David Cameron’s Conservative Government was never particularly green-minded and would often have environmentalists decrying his parties announcements. Probably the most controversial decision they took was the introduction of badger culling in 2013 to try to control outbreaks of bovine TB. Three years later and countless accusations of the government sitting in the pocket of farmers and a blatant disregard for science, we have a new Conservative leader and more importantly new research surrounding the spread of the disease. Could this spell an end to the badge culls?
Bovine TB has been a Government headache since the end of the Victorian era, as deaths from the disease rose into the 1900’s as a result of infected meat and milk it was estimated around 40% of the UK’s cattle was infected by the disease. However between the 1930’s and 1960’s the disease was effectively eradicated by the establishment of milk pasteurisation, milk inspections and improved husbandry on farms. Whilst TB levels were falling across the country they remained high in the South West. In 1971 a severely infected badger was found with TB in the Gloucestershire area where TB infections were still frequent. What followed after has been 40 years in a battle to prevent an increasing spread of infection.
Bovine TB is not a problem which can simply be brushed under the carpet. To the average UK citizen we are largely unaware of the potential scale of the problem as frequent testing keeps it under check. Of course frequent testing is expensive and places a financial burden on British farmers who are already under numerous pressures, never mind if it comes up that one of their herd tests positive.
This has become one of the most contentious environmental issues in the UK in the last decade when the government announced their pilot culls in 2013. What followed was a scientific farce, in fact the majority of the following three years of badger culling has been condemned by the scientific community.
In summary over the past three years; targets have been continuously missed, a huge cost to the taxpayer has been incurred with no real result, questions have been raised as to how humane the cull is, the environment secretary (Owen Paterson) blamed the badgers for moving the goalposts so he couldn’t reach his targets, and the governments scientific advisers were consulted and ignored.
It seemed that despite scientific evidence stating that the culls would do more harm than good the government was determined to carry on. The Wildlife Trusts put together a nice little infographic explaining how removing badgers out of a population could increase the rate of infection.
Basically by removing badgers from a territory you are opening that up to badgers from outside the area, thus increasing badger movements in and around that area. As badgers are more likely to become infected so is badger to badger and badger to cattle transmission resulting in the infection rate increasing over a much wider area.
Whilst government decision makers ignored this information, it seems unlikely that they will be able to ignore the latest research. Bovine TB is not passed on through direct contact between badgers and cattle.
The study carried out on 20 farms in Cornwall used GPS collars to track the movements of cattle and badgers alike and aimed to prove exactly how the disease was transmitted between the two. The results showed that badgers rarely go near cows, in 65,000 observations only once did a badger go within 10 metres of a cow. It is thought that a badger needs to be within 1.5m of a cow to transmit TB to the animal.
This implies that the disease is actually transmitted through the environment so through vectors such as the pasture they are grazing or even the slurry which they produce. This places the current control measures into question as DEFRA currently assumes that the main transmission route is through direct contact. However if the main transmission route is through the environment, a cull will not be an effective method at controlling the disease. Instead biosecurity measures will play a vital role in minimising the disease.
Prof Rosie Woodroffe of the Zoological Society of London who led the study spoke to the BBC “There are loads and loads of things that farmers are being advised to do and there is no certainty that any of them will actually work and because of this, hardly any farmers implement any of these sorts of measures, if we can focus on the things most likely to work on that massive array of things farmers are being advised to do more people will do them.”
The real question is whether the new government will take heed of this scientific advice. The likelihood is bleak, both Prime Minister Theresa May and Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom have voted in favour of the badger cull in the past. Moreover Andrea Leadsom hasn’t exactly set herself up as the environmentalists friend as she attempts to repeal the hunting ban or in her efforts as energy minister to demystify herself as to the reality of climate change.
It seems unlikely for this government to radically change their stance on the badger cull but it is certain that the scientific evidence is mounting against their position. There is only so long they can maintain their position and throw taxpayer money down the pan which could be used in a more effective manner on other preventative measures.
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