The hypocrisy of the badger cull

The badger cull seeks the reduction of tuberculosis in our farmers' livestock, but are badgers the real cause of this epidemic, or just the scapegoats for an ill-informed policy?

Steve Jones
12 September 2013

  Flickr/David Clare. Some rights reserved.

After many months of deliberations the Government has finally forced through yet another flag ship policy. This does not only affect the general public, but also the countryside and the rural fabric that binds it together.

For many years the beef and dairy industry has been under extreme pressure from the price restraint levelled upon them by supermarkets and milk and meat processors. This has been so intense that from the 1980’s, when we had 52,000 dairy farms, we are now down to just 10,600 and still in free fall.

This decline has been overseen by a succession of Governments, including the current coalition of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. There is no doubt that we need an overhaul of certain policies that have led us down the path of austerity to the position we find ourselves as a nation.

The cattle industry is long overdue for reform. It is being indelibly driven into a downward spiral that is resulting in increased intensification and escalating poverty for those in no position to diversify, or to become amalgamated into more viable units. This usually involves getting ever bigger and more efficient. The result of this intensification without development is more stress on the system and the animals within it.

We can measure this stress by the way in which our livestock performs. In the dairy industry we have 22% lameness of our cattle, when it should be no more than 1%. We have increasing levels of mastitis (a disease that attacks the mammary system), which causes high levels of infertility and ever increasing levels of lung diseases, especially in young stock. These production problems are then exacerbated by antibiotic resistance that is realised after years of abuse and overuse in an attempt to become more efficient. All of this culminates into the damning statistic that we are culling our dairy cows at the age of 5 years, long before they reach their full productive capacity.

Of these problems mentioned, bovine tuberculosis is but another one of those highly preventable production problems.

The National Farmers Union, who only represents 18% of farmers, has long been promoting a badger cull in order to reduce the spread of bovine TB. They argue that badger numbers have increased significantly, despite there being a lack of scientific evidence to support this claim. They say that badgers are responsible for the demise of ground nesting birds and hedgehogs, yet the State of Nature Report – backed by the Hedgehog Society and the RSPB – point to a change in agricultural techniques and increasing intensification methods as being the major cause of species loss.

Farmers also claim that badgers are riddled with bovine TB and yet, only 1.7% of badgers carry the disease. They also say that bovine TB is decimating our cattle herds; yet another untruth. To decimate means that 10% of cattle are culled. The actual 0.5% of the National herd slaughtered for the disease is nowhere near to that figure.

This low percentage is not a total loss to the industry for there is compensation paid to the farmer and the animal goes into the food chain, demonstrating the hypocrisy that bovine TB is not a significant risk to human health.

The cost of bovine TB is miniscule in comparison to the major causes of slaughter within our cattle industry – those being mastitis, lameness and infertility. In fact, one of the main causes for the spread of bovine TB into other areas is the transport and replacement of cattle.

Another myth exists in the claim that other countries have succeeded in their attempt to eradicate bovine TB through culling wildlife. This can be seen with the example of Southern Ireland, as while it is mentioned as a success, they actually struggle to keep bovine TB levels down despite reducing badger numbers by 10% per annum. If not for badgers in the North, it is likely that the species would soon be extinct on the island. The cull’s lack of justification is truly revealed as there are bovine TB outbreaks in areas where there are no badgers at all.

New Zealand is held high in regard too, even though significant TB risks exist. The brush-tailed possum, for example (an introduced species), only became a problem when introduced into the cattle rich country of New Zealand. It was not a significant TB carrier where it originated from in Australia. The driving down of bovine TB rates therefore went hand in hand with stringent bovine TB testing and cattle movements. Farmers were held financially responsible for the cost of the programme without the financial buffer that UK farmers receive.

The brush-tailed possum also carried a range of other diseases including EPM, a neurological disease in horses, as well as rabies. Biosecurity was high on the management agenda as feed stores were secured and water troughs regularly washed and limed before rinsing and replenished with fresh water.

One of the main reasons that the cows in New Zealand reacted better to disease control is that they are crossbred. The Kiwi cross is an amalgamation of three dairy breeds. The result of this gives them a stronger immune system and a greater longevity than their British sisters.

Another cause for the badger cull is that they are accused of excreting bovine TB.

A cow that passes through the bovine TB net – and many do – excretes at the rate of 60 litres of slurry per day, also producing as much saliva in order to digest vast amounts of roughage. A cow that has bovine TB has the capacity to infect other herd members through these exudates as well as infectious aerosols. This especially becomes an issue during the winter when cows are in close contact.

While it is said that badgers directly infect cows, 40% of farms in highly infected bovine TB hotspot areas do not fall to the disease. The bovine TB bacterium exists in slurry and if this is then spread on the land, a direct link with wildlife infection can result. Infected land can stay that way for months giving the bacteria plenty of time to infiltrate watercourses and soil organisms even as small as earthworms. The link with badger infection is easily realised when you consider that the badger’s main diet is earth worms coated in humus rich soil.

The cull has been backed by the National Farmers Union as they insist that the vaccination of badgers is a waste of time. Wales however, is trialling a vaccination programme. It is into the second year and at the end of five years any infected badgers will naturally die out, leaving a healthy population. Vaccination is cheaper than shooting and especially so when coupled with the inclusion of volunteer vaccinators who are willing to supply their time at a minimal cost. 

If the NFU were serious about bovine TB then they would have lobbied Government to allow cattle vaccination and its development. A vaccine was ten years away twenty years ago, is still ten years away today. Vaccinating the cattle would not only be a more ethical solution, but also a more achievable one, as all the cattle would be immune, rather than some of the badgers killed.

The main justification is that because it is a zoonosis (we can catch tuberculosis through drinking infected milk and eating contaminated meat), it’s best to remove the risk from the food chain at source. The truth is, infected cows that fail to test positive still get milked and that milk is drunk at farm level as raw milk proving the low. As I mentioned before, the meat from bovine TB positive cattle still enters into the food market. This isn’t regarded as a threat to human health otherwise the meat would carry a health warning to cook thoroughly, proving the shallow nature of the policy.

Furthermore, these pilot culls do not discriminate between healthy or unhealthy badgers. Many badger sets are free of bovine TB and will remain to be so if left to their own natural devices. If these disease resistant badgers are disturbed then it can only result in a diminishing of disease resistance in our wildlife reservoir.

Basing such a drastic procedure on such tenuous acts and figures is a political and a moral problem. Badgers do not deserve to carry the cross of an industry in crisis and I don’t believe that the British consumer will sanction an industry that uses a bullet instead of husbandry.


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