Let’s be clear about one thing right from the start – badgers play an important role in spreading bovine tuberculosis (bTB) to cattle herds. But we’ll come back to that.
This week should see an English government announcement on badger culling. The announcement must come very soon if it is to happen before the Parliamentary recess and Defra is running out of road.
Long gone are those very early days of May 2010 when the Agriculture Minister James Paice, himself a farmer, spoke with enthusiasm at the Devon County Show about how a badger cull would go ahead. This was the Minister’s payback to the farming community and an attempt to show how different the new Defra team would be from the old townie Labour bunch. But since then Ministers have had to come down to earth (or sett) and realised that the science on this subject is just the same for a Blue/Yellow government as it was for a pale Pink one.
There is no point in arguing, as some still do, that badgers don’t transmit bTB to cattle – they undoubtedly do. And cattle transmit bTB to badgers , and badgers give it to other badgers and cattle give it to other cattle – such is the nature of an infectious disease.
If we could painlessly magic away every badger in the West of England we would see a fall in bTB incidence and the background level would reflect the role of other wildlife vectors such as deer and also the role of cattle movements in spreading and bolstering the disease.
But the details of badger behaviour mean that it is pretty difficult to remove them from an area – they are nocturnal and live underground after all – they aren’t sitting up and asking to be shot, trapped or gassed. And badgers live in social groups – which are really quite interesting but we don’t have the time to go into that now – which, if disrupted by culling tend to split up and result in wandering badgers spreading across the countryside. The last thing you want if you are culling disease vectors is that the ones you don’t cull go on their travels.
It’s very unlikely that even the most well-organised and expensive culling programme will kill every badger in its area of operation and so for every cull there is a residue of mobile badgers and, of course, it tends to stir up the badgers on the edge of the cull area too. So for any cull, the benefits (as far as reduced bTB is concerned) are reduced by the edge and perturbation effects. The more efficient the slaughter, and the bigger the area it covers, the bigger the positive impact on reducing bTB (and the bigger the badger body count).
So, we should consider the government’s proposals on which they have consulted. Back in September last year Mr Paice was still sounding very keen on badger culling and talked about taking urgent action and publishing a bTB eradication programme early in 2011.
The proposal included a ‘Big Society’ proposal – it involved farmers getting together to apply for licences to cull badgers in their area. The prospect of gangs of farmers tipping out of the pub of an evening and organising a badger cull in the valleys of the West Country is quite chilling. Particularly when it is coupled with the enthusiasm with which some farmers speak of a cull. There is little regret for the necessity of a badger cull in some of the farming pronouncements and little grasp of the conditions necessary for culling to be a success in terms of bTB reduction.
At the moment many farmers imagine that it is on their farms that culls may take place, but remember, any control zone has an edge – and those farmers on the edge of the control zone will be disadvantaged by the control benefits realised by their culling neighbours, so any culling disadvantages some dairy farmers unless you set the bounds of the area so wide that it includes the whole country.
It seems to me that a culling programme could reduce the incidence of bTB if done well but I wonder whether it will be done well if carried out in a Big Society way. But even if it does have some positive impacts for some farms there are still moral considerations about killing large numbers of a native species, there are the issues about what other measures need to be introduced and there is the issue about how long culling needs to be continued.
Some will oppose a badger cull whatever the science says about its partial beneficial impacts on reducing the incidence of a nasty cattle disease and an economic burden (and emotional burden too) for the farming community. I wouldn’t say that badgers are more important than cattle nor that a badger’s right to live is absolute, but many like myself will only be prepared to see thousands of badgers killed if we believe that this will do some good and be part of an effective bTB control programme.
The government lost many potential supporters, albeit reluctant and grudging supporters, of any badger culling when Mr Paice scrapped five out of six planned trials of vaccination just over a year ago. This was presumably when Defra heads were still full of post-election euphoria and pre-CSR funk. Vaccination has to be a part of long-term the solution even if culling may be part of the short-term solution. And more effective measures to prevent badgers and cattle coming into contact with each other, for example in cattle sheds, are needed too. And better and more effective controls on cattle movements have to be implemented. But at the moment the government doesn’t look like it has a solution that addresses the real needs of dairy farmers, only perhaps their emotional needs for a badger cull.
If Defra goes ahead with a cull then the questions that need to be asked, simply in terms of the effectiveness of the proposed culling, are; will it work and for how many farmers? how many farmers will be disadvantaged by a cull? how much public money will go into it? does that money represent good value for money? is culling part of a coherent programme to reduce bTB? when will bTB be eradicated from English dairy farming?
Let’s see what the government comes up with and watch for legal challenges that will almost certainly follow. Mr Paice’s enthusiastic May 2010 comments on culling going ahead may persuade some that the science has been made to fit the policy rather than the other way around.
The government does not need another public outcry emanating from Defra policy to follow that over forestry, and if people care deeply about who owns Sitka spruce trees they are likely to be even more exercised about farmers killing their badgers. Will there be badger-cull saboteurs in a similar way to hunt saboteurs and what does that mean for public safety if people with strongly held differing beliefs are wandering around in the dark, with some of them having loaded firearms?
And if farmers voluntarily sign up to carry out badger culls then there will be calls from consumers for badger-friendly milk. Why should the consumer not be able to exercise their Big Society influence and reward those farmers who do not cull Brock? How soon will there be segregation of milk supplies with different milk tankers visiting cullers and non-cullers?
In almost every discussion about this issue, including this one, the rights and wrongs of culling cloud the real issue – what is an effective programme of work which has a good chance of drastically reducing the incidence of this terrible disease? But that is right because killing animals has a much greater moral component to it than does improving the fencing around your cattle shed or the bureaucracy of cattle movements.
And it really isn’t easy. This is a pretty intractable subject. Something really should be done but it would be good if it were the right thing and no-one has a very coherent view of what that might be. As someone said to me last week – the Government is between a Brock and a hard place (or is that a hard Paice?).