After the decision to delay the badger-cull pilot study it might be that badgers are breathing a sigh of relief. Except they won’t be because we don’t have in place effective measures to limit the spread of bovine TB in badgers and cattle and from one to the other (both ways!).
One huge problem with the whole ‘badger thing’ is that it is seen as a ‘badger thing’ when it should be seen as a ‘TB thing’. And it’s quite a thing – bovine TB is a big problem for cattle, farmers and, because we end up paying for most of it one way or another (eg research, pilot studies, compensation), for you and me.
Bovine TB is spreading and we need to stop that spread and begin to reduce its incidence.
Successive governments have failed to invest fully enough in vaccination as a solution to the TB problem and I have now spent well over 15 years being told that ‘vaccination isn’t the answer – it’s about 4-5 years away and we need something now!‘. Well, we didn’t get ‘something now’ and we haven’t yet got vaccination.
The farming community deserves to take quite a lot of the blame for where we are. They have focussed on badgers to a ridiculous extent. Yes badgers are part of the problem, I agree, but it is the farming community, through the NFU and through individual farmers, who have been most insistent on badger-culling almost to the exclusion of anything else.
If we killed all the badgers in infected counties, that would be tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of badgers, I believe we would see the incidence of bovine TB fall. It would fall, but it wouldn’t disappear, and my understanding is that it wouldn’t fall very much. So badger culling probably isn’t the whole answer. So what is?
Much better testing of cattle, to remove false positives (thinking a cow has TB when she doesn’t) and false negatives (thinking a cow is clean when she is infected) is essential. Reducing movements of cattle from infected to clean areas is important – all the more so when the accuracy of testing is poor. And better biosecurity so that badgers and cattle don’t mix as freely (which might be as simple as better gates and fences) is also important.
But, if we did all that would the incidence of bovine TB fall – I think it would? Would it fall very quickly and dramatically – it just might but I’m not an expert and I’m not promising anything? Might it be that if we did all that there would still be a problem and by now badgers would be a bigger proportion of that problem – I think they might be?
The long term solution to all this does seem to be vaccination. Vaccination of badgers and vaccination of cattle. Neither is easy, and neither is cheap – but then we aren’t in any easy place now and it certainly isn’t a cheap one either.
One of the arguments always advanced against vaccination of cattle is that the EU won’t let us – apparently, if you are prepared to believe Brian May and the Daily Mail, they will.
Government needs to heed the science and come up with a solution to bovine TB that will work. It won’t be cheap and it won’t be cheerful – there is plenty of pain ahead. However, I for one, would stomach some badger-culling if it were a necessary part of a well worked out solution to bovine TB. I am not yet convinced that badger culling will be necessary.
Some things to read if you want more on bovine TB and badgers: