Effects of culling on spatial associations of Mycobacterium bovis infections in badgers and cattle.
Bovine tuberculosis (TB), caused by Mycobacterium bovis, has serious consequences for Britain's cattle industry. European badgers (Meles meles) can transmit infection to cattle, and for many years the British government culled badgers in a series of attempts to reduce cattle infections. We investigated the impact of badger culling on the spatial distribution of M. bovis infection in badger and cattle populations in replicated areas in England. M. bovis infection was significantly clustered within badger populations, but clustering was reduced when culls were repeated across wide areas. A significant spatial association between M. bovis infections in badgers and cattle herds likewise declined across successive culls. These patterns are consistent with evidence that badgers are less territorial and range more widely in culled areas, allowing transmission to occur over greater distances. Prior to culling, M. bovis infections were clustered within cattle populations. Where badger culling was localised, and in unculled areas just outside widespread culling areas, cattle infections became less spatially clustered as badger culling was repeated. This is consistent with expanded badger ranging observed in these areas. In contrast, clustering of infection in cattle persisted over time on lands where badgers were repeatedly culled over wide areas. While this lack of a temporal trend must be interpreted with caution, it might reflect persistent infection within, and continued transmission between, cattle herds in areas where transmission from badgers to cattle had been reduced by badger culling. Continued spatial association of infections in cattle and badgers in such areas might partly reflect transmission from cattle. Synthesis and applications: Our findings confirm that badger culling can prompt spatial spread of M. bovis infection, a phenomenon likely to undermine the utility of this approach as a disease control measure. Possible evidence of transmission from cattle, both to other cattle and to badgers, suggests that improved cattle controls might yield multiple benefits for TB management.