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While the badger culling in Somerset is being extended until the November 1st, it is currently being suggested that badger culling needs to be extended in Gloucestershire as well. This is due to only 708 badgers out of the target 1650 being killed, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. But with opposition to the culling still fierce across the UK, and many scientists themselves seeming unconvinced by the success a cull would bring, the mentality of badger culling itself must be questioned.
It cannot be argued that the spread of bovine TB is having a detrimental effect on British farming. The number of infected cattle has been rising for over a decade and, according to TB Free England, 203,514 cattle have been culled from January 1st 2008 due to the disease. Yet there is no consensus among experts on what is behind this rise in infection, and little research even linking the spread of TB in cattle to badgers at all. Although most experts agree that badgers are likely to contribute to infection rates, other animals such as deer may also be contributing to the spread in certain areas. In addition to this, bovine TB is shown to have significantly risen after the decimation of cattle herds in the foot and mouth epidemic, after which many British farmers quickly bought cattle from Europe, transporting herds into the UK which were not subjected to the normal rigorous regulations to ensure that contagious diseases were prevented from entering the country.
This aside, the method of badger culling itself is being questioned in terms of its viability as a long term solution. The Krebs trial of the 1990s showed that if 70% of badgers are killed every year for four years in a 150 square kilometre area, there is a 16% reduction in the rate of TB. While this data sounds promising, it is important to note that if less than 70% of badgers are killed, as is most certainly the case in Gloucestershire with 30% of badgers culled, there will be no change, or possibly an increase, in the rate of TB. In addition to this, the trial found that this method of culling increased TB rates for neighbouring counties, as badger migration was greatly increased. As Professor Lord John Krebs, the government advisor responsible for these trials, has gone so far as to state that culling is “not an effective policy”, it must be questioned why the cull is still taking place.
While many quote Ireland as an example of successful badger culling, it needs to be noted that the methods of culling in Ireland are very different to those in England. The Irish use snares to trap vast amounts of badgers, which they subsequently shoot, a practice which is banned in England due t fears over animal cruelty. The English method of shooting on sight is not only unlikely to meet targets for culled badgers, but there is an added threat of wounded animals running off to die, their corpses becoming sites of infection in the countryside.
So if we take badger culling as an ill-thought through plan, what other options are available to counter the spread of TB in cattle? Vaccinations are available to cattle, but are illegal for use in the EU as it is not possible to distinguish between an infected animal and a vaccinated one. A test to eliminate this problem is in development but is several years from completion.
The Welsh government is taking another root by funding the vaccination of badgers, a project which is widely supported by wildlife activists, but this method has significant costs and requires capturing the badgers to administer the vaccination.
Some farmers, however, are reporting a reduction of TB in cattle herds by taking simple measures such as badger proofing water troughs and ensuring cattle and badgers do not come into too close contact. It makes one wonder: could the most simple of methods prove to be most effective?
Taking a glance through national newspapers, often describing badger culling as “a farce” (South Wales Argus) or “fiasco” (Daily Mail), it is clear that many are doubting the effectiveness of the cull trials and, having gone through the facts of the badger cull, it is clear that these fears are well grounded. The cull ultimately has little scientific backing, virtually no public support and, most importantly, it appears the trials are proving to be a failure.