Badgers: A Reservoir for Disease or a Convenient Scapegoat?

Scapegoat: ‘An animal that takes the sins of others, or is unfairly blamed for problems.’ To many of us, that word sounds familiar and can be applied to many experiences we have had in our lives. My sister, the saint that she is, would often be a willing scapegoat when we were younger, in order to protect her younger, more rebellious little sister (me) from trouble. This however, is a more light hearted side of the term. Yet the debate that often dominates our headlines regarding the badger, is no joke.

Badgers and Bovine Tuberculosis. Two very different life forms that seem unable to cut their association with one another. Bovine TB is a big killer of cattle in the UK and spreads through a herd like wildfire. So far it has proved difficult to vaccinate cattle against TB as there are no tests that can distinguish between a vaccinated animal and one with the disease. Farming, as we know, is big business and the loss of herds is exceedingly damaging to farmers and the economy, so measures have to be taken to prevent the spread of the disease.

Unfortunately, Badgers find themselves an unwitting carrier of the disease. So what’s the solution? Of course, in our brutal and unforgiving human minds, a cull. But what’s the evidence for it? What is this senseless blood bath based on? Well, the success of culling badgers in Ireland and the reduced incidents of TB in cattle in the local cull area. A watertight argument then! Not quite. Though it cannot be denied that badgers do carry the disease, it is thought that it only affects 15% of the population. There is absolutely no guarantee that those badgers shot during the cull even carry the disease. A waste of innocent life.

When it comes to the badger cull, something just doesn’t smell right. Culling has been practised numerous times, costing millions of pounds, with no satisfactory or solid resulting evidence produced to show that it has been effective. In some areas where culls have been practised cases of TB have even increased! In fact, due to the distress and disturbance caused by culling, badgers flee and consequently cross more country than they otherwise would, increasing the catchment area of the disease.

But the problems do not stop there. There is a humane issue here (if it isn’t all a humane issue). The most common method used in the cull is free shooting, with badgers being shot at in the dark. A wounded badger can die in pain and distress, taking several hours to die. Yet this is allowed. Quite how, baffles me. Though sometimes we hear of the cull being reviewed. Great! They should be looking at the evidence then and seeing that it is not strong enough to condone such reckless behaviour! To me and you, very sensible. Though not to everyone it would seem. ‘Reviews’ as they call themselves, do not even involve a thorough look at the scientific evidence available. Quite odd, isn’t evidence the very basis of all sciences? We could claim anything then couldn’t we, without evidence?

Dogs can survive on carrots and cucumber alone!

Hen harriers are thriving! You can’t move for them!

Of course I have no evidence to support it, but trust me!

I don’t think so. Plain ridiculous. And as my father says:

‘You can never prove anything, just provide the evidence to support it.’

So if we have no evidence why does the cull continue? Indeed, several leading scientists and a number of veterinarians urged for the cull to be halted due to the massive gaps in this evidence and the failure of the cull  to be effective and humane. In addition, an ongoing pattern with the culls is that they fail to meet the target number of animals culled by a long shot. Targets up at 70% fall short, sometimes by up to 40%. If the target isn’t being met, why continue the cull and waste precious badgers? Yet this falls on some very deaf, parliamentary ears.

Badger and cow


TB rates are falling however, though this is not associated with the cull. It has more to do with tightening of cattle controls, particularly in Wales, with the same hoping to be implemented in England. Badger vaccination is another option and is surprising cheaper to the taxpayer! By assembling teams of volunteers and trying to create a vaccine that can be given orally, costs could be reduced even further.

Hopefully, in the future we will see a complete abandonment of the cull. Based on poor evidence and in some cases no results, I think our government will have to accept that this practice is based on some very old and exceedingly poor science.

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former”- Albert Einstein.

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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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