‘I think the most interesting observation was made to me by a senior politician, who said, “Fine, John, we accept your science but we have to offer the farmers a carrot. And the only carrot we can possibly give them is culling badgers.”’
Professor John Bourne, chair of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB
Badgers are the main cause of bovine tuberculosis among cattle. Or so the National Farmers Union (NFU) would have us believe. Is this true?
Badgers certainly carry the disease, as do a number of other species. The best evidence we have for the impact they have on its spread among cattle – and how far a badger cull might mitigate it – comes from the randomised badger culling trial (RBCT) that began in 1998. One of the largest field experiments ever, it cost £35 million and resulted in 11,000 badgers being killed. Nearly a decade later the results were published in a peer-reviewed report (the Final Report of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, June 2007). It stated that ‘after careful consideration of all the RBCT and other data presented in this report, including an economic assessment, we conclude that badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain.’
The RBCT found at best a small decrease in bovine TB in some areas. But there was an increase overall due to the ‘perturbation effect’, whereby badgers, who are territorial, came into contact with more cattle after moving to new territories to escape the cull.
The RBCT findings didn’t prevent another cull being authorised for autumn 2013 in two trial areas, in Somerset and Gloucestershire. A third area, in Dorset, was held in reserve. The cull resulted in one of the biggest animal rights mobilisations the country has ever seen. Those involved ranged from long-time animal rights activists to elderly middle class people, united in outrage at the thought of the country’s badger population being massacred. It has been quite inspiring to see this diverse group of people guarding badger setts into the early hours of the morning to prevent them from being shot at. And what’s inspiring that they sustained this for the initial six-week pilots – and continued it when these were extended because the number of badgers being killed wasn’t reaching the minimum targets.
What’s even more impressive is that they did so in the face of continuous harassment from both the marksmen and the police, with the police clearly working closely with the NFU. Protesters’ cars were followed and filmed for hours, and pulled over repeatedly on spurious excuses. Police issued protesters with warnings about the civil legal injunction obtained by the NFU and threatened to pass on personal details, a clear breach of civil liberties and data protection laws.
Protesters who were arrested were held for 20 hours at a time, their homes raided, and phones, cameras and laptops seized. One group were unlawfully detained until someone from the NFU could come to deliver an official warning. The cull operators have also being intimidating protesters. When one group complained about marksmen shooting in their vicinity, police dismissed it as ‘fireworks’; it turned out to be a crow scarer put there deliberately to frighten them. In another case, a woman was assaulted and her car vandalised while she was monitoring a badger sett.
The Somerset cull concluded at the beginning of November 2013, following a three-week extension, without reaching its target of a 70 per cent reduction in the badger population. A total of 940 badgers were shot in the cull zone, an estimated 65 per cent of the population, according to government figures. In Gloucestershire, where official figures have not been released, the cull was extended to December 2013.
The Wildlife Trusts conservation organisation, which has called for the four-year cull trials to be abandoned, said that: ‘Culling badgers over such a prolonged period and failing to meet the required targets is likely to have worsened the bovine TB situation at a cost of millions of pounds, whilst putting the local badger populations at significant risk.’
The end of the initial trial period doesn’t mean our badgers are safe. If deemed successful, the cull will be rolled out to other areas next year. There now needs to be a public backlash against those responsible to ensure a roll out isn’t even considered. That means examining our diets and asking ourselves if we want to support the slaughter of an iconic species of the British countryside.
Rather than aiming guns at badgers, we would do better to target the farming practices and conditions in which cattle are kept. Shoved into often overcrowded dirty sheds, and pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, they are used as money-making milk machines rather than the living creatures that they are. I question why anyone would want to support this practice.