The 200 year old debate… to cull…or not to cull?

Badger culling to prevent TB transmission is a topic that has been debated back forth for since the 18th century and it is no different today. Do scientific facts play a big enough role? Or are we just divided by our concepts of morality and badger ideology?

It was last month that the Coalition Government issued its first licence to cull badgers under a trial scheme that would remove a third of the UK badger population in order to prevent the transmission of bovine TB from badgers to cattle; thus sparking the debate match once again. This came after the results of the 10 year RBTC study by Lord Krebs, which revealed a 16% decline in bovine TB incidence (see previous for more details). One discernible difference between these two trials is the methodologies employed; Lords Krebs’ study dealt with the shooting of badgers once trapped, while the Government’s scheme involves free-shooting. The results of a later trial exemplified the importance of these finer details that must to be taken into account for bovine TB eradication to be effective. One key factor was the area of land in which shootings take place; in smaller areas badger culling in fact increased the incidence of disease through the social perturbation of badger populations spreading the disease further afield.

In a letter to the Observer on Sunday over 60 eminent scientists and members of learned societies, including a past President of the BES, agreed with farmers on the severity of the problem that is was deserving of the ‘highest standards of evidence-based management’ but urged the government to reconsider its strategy as it will likely increase the risk of bovine TB and quickly become a costly and ineffective. Not to mention that it is not applicable to all parts of the UK afflicted with bovine TB.

This story has been followed up in other major newspapers and a few interesting points were made. The statistics for cattle slaughter last year need to be put into perspective; 26, 000 cattle were slaughtered, this is a large number to many people yet in reality it accounts for only 11.5% meaning that 88.5% of UK cattle herds were TB free. Vaccines whilst being trialled in Wales are not a proven method and do not currently cure already infected badgers. These would also be a costly biosecurity measure involving yearly administrations as there is no oral vaccine at present; Defra will be investing 15.5million over the next four years to this end. There is a need to effectually communicate that this is only one part of the government’s plans to eradicate TB and not sensationalise. The EU’s simultaneous demand for bovine TB eradication and ban of a cattle vaccine is the heart of the issue; funding could be used to effectively research the effects of such a vaccine to a level acceptable to the EU.

A fact that is perhaps over looked is cattle-cattle transmission of bovine TB. As Professor John Bourne explained in today’s article in the Guardian, tighter controls on the movement of herds and infected cattle played a major part in the near eradication of bovine TB in the 1960s. Farm inspections performed by the European commission early this month concluded that mitigation practices were below targets, including a ‘weakening in cleaning and disinfection’. These findings are easy to fix but can increases the risk of transmission dramatically and should therefore be a priority. A huge positive from the inspections was that the regular testing of cattle has reduced the incidence of bovine TB over the last 6 months (4.2% as opposed to 6.0 in 2011).

The cultural identity of badgers has played a huge role in this 200 year old argument. Clearly ‘The Wind in Willows’ view of ‘wise, old Badger’ returning from ‘The Wild Wood’ to save the day is one ingrained in our collective psyche. Farmers who regularly deal with the reality of slaughtering their cattle and loosing this profit alongside the failing crops, diversification issues and poor first sale prices (e.g. milk) cannot really be expected to hold the same view.

It is interesting that while this debate still rages, some universities use the statistical relationship between badgers and cattle with respect to bovine TB as a classic example of biological statistical analysis within the conservation-biodiversity context. This is intended to reveal the importance of a standard statistically significant level and ensure that students are aware of the role research can play in policy making. Clearly it is an example far from text book.