by Sophia Moseley
The Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) also known as the Krebs Trial was meant to come up with the answer to the problem of the growing Bovine TB epidemic that continues to decimate the cattle population in the UK. Government ministers were expecting – and some might say even desired – a particular outcome, but the conclusion reached by Sir John Krebs was not what the Government wanted to hear.
Bovine TB is the biggest endemic animal health issue facing the UK and the increase by 7.5% of new incidents in 2010 (compared with 2009) saw around 25,000 cattle slaughtered in an attempt to control the disease.
There is no dispute the disease is on the increase amongst cattle and whilst there are many other carriers, including deer, goats, llamas, cats and dogs; the evidence suggests the main culprit is the badger; the difference of opinion lies with the best way to tackle the problem.
The escalation of bovine TB means no action is not an option and Environmental Secretary Caroline Spelman’s recent statement that she is “strongly minded” to allow culling has caused outcry from the public and animal welfare organisations.
Spelman predicts if nothing is done it will cost the country in excess of £1 million each year, and the pilot scheme of culling is expected to start in the spring of 2012 in Gloucester and Devon, to be expanded nationally in 2013.
The cull is part of a larger programme that includes periodic testing for the disease amongst cattle alongside training of farmers on bio-security (preventative measures to control the spread of disease and pests).
However, Lord Krebs, Government advisor in 1997 and the architect of the RBCT, concluded in June 2007 that “....while badgers are clearly a source of cattle TB...badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain...weakness in cattle testing regimes mean that cattle themselves contribute significantly to the persistence and spread of disease in all areas where TB occurs and in some parts of Britain are likely to be the main source of infection.”
Sir David Attenborough and Chris Packham are amongst those who also disagree with the planned cull.
Bovine TB is a worldwide problem and in New Zealand they traced 70% of cattle infections to their native possum and ferrets; following their ‘TB-Free New Zealand’ programme, they successfully reduced infection rates from 1700 in 1994 to less than 100 herds by July 2011. Their National Pest Management Strategy is seen as ‘world leading’ combining a system of cattle testing with possum control.
British Government scientists have said culling in the UK’s worst affected areas could reduce the incidents of the disease by 16% and it is this low result that has raised questions as to the efficacy of the plan.
Under the RBCT the badgers were trapped and then shot, but as the badger is nocturnal, ministers and farmers prefer night time shooting which is also the cheaper option.
However, there is a greater risk of missing the crucial single shot that would mean the badger could escape but with a fatal injury. There is also the issue of public safety as it is far more difficult to police the situation in the dark.
Natural England, responsible to the Secretary of State, will issue the annual 10 shooting licences only to those holding a deer stalking level 1 standard. The marksmen would also have to undergo training to ensure they kill the badgers with a single shot. However, expert marksman Chris Cheesman has said it is virtually impossible to cleanly kill in the dark.
Around 30,000 badgers per year will be shot: there are currently approximately 50,000 road deaths per year and less than 50% of badger cubs born survive to adulthood.
However, when a badger is killed, the surviving badgers wander in a dazed and confused state due to perturbation, thus exacerbating the problem and risking spreading the disease yet further.
The European badger (Meles meles) lives in a family unit of 4-12 members and their sett, consisting of tunnels and chambers, is used by generation after generation.
Fastidiously clean animals, they regularly change their bedding to prevent parasite infestation; they have been known to air their bedding during warm sunny days.
They use a communal latrine located away from the sett and it is this that is the likely cause of the problem, as the disease is spread by inhaling the bacteria from either an infected animal or from its urine and faeces.
However, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas states that 80% of bovine TB is attributable to the cattle themselves and it is due to intensive farming methods that the disease spreads so easily and quickly amongst the herd. TB can also be found in the muck and slurry that is spread on the fields where the herd graze.
However, given that Tuberculosis has been around since antiquity, it would seem unlikely that intensive farming methods are the cause. There was a major outbreak in the 1930’s when around 40% of cows were infected and slaughtered.
An additional problem is detecting the disease in cattle as it manifests itself in different ways with some showing signs and some not. It depends on a number of factors including immune system, diet and age.
So what lies ahead for the most widespread and popular animal in England? Persecuted by badger baiting that was made illegal under the Protection of Badgers Act 1973 and the subsequent 1992 Act? Little did they know a caveat was added that means where it can be proved they are causing a health risk, ministers can sanction their destruction.
But just what is the solution?