on a meaningful scale.

However, vaccination is likely to reach its full potential more slowly in former cull zones than in areas which have not previously been culled. Culling weeds out the animals that are easily captured and so, after four years of culling, it will be more difficult to capture badgers for vaccination. Moreover, while vaccination works by protecting animals which have not yet been infected, culling increases infection prevalence in badgers and, correspondingly, reduces the number of animals that can be protected by vaccination. Hence, a trial conducted entirely in former cull zones is likely to under-estimate the true potential of badger vaccination as a TB control tool. Given the desirability of a non-lethal approach to TB control, it would be well worth including a third “arm” to the trial, where vaccination is implemented from the start, without any culling. This approach would show, for example, whether culling for four years and then vaccinating for five years would be more or less effective than just vaccinating for nine years. Because vaccination is substantially cheaper than culling, recruiting new areas to vaccination rather than culling would save the government money, and might be more acceptable to some landowners, as well as to the general public.

The report comes at a time when Defra is under fire for mis-representing the evidence surrounding the effectiveness of badger culling. Godfray’s team was specifically asked not to evaluate whether the ongoing culls are reducing cattle TB, and a recent report from the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) stated explicitly that the data it presented “cannot demonstrate whether the badger control policy is effective in reducing bovine TB in cattle”. Nevertheless, Defra published the APHA report alongside quotes from Ministers which claimed that the culls were “delivering results”. Clearly, a worrying gap still remains between scientists’ and politicians’ interpretations of scientific evidence. Hopefully Godfray’s report, conducted by scientists working independently of Defra, free to speak publicly about their conclusions (unlike APHA scientists), may go a way to bridging that gap.

The report also discusses the potential for TB control to be overseen by a new body, separate from APHA and Natural England. This proposal is rather worrying, because the badger is a protected species, and decisions about its management need to be taken by an organisation tasked with conserving wildlife, rather than one which views it simply as a pest. The suggestion that government might consult less often on TB control measures is also cause for concern. Overall the Godfray team’s report is a useful step forwards. The government has promised a response in summer 2019: whether and how it takes up Godfray’s recommendations is likely to determine whether it succeeds in managing a major livestock health problem in a way which is both effective and sustainable.

November 12 2018.  Vets accuse ministers of ‘barefaced lies’ by Pallab Ghosh, BBC News.  (Abridged)

A campaign group of vets has accused Defra and its ministers of telling “barefaced lies” about the effectiveness of one of its badger culls.  The claim is contained in a letter from the group to the chief vet.  It asks her to ensure the department retracts “insupportable claims that its badger cull policy is working”.  A spokesman for Defra said all statements had been “absolutely correct.”  Dr Iain McGill, a veterinary surgeon and director of Prion Interest Group, told BBC News that claims by Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) that the badger cull in Somerset and Gloucestershire were working were not supported by scientific evidence.

“According to Defra’s figures, they claim that they calculated that the incidence [of TB in cattle] has reduced.  “But their calculations are unclear and deliberately opaque. And, indeed, the current situation in the cull zone says there is an increased prevalence.  “So, either their figures were calculated on an extremely inaccurate basis and they’ve got it very badly wrong, or they have actually gerrymandered those figures to make it look as if the incidence is falling when the evidence clearly shows that the prevalence has gone up.  “Badger culling has not worked. They are issuing barefaced lies in this matter.”

The letter to chief vet Dr Christine Middlemiss goes on to accuse Farming Minister George Eustice of giving misleading comments in September about a report produced by Defra’s own scientists at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA).  Mr Eustice had said: ”  Today’s figures showing reductions in TB cases in Somerset and Gloucestershire are evidence that our strategy for dealing with this slow-moving, insidious disease is delivering results.”  However, the APHA report he quotes from explicitly states, “these data alone cannot demonstrate whether the badger control policy is effective in reducing bovine TB in cattle.”

On 29 October, Defra went further in a statement to BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme when it indicated that the alleged reduction in TB cases was due to the badger culls: “The findings published in September showed that initial [badger] culls in the Higher Risk Area (HRA) have had a positive impact on disease incidence.”  The department has not mentioned that instances of TB have been rising in a cull area in Dorset.

Dr Chris Cheeseman is former head of Defra’s wildlife epidemiology unit and advised the department on its TB strategy for more than 40 years.  Now retired, he is able to speak freely about the badger cull policy. “Defra has been cherry-picking the science since they started culling,” he told BBC News.  “The fact that they are rolling it out on such a vast scale is a travesty of the available science.”

Environment Secretary Michael Gove commissioned an independent expert review earlier this year of Defra’s efforts to control cattle TB

September 13 2018. New Culling Areas.    (Abridged)

Ten new areas are at high risk of TB with a further “pocket of infection” in Cumbria are now to be targeted. Culling will now take place in 32 areas across 10 counties with farming minister George Eustice saying it is reducing cases of the disease.
Protesters said the “war on wildlife” is “scientifically illiterate.”
The 10 new areas are in Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, Staffordshire and Gloucestershire. Minister George Eustice said latest figures showed the number of cases of bovine TB in first two areas where culled took place, from 2013, had halved. The minister said the cull strategy was “delivering results” with the aim of eradicating the “slow moving, insidious disease” within 20 years. He said: “Bovine TB remains one of the greatest animal health threats to the UK.”

National Farmers’ Union vice president Stuart Roberts said more than 33,000 cattle were slaughtered in England in 2017 because of the disease with more than 3,800 new farms hit. He said other steps including restrictions on cattle movement, increased testing and improved biosecurity advice were also being taken.

The Wildlife Trusts said almost 41,000 badgers could now be killed in 2018 and the focus should be on vaccination. Ellie Brodie, their senior policy manager, said: “We’re calling on the government to invest in medicine, not marksmen.” She said it cost £496.52 to kill a badger compared to £82 to vaccinate one.  Green Party spokesman Keith Taylor called the cull “scientifically illiterate and spectacularly expensive” and accused the government of “escalating their war on our wildlife.” He said there was still no “conclusive evidence” the “mass cruelty” cull was effective and rather than “condemn more badgers to painful and unnecessary deaths”, the government should focus on “humane controls.” The RSPCA said it was “appalled”, citing data from 2016 which said only 46 (5%) of 994 culled badgers were found to have TB.

August 15 2018.  Abstract of article by Patrick Barkham, The Guardian.

Badger culling will be extended across England on an open-ended basis, conservationists have warned, after the high court rejected a challenge to the legality of the government’s policy. Licences to allow badger culling to continue in particular areas beyond a four-year period are legal, ruled Mr Justice Cranston, rejecting a challenge brought by the independent ecologist Tom Langton.

Lawyers for Langton argued that government guidance issued last year to expand the existing cull to new areas in England and allow “supplementary culling” in established cull zones was a “significant departure” from the government’s previous policy. They also argued that a consultation carried out before its introduction was flawed and the culling licences issued by the government’s conservation watchdog, Natural England, were unlawful.

The judge said that the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ consultation was “in some respects unimpressive”, but added: “However, it does not meet the high threshold of being so clearly and radically wrong as to render it procedurally unfair and thus unlawful.”

Dominic Dyer, chief executive of the Badger Trust, which supported Langton’s case, warned that the verdict gave the environment secretary, Michael Gove, “The green light to push the badger to the verge of local extinction in many parts of England.” He said: “By ruling in the high court today that supplementary cull licences are lawful, farmers and landowners across England will now be able to kill badgers on an open ended basis with little training and no effective independent scrutiny.”

Dyer said that the ruling undermined the legally protected status of the badger and could result in more than 100,000 badgers being killed by 2020. He added: “This is despite the fact that the government have provided no reliable evidence to prove this mass slaughter of a protected species is having any significant impact on lowering bovine TB in cattle in or around the cull zones.”

October 16 2017.  INTRODUCTION TO CURRENT SITUATION.  Taken from House of Commons Briefing Paper No. 6081 published on .

In 2016, the total cattle population of England, Wales and Scotland was 6,613,000 animals. 

There were 4,505 new herd incidents of bovine tuberculosis (TB) in Great Britain.

39,364 animals were slaughtered due to bovine TB.

The worst affected areas are in south-west England and the west Midlands.

Past facts and figures:

Key facts and figures: 5.5 million – number of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) tests in England in 2011.

28,000 – approximate number of cattle slaughtered for bTB control in England in 2012.

3,900 – the approximate number of new bTB incidents in 2012 (herds where at least one animal tests positive for bTB, when herd had been previously disease free).

£500 million – the cost to the taxpayer to control the disease in England in the last 10 years.

£1 billion – the estimated cost in England over the next decade without taking any further action.

£34,000 – the average cost of a bTB breakdown on a farm, of which £12,000 falls to the farmer.

Update 25/08/2017.      £500,000 of taxpayers’ pounds have been spent on equipping badger cull marksmen with radios that link them directly to police, the Guardian has learned.  Police have advised the government to invest in the same communications system they use to make it easier for officers to get to conflicts with cull saboteurs in remote areas where the mobile phone signal is poor.

However, anti-cull activists plan to turn the tables on the marksmen by investing in devices that trace the signals produced by the radios, meaning they can pinpoint their position and disrupt shooting.

oooOooo reports that: Badgers are being shot by marksmen in the west of England as part of measures to protect cattle from bovine tuberculosis (bTB). The cull will involve marksmen with high-velocity rifles using a mixture of controlled shooting with badgers first being trapped in cages and, free shooting. The marksmen will shoot the badgers at night after putting food such as peanuts outside their setts. This method has not been formally tested before. 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 bTB is not clear since the cows can also pass on the disease. According to one newspaper report, cage-trapping badgers for vaccination (or shooting) costs about £2,500 per hectare, whereas shooting them as they run freely costs about £200.

About 5,000 badgers expected to be killed in controlled shootings over six weeks in parts of Somerset and Gloucestershire. In a letter to members, National Farmers’ Union (NFU) then president Peter Kendall said: “This is an important step not just for cattle farmers but for the whole farming industry. I know that many of you reading this will have suffered the misery of dealing with bTB on farm – some of you for decades – and I hope now you will feel that something is finally being done to stem the cycle of infection between cattle and badgers.” He added that he hoped the culls would show a reduction in TB in cattle, and that more people would understand why they were “absolutely necessary”.

Former Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson said the infection needed to be dealt with in both badgers and cattle. “We have to use every tool in the box because bTB is so difficult to eradicate and it is spreading rapidly. If we had a workable vaccine we would use it… but a vaccine is at least 10 years off.” Mr Paterson denied suggestions from anti-cull campaigners that the Government was simply trying to appease the farming community. “In the Republic of Ireland the disease was rocketing until they began to cull… I want to end up with healthy cattle living alongside healthy wildlife.”

Labour’s then Shadow Environment Secretary, 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.”

Lord Krebs, who led the Randomised Badger Culling Trial [the ‘Krebís Trial’] in the 1990’s, 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”.

Dominic Dyer, of Care for the Wild which opposes the cull, described the start of the scheme as an “absolute scandal”. “There’s no scientific or economic justification for the cull and it may make the spread (of bTB) worse not better. This is killing without protection – they’re not even testing [the culled animals] for bTB and they’re only monitoring the cull of a small number.”

RSPCA Chief Executive Gavin Grant referred to the cull as a “misguided attempt to control bovine TB in cattle” and said it was “deeply saddened to learn that the cull had begun. Science has shown that this cull is not the answer to bovine TB in cattle.” He said the organisation was seriously concerned the methods being used to kill the badgers were “not humane”, and the extent of potential suffering was not known. “It is very likely that many of them are lying injured, suffering a painful death. Science has shown that this cull is not the answer to bovine TB in cattle. In fact, it could make things a lot worse. Vaccination and better bio-security are the only sustainable and true ways forward.”

Farmer David Barton who runs a closed herd near Cirencester, Gloucestershire said, “I’ve lost a third of my herd in the last two years – it’s completely devastating. These are animals I know, they have characters, and I hear people being very passionate about badgers and I can empathise with them but they’re not animals they deal with on a day-to-day basis and they have no idea what farmers like myself are going through. I understand people don’t like the idea of it (the cull) – I don’t like the idea of it but it has to be addressed. In this area over 50% of the badgers are carrying bTB.” BBC Science correspondent, Pallab Ghosh reports on who Assesses the Science Behind the Claims and Counter Claims: Farming groups claim that the proposed badger culls will reduce the incidence of TB in cattle by 30% or more. Critics of the plan say that the impact on bTB rates is so small that the scheme is not worthwhile; some even describe it as “crazy”. An eight-year trial carried out in the 1990’s showed that a sustained and coordinated culling of badgers can slightly slow down the rate of increase in cattle becoming infected with bTB in the immediate area. It also showed that there was an increase in TB infections outside the cull area. The so-called ‘Krebs Trial’ showed that there is a 16% reduction in the rate of increase for a 150 sq km area (60 sq miles) if more than 70% of badgers are killed in a series of culls held once a year for four years. If less than 70% of badgers are killed, the incidence of bTB will not be reduced and may even increase because of the greater movement of badgers caused by the culling, with badgers move in to an area because of the greater availability of food and habitats following culling.

An independent group led by Professor Chris Wathes of the Royal Veterinary College will assess whether the new trials kill enough badgers (more than 70%) and whether they are killed humanely. Professor Wathes is expected to produce his report by the end of the year. If he and his team conclude that the culls are effective and humane, Defra will be able to issue licences for culls across the country. Each will be six-week culls held once a year for four years.

[Significantly] the scientist who designed the ‘Krebs Trial,’ Lord Krebs, has described the pilots as a “crazy scheme”. One of his chief concerns is that Defra’s current methods for assessing badger numbers for the pilots are extremely approximate, and unless they are improved it will be hard to assess whether more than 70% of badgers have been shot and therefore whether the pilots have succeeded or failed.

Opponents of culling argue that a 16% decrease in the rate of increase in infections gives a relatively small benefit and is not worth it, especially when the cost of licensing culls across the country and policing the anticipated protests are taken into account. Instead, they say that it is better to tighten up measures to identify and cull infected cattle, build better fences to stop badgers coming into contact with cattle and to find ways of making vaccination of badgers and cattle more effective. The Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies have opted for this approach (bTB in cattle in Scotland is not a problem).

But vaccines and increased biosecurity are unlikely to make much impact in the short term. bTB will probably continue to infect increasing numbers of cattle across England. The NFU and the British Veterinary Association (BVA) say that something has to be done. Even if culling delivers only a modest benefit, it is better than nothing, they argue. Moreover, the farmers themselves believe that the benefit from culling to them is sufficient for them to be willing to pay for a large proportion of the costs. TB in cattle is increasing slowly but surely, particularly in South West England. The number of cattle slaughtered in England in 2011 to control bTB was 26,000. On average, the cost of a bTB infection on a farm is £34,000. The Government picks up the bulk of this cost, about £22,000, leaving the farmer to pick up the final £12,000. Defra estimates that it will cost farmers and the Government a total of £1bn over the next decade if no further action is taken.

Conflicting Figures. Spokespeople for the NFU often say in interviews that continuous and systematic culling can reduce instances of bTB by 30% or more in bTB in the fifth year after the cull first began. But after the cull has stopped, the reduction in the infection rate is rapidly eroded as infected badger numbers recover. When challenged over the use of this figure, Philip Hudson, the NFU’s head of food and farming agrees that the 16% figure for 150 sq km area is a more representative number. Defra, Lord Krebs and other scientists also prefer the 16% figure, which is an average over nine years, because it gives an indication of the long-term benefit – rather than a short-term effect.

Perturbation Effect. The process of culling causes a movement (perturbation) of badgers that increases the infection rate just outside of the culling zone. This is why the licences require a minimum of 150 sq km, which is the threshold for culling to be effective: the bigger the culling area the smaller the proportion of area outside. Farmers have argued that because the pilot areas are 300 sq km (115 sq miles) – twice the size of the threshold – the reduction in the increase in infection rates will be higher than the 16% for 150 sq km. They are correct – but the extra benefit is modest at 19%. Pro-cull voices argue that because the pilot areas have ëhard boundaries,í such as rivers or motorways, the badgers will not be able to move in, and so infections will be reduced still further. The Krebs Trial however, also used hard boundaries whenever possible, and so scientists who worked on that study doubt farmers will do any better than they did.

Alternatives to Culling. Biosecurity measures have in the main failed to stop the year-on-year increase in cases. There is not yet a licenced cattle vaccine and the badger vaccine is relatively expensive. In any case, reduction in bTB rates would accrue gradually because badgers infected before the vaccination programme would remain in the countryside. But in a few years, vaccines could offer huge benefits. Cattle vaccines cannot currently be used, [it being banned by the EU], because it is impossible to tell the difference between a vaccinated animal and an infected animal, and so meat and dairy products from the animal cannot be sold. In the medium term, it will be possible to develop a cattle vaccine that allows infected and vaccinated animals to be distinguished, but the UK would still have to persuade trading partners to accept vaccinated products. A badger vaccine has been produced, but it has to injected and is therefore of limited practical value. An oral vaccine for badgers that would be much more practicable is said to be a few years off.  Reporting from the Republic of Ireland, BBC correspondent David Gregory-Kumar writes: When I talk to local farmers about bovine TB, so many of them point out that culling badgers in the Ireland has helped to control the disease. The data does seem to back that up, with the numbers of infected cattle falling in Ireland and slowly rising in England. But there are some big differences between the Irish and British culls; the first is the methods used to kill the badgers. Our farmers will be using more expensive, free shooting, while the Irish snare and then shoot badgers. Snaring, which involves using a loop of metal wire attached to a stake in the ground, [which draws cuttingly, tight around] the badger until someone returns to shoot it in the head. Snaring of badgers in the UK is illegal because once caught, animals can spend hours trying to escape and [can severely] hurt themselves in the process.

But despite the use of snares, the badger cull in Ireland remains uncontroversial, something that “beggars belief” according to Fintan Kelly from the Irish Wildlife Trust. Indeed, wildlife groups in Ireland are encouraged but also amazed, by the outcry over the cull in the UK. Perhaps one reason for the lack of interest in the fate of Irish badgers is that farming is so important to the Irish economy. Indeed, massively increasing beef and dairy output is one of the ways the Irish Government wants to haul the country out of the economic doldrums. But more cattle also means more potential for bTB and culling badgers to control the disease is increasingly hard – in parts of Ireland there’s talk of local badger extinction. The problem isn’t going away. So, how else might you get on top of it? Well, one Irish farmer suggested to me that culling deer might be the next step.

There might however, be a way forward without culling and that’s a vaccine. I was able to visit researchers at Trinity College Dublin, who say their plans for an oral vaccine are more advanced than many in the UK think, promising a simple vaccine in edible badger bait in five years and that’s knowledge they actively share with researchers in the UK. Long term, an affordable vaccine is the way forward. But, the lesson from the Republic of Ireland is that a badger cull along with other measures, can help control the disease until then.                                            Badgers – Splitting Public Opinion for more than 200 years. by Roger Harrabin, the BBC’s Environment Analyst. When it comes to a cull of badgers, it seems no amount of science will resolve the arguments. A researcher who has studied their role in popular culture has warned that politicians have not grasped the true nature of the cull controversy. Dr. Angela Cassidy from Imperial College London, has researched discourse on badgers from the end of the 18th century. She told BBC News that they have consistently divided opinion, with farmers wanting rid of them and animal lovers seeking to protect them. Dr. Cassidy said that bombarding people with science about bTB in the animals would fail, as the debate was really about emotions and values.

“The sides have a very different understanding of what the countryside is for and how we should treat animals. That’s why I think one of the reasons why the focus on the evidence isn’t getting us that far, is because it can be interpreted in different ways and what we have to acknowledge is that there are different values going on, and this is a very political debate,î she said.

Pest or Pet? Dr Cassidy discovered a divide stretching more than 200 years in the columns of The Times. “Every so often I found these little flurries of correspondence between people arguing whether badgers were pests or likeable animals. This sort of thread pops up every 20 or 30 years. There’s a link consistently about how people were talking about badgers then and now. When people were talking about liking badgers they would talk about them being clean domestic animals, very house-proud and family-oriented. People not liking badgers talked about them being dirty and disruptive. It’s the same now.”

She says the defining characterisation of the animal in the 20th century was framed by Kenneth Graham’s classic ‘The Wind in the Willows’ with its gruff, wise, brave Badger. “Badger is the ultimate moral authority, portrayed as a rough but very kindly Tory gentleman. He has this speech about how badgers always endure – people come and go.” says Ms. Craig. “People encounter Wind in the Willows somewhere between four and eight years old, so these creations are really important and influential – they really affect how we feel and see animals.”

Dr Cassidy said a rare counter-example exists in Beatrix Potter’s ‘Tale of Mr. Tod’ in which Brock the badger plans to eat Benjamin Bunny’s bunnies (bunny-eating is a genuine badger trait, as Potter, a countrywoman, would have known). “This stands out because it’s the only fictional portrayal I could find that has much in common with the older narrative about badgers as vermin which goes back to Tudor times,” she said.

The Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson has accused people opposed to the cull of being seized by a “Wind in the Willows sentimentality”. But Dr. Cassidy said it would be a mistake to confuse sentimentality with values. “We have to take note of these cultural influences,” she said. “Both sides in the debate use scientific argument to make the other side look bad. The values debate and the science are inextricably linked.”


Digging Deeper Into The Subject. I perhaps should state here, that I am no expert either on badgers or,the current cull and, I am not a farmer. My background however, is a life spent working in and for, landscape and wildlife conservation. In relation to this subject, I would give the benefit of doubt to the badgers. More facts and doubts…

Legal Protection.   In the early 1800’s, the poet John Clare wrote movingly about how “the old grunting badger” was pitted against dogs for sport – badger baiting. Although this was banned in 1835, it took another 138 years, and a national campaign that mobilised public opinion, for the 1973 act to outlaw the digging out of badgers from setts. From then on, the badger’s star began to rise. Legislation in 1981, 1992 and 1996 made it an offence for anyone – farmers, gamekeepers, property developers, homeowners, to mess with badgers or their setts, except under licence.

Prior to protection in 1973, badgers were controlled as are the rabbit and fox today. Though not an endangered species, The Protection of Badgers Act 1992 (1992 chapter 51) is the operative Act, which consolidated the Badgers Act 1973, the Badgers Act 1991.

Badger Population.   The respected Joint Nature Conservation Committee report of 1997, though now dated, gives an idea of badger statistics involved: Since the 1980ís survey, the number of badger social groups in Britain, based on the number of main setts, increased by 24%. It was estimated there were 50,241 badger social groups in Britain. This change was not uniformly distributed throughout the country, being least in some arable landscapes. Regionally there was also great variation; in the West Midlands there had been an 86% increase.

There had generally been large increases in the number of other types of sett; nationally, annexes had increased by 87%, subsidiary setts by 54% and outlier setts by 55%, whereas the number of disused main setts had declined by 41%. The total number of all types of sett had increased by 43%, to 247,885. In addition to the changes in the number of setts, there was a significant increase in the size of main setts. For main, annexe and subsidiary setts, there was an increase in the number of well-used holes.

Signs of badger activity were recorded in 31% of 1-km squares in the 1980ís and 38% in the 1990ís. Thus, despite the expansion of badgers into new areas, the majority of lowland 1-km squares in Britain still showed no signs of badger activity. Based on changes in activity levels, we estimated that the number of badgers in Britain had increased by 77%. Of this, 47% was due to an increase in the size of social groups, 30% was due to the establishment of new social groups. Since most lowland 1-km squares still contain no badger setts of any type, there is substantial scope for further badger population expansions. However, in areas with established badger populations, it is unlikely that there will be further significant population increases.   The Peoples Trust for Endangered Species (PTES): 2011 situation. There is broad agreement, based in part on projections from the most recent national survey of setts in 1997 funded by PTES, that an estimate of 300,000 to 350,000 badgers in the UK is about right. The badger population is at a healthier level than in recent decades, possibly due to legal protection of badgers and their setts. There is no substantiated evidence of a wholesale badger population explosion although there are certainly areas of high density. Hard winters, such as those we have had recently, and long, dry months in spring and early summer take a heavy toll on badgers and numbers tend to fall at such times. These losses are compounded by road traffic accidents estimated as up to 50,000 per year.

Predation By Badgers. From my own observations over the years, badgers do cause considerable damage to bumblebee nests within grassland, headlands and roadside verges. They probably also take a considerable number of birds eggs and chicks; until the positive, recent changes in management and increased width of field boundaries, their former very narrow width probably increased the foraging success of predators.

East Sussex TB hotspot. As confirmed by the map on the separate page ‘Bovine TB Map,’ there is a considerable incidence of bovine bTB in the Brighton to Pevensey area and significant parts of the neighbouring South Downs. Here, I would suggest that badgers are aided†by the light chalky soils on these downlands, the slopes making for easy sett excavation. (Badgers also relish the wild tor grass found here for bedding!). These observations would suggest that if the cull process in the initial two trial areas in the West Country is deemed successful and is taken forward, that this area in East Sussex of both high bTB incidence and badgers, would be a prime candidate for culling.

Farm Bio-security. Studies by the Food and Environment Research Agency have shown that badgers are surprisingly frequent visitors to feed stores and cattle sheds, looking for food and bedding. This greatly increases the potential for direct and indirect badger to cattle contact and could be a significant source of disease spread. Farm biosecurity/badger exclusion measures can be taken to greatly reduce and in some cases eliminate, contact between badgers and cattle, though with large buildings and in continuous use it can prove trying. Also of course, badgers frequent fields with cattle where urine, faeces and droplets can allow cross infection in both directions.

Deer. From a report of 2004 by the British Deer Society (BDS): Recent and on-going evidence suggests that there may be a few hotspot areas in lowland England where significant levels of bTB are found in wild deer. These areas are usually associated with high bTB infection rates in cattle and high deer densities. Of the six species of deer found wild in the UK, the three larger species, red and fallow are much more socially organised and tend to aggregate into herds, the smaller deer tend to be more solitary. Although bovine bTB has been reported in the smaller deer (roe, muntjac, Chinese water deer), the most frequent reports and serious foci of infection have occurred in red, fallow and sika.

In contrast to the environmental and agricultural situation in North America and much of Europe, where the large deer occupy forest, woodland or wilderness areas, in the UK herds of red, fallow and sika frequently have a close association with farmed livestock, grazing the same pasture and subsisting on the same crop fodders. This intimate co-existence of large wild ruminants with domestic livestock is very uncommon in other western countries with advanced livestock husbandry. Young adult deer, particular young stags and fallow bucks are the individuals most likely to travel considerable distances and also appear particularly vulnerable to bTB infection.

The BDS is particularly concerned by evidence of significant levels of bTB infection in deer in the Hereford/Gloucester areas and in south east Exmoor. Both are areas where high cattle TB breakdown rates occur. Deer to deer transmission of bTB has been shown to occur by both the respiratory and alimentary routes, the latter occurring through both faecal contamination of pasture and by susceptible deer sharing feedstuffs with infected animals. Although deer to cattle or badger to deer infection has not been demonstrated, neither has it been investigated. None the less, the BDS recommends that in areas where the incidence of cattle bTB breakdowns is high or there is evidence of significant bTB infection in wild deer, DEFRA should seriously consider taking action.

Deer numbers in Sussex are generally high, especially where there is significant woodland cover. Up until the 1980’s, there were very few sightings of deer in the locality of the Eastern South Downs. That is not the case now. In The Weald, deer numbers can be very high causing significant damage to the long-term viability of woodlands. They are bearing in mind†the view†of the BDS, a possible or potential reservoir for bTB.

Maize causing the Problem?    Dick Roper watched the first of his cattle being taken away for slaughter in the winter of 1999. He knew there were badgers on the farm; four big setts had been there for as long as anybody could remember, but that did nothing to lessen his anguish when a handful of cattle in his fattening yard tested positive for bovine tuberculosis (bTB). The rest of his 600 Aberdeen Angus cattle stayed free of infection, but outbreaks in the fattening yard kept returning. All through the winter and into the next summer, there were more cases. It was not until the last animal in the yard had been killed that he got rid of the disease.

But the situation got him thinking. He wondered why it had been only cattle in the fattening yard that contracted bTB. There were no badgers getting in, he was sure of that. In any case, animals elsewhere on the farm would have been in closer contact. The only difference as far as he could see was that the cattle that became infected had been fed maize silage, while the others had not. Roper, who has spent 28 years managing a 1,200-hectare (2,965-acre) farm high in the Cotswolds, diet seemed to be the key. Farmers know that maize is low in several minerals, particularly selenium, so cattle that are fed maize are routinely given supplements to balance the lack of essential nutrients. The amount of supplement needed by cattle, or sheep or pigs, has been precisely calculated.

Roper’s thoughts turned to badgers. If they were eating maize, would they need a supple-ment to their diet too? Badgers love maize; they will get into fields and gorge themselves, knocking down the stalks to reach the cobs. Given the chance, a badger will eat hardly anything else. His thoughts turned to the last time bTB was endemic in the countryside. In the 1930ís, 40% of the UK’s dairy cows were infected. Compulsory testing from 1950 led to almost complete eradication of the disease, apart from a few persistent and unexplained hotspots in the south and west. Roper talked to farmers and vets who had been involved in the programme. They all agreed that once a parish had been cleared of bTB there was very little reinfection. “It was like somebody dropping a lead weight on my foot,” Roper says. “For 150 years, bTB has been written about. It was endemic in our cattle. Obviously badgers got it, so why was there no reinfection?”

Fodder maize is a comparatively recent innovation on British farms. In 1970, less than 2,000 hectares of maize were being grown in England. By 1980, 20,000 hectares were being cultivated. This year [2007], 145,000 hectares of maize were grown in the UK. Initially, the crop was confined to an area south of the M4, but new, hardier varieties mean farmers further north have begun growing maize as cattle fodder. [Maize production is an important element for silage by dairy farmers in Sussex].

Meanwhile, bTB began its upward trend from the late 1970ís, the outbreaks beginning in the south-western counties where maize was first grown in large quantities. In the first eight months of this year, new cases of bTB were confirmed in 1,290 herds in England, Scotland and Wales, and 17,600 animals slaughtered. “I did as much research as I could then looked at the areas where maize was being grown and compared it to the bTB figures. They did not totally match, but it was too bloody close to say it was not significant. Have we as farmers accidentally introduced a completely new diet to the badger that has dropped its immune system over the edge? We know it does it for cattle. We know we have to supplement the cattle. But nobody is [providing supplements] for the badger.”

Roper, a registered organic farmer with the Soil Association, felt he had to respond to his findings. From mid-2000, he placed blocks of molasses, laced with the largest dose of selenium allowed, near each of the four badger setts on his farm. “Over the next four or five years, this [area] became one of the hottest spots in the country for bTB. At one point, I think it was 2005, every herd surrounding me went down with bTB. Yet we were in the clear.”

He is quick to point out that geography could be playing a part. The A40 and Fosse Way border his farm on two sides, the heavy traffic acting as a barrier to wandering badgers. The river Leach runs through the centre of the farm, and the setts are along the valley bottom, so his badgers tend not to stray too far. Seven miles from his farm, Roper rents a small piece of land where the fields are surrounded by woods, and badgers come in from everywhere. The cattle there contracted bTB, as did those on his neighbours’ farms. Roper believes that what is significant about that is that it is nothing to do with his cattle being organic, and nothing to do with the minerals he feeds his cattle. The only difference is that the badgers there, unlike those on the main farm, haven’t been fed supplements. Roper admits that all this is no more than a hunch. He says: “All I have done is treat my badgers the same way as I would treat my cattle – nothing more than that – to try to make sure the diet is supplemented and their health is maintained.” But his sense of frustration at officialdom is palpable. He is sure that a relatively simple and inexpensive piece of research should be able to prove, at the very least, whether his hunch is wrong.

Role of artificial fertilizer. There has been some concern voiced about the role that artificial fertilizers plays in relation†to the micro flora and fauna within fertilized farm grasslands.

Update, September 2nd 2013. A pilot badger cull is “proceeding to plan” and organisers are “pleased with progress to date”, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has claimed. The cull, which opponents say is inhumane and ineffective in tackling bovine TB, has begun in Somerset and is due to start in Gloucestershire.

Update, October 17th. 2013.

Gloucestershire badger cull falls short of target.

The number of badgers shot during a six-week cull in Gloucestershire has fallen short of its target, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has told MPs. Defra said 708 badgers had been killed in the county, 942 fewer than the target of 1,650. Nigel Gibbens, chief veterinary officer, advised it should be extended. This could be for eight weeks. Badger campaigners have called the scheme a “massive failure” and said they would continue their protest. Mr Gibbens said extending the cull would achieve the “earliest and greatest possible impact” on bovine TB in Gloucestershire. Defra said Natural England was currently considering the application to extend the licence in Gloucestershire and a decision is “expected shortly.”

Mr Paterson told the BBC the cull figures were “not bad news” but admitted that those carrying out the killings had “got off to a slower start” in Gloucestershire. “We must remember that these are pilots,” he said. “This has not been done before and we are learning, clearly, in each area. This isn’t a sudden six-week period. These pilots are intended to go on for four years. Up to the end of July, a further 20,000 perfectly healthy cattle have been hauled off to slaughter at horrendous expense to the taxpayer because we’ve lost control of TB.” Mr Paterson said 305,000 cattle had been “lost” over the past 10 years and it was “not acceptable” to allow the disease to go on.

The badger cull in Gloucestershire ended this week. A licence was granted last week to extend the badger cull in Somerset until 1 November. Defra said early indications from Gloucestershire are that, as in Somerset, the pilot had been “safe and humane”.

The government’s original target was 2,900 badgers, based on a population estimate of 3,400 animals. The target was then revised to 1,650, from a population of 2,350. Last week Mr Paterson said the government was exploring the possibility of gassing badgers to cull carriers of bovine TB. Stop the Badger Cull spokesman Jay Tiernan said the cull had been a “massive failure”. “It’s disgraceful,” he said. “It clearly isn’t safe, effective or humane. It is time for someone to bite the bullet and admit it’s been a failure.” Mr Tiernan said protests against the culls would continue.

Update, December 31 2015.  The badger cull has this year been introduced into an area of Dorset.  The cull target figures have been reduced in order to cover-up the disparity between the target and the number of badgers actually killed.  Recently, a Sussex initiative was set up, the Sussex Badger Vaccination Project,   This was administered by East Sussex Wildlife Rescue & Ambulance Service (WRAS) and the Sussex Wildlife Trust, to create a badger vaccination zone centred on the eastern South Downs, involving local landowners and farmers and hopefully to have been partially funded by DEFRA.  In early 2015, this bid failed to gain the necessary part funding.  The current cost for each individual badger killed is estimated to be £7,000!

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