It was confirmed by the government last week that the badger cull will be extended to 11 new areas this autumn, covering 21,321 square kilometers in total. Data provided by Devon Badger Group indicates that the maximum target for killing badgers has risen to 64,400, which if achieved, will nearly double the number killed since the cull began in 2013.
Although the Eurasian badger has been roaming the British Isles since the last ice age and is often considered an iconic woodland species, it has found itself at the center of controversy for decades. When bovine tuberculosis (bTB) was identified in a dead badger on a farm in Gloucestershire in the early 1970s, the farming community began to push for targeted killing licenses to minimise the spread of the disease among cattle. Efforts to eradicate bovine TB in herds, which had remained a problem since the Victorian era, had been largely successful until this point. The re-emergence of the disease among badgers meant they were seen as a threat to safe farming practices, and strategic gassing was subsequently implemented in vulnerable areas between 1975 and 1981.
With the aim of tackling the problem once and for all in the southwest of the UK, a pilot cull was trialed in Gloucestershire and Somerset in the autumns of 2013 and 2014. Farmers were granted licenses to trap and shoot badgers, with a cull target of 70 per cent of the zoned badger population. Despite outcries from animal rights groups, the decision was defended as a long overdue solution to a serious biosecurity issue. It was concluded that the trial was a success and more areas were gradually added in 2015 and 2016, with culling taking place across eight counties by 2017. This year, the cull is extending north to Staffordshire and Cumbria, as well as being implemented more extensively in established regions.
The announcement comes at a time of uncertainty in bovine TB research, however. Anti-culling groups are increasingly pushing forward the notion that there is no evidence to suggest the mass killing of badgers successfully lowers bTB in cattle. Last year, the executive director of Network for Animals, Gloria Davies, disputed farming minister George Eustice’s claim that the culling strategy was ‘delivering results’ in Gloucestershire and Somerset.
Along with 15 veterinarians and animal rights campaigners, she produced a letter urging the minister to retract his statement. After scrutinising data supplied by Defra, the protestors stated that ‘the prevalence in cattle is no lower than it was before culling despite the killing and removal of 1,879 badgers in Gloucestershire and 1,777 in Somerset. A total of 3,656 badgers have been killed with no perceivable disease-control benefits.’
The group also criticised the failure of markspeople to ensure a quick, humane death on a number of occasions, concluding that ‘when proven harm is committed to animals on a very large scale, accompanied by documented animal abuse and entirely unaccompanied by any disease control benefits, the only option for any responsible government is to abandon the policy immediately.’
Activists are now pushing for alternative and proven methods of disease control, as well as wider recognition of the injustices involved in mass culling. Vanessa Mason, chair of Somerset Badger Group, told Geographical: ‘we believe that fundamentally we should not be killing wildlife to solve an issue with the way farming animals are kept, looked after and used to provide our food.’ She explains that cattle-to-cattle transmission accounts for the majority of bTB cases and agrees that evidence of the cull’s success ‘is conflicting and in many cases unsubstantiated by scientifically robust methodology.’
Along with Badger Trust and Wildlife Trusts, badger groups in both Devon and Somerset are pushing for the vaccination of both cattle and badgers to be considered a viable solution to bTB. Mason states that ‘while we have great sympathy for farmers and the devastation they face when bovine TB affects their herds, and understand their need for a speedy solution, we simply don’t see culling badgers as the answer. We think rolling out a wider vaccination programme – which is happening successfully in other regions – is the best way forward particularly in the High-Risk Areas.
‘Badger vaccination alone is not the solution to bovine TB, but it does have an immediate positive effect with no known associated negative impact on badgers or cattle,’ she continues. ‘Cattle vaccination offers the best long-term way to reduce bovine TB. The research and trialing of a vaccine has been completed, but it needs accreditation which is blocked by an EU ban on its use.’
While it is more difficult to enforce on a large scale, Mason concludes that vaccinating animals against the disease could actually be cheaper than culling in the long-term. ‘A large-scale vaccination programme in Derbyshire operating with Defra part-funding has proved to deliver low-cost, effective vaccination. It states its costs are as low as £82 per badger (the vaccine costs £40 per dose),’ she explains. Last year there were claims that a culling scheme in Wales cost taxpayers £76,000 per animal.
With Dominic Dyer, chief executive of the Badger Trust, claiming that this year’s cull could ‘push the species to the verge of local extinction’, the future doesn’t look bright for Britain’s biggest land predator. Until farmers and anti-cull groups find a middle ground, it seems that sightings of the elusive badger may be rarer than ever.
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