Scapegoating the badger

At the close of 1998, the Government began a badger 'research programme' that will result in the trapping and destruction of around 20,000 animals over the next five years.

The killing of these animals – supposedly a protected species – is happening because farmers blame badgers for the escalating incidence of tuberculosis in their beef and dairy herds. Nearly 4,000 bovine TB cases were officially identified in 1998 in around 700 herds, an increase of 35% on the previous year. 

The UK’s badger population is around 300,000. MAFF will trap and shoot 20,000 over the next five year. Meanwhile, some 50,000 are run over every year and another 10,000 fall prey to badger baiters.

Farmers insist that badgers transmit the disease to cattle, and yet not even farmer-friendly MAFF has produced any convincing evidence. During the past 23 years, the Ministry has killed more than 20,000 badgers in a failed effort to halt bovine TB outbreaks. In fact, TB in cattle has been increasing since 1986, including in areas where badgers have been eliminated, or where they have been shown to be free of the disease.

The new ‘research’ is once more aimed at getting evidence to frame the badger. Animals in ten ‘reactive’ areas will be killed if they have access to TB infected cattle farms. In ten other ‘proactive’ areas, every single badger will be slaughtered. In ten ‘control’ areas, all badgers will be spared so that the effects on cattle of doing nothing can be monitored. The victims will be trapped in cages (where they will often languish for hours), shot, dissected, tested for TB and then incinerated.

Strong opposition to the killing has been voiced by nearly 40 European and African countries via the Bern Convention, Europe’s longest-standing wildlife treaty. In December last year, the standing committee called unanimously for the cull to be postponed for 12 months while it decides whether the slaughter programme is in breach of the Convention rules. It declared that our government had inadequately examined alternative methods of reducing TB in cattle before embarking on the cull. In response, MAFF said it would consider the ruling once the killing is halted in January for the ‘close season’.

The National Federation of Badger Groups has estimated that 80% of badgers killed will have no trace of TB infection. It also estimates that more than half of all badger cubs in cull areas will starve to death. This is because the ‘close season’ – the period in the programme during which the killing of lactating sows will be halted – runs only from February to April 1999. Cubs, however, are born as early as December, and are dependent on their mothers for food for several months.

The first killings took place during December in parts of Devon and Cornwall. Public protests, including the sabotaging of traps, meant that the programme was called to an early halt, with fewer than half the projected 500 animals killed. But MAFF cull teams are expected to return to destroy ‘cage shy’ animals whom they originally missed. Even worse, this mopping up operation might involve the use of snares and leghold traps.

From early May, the killing moves to a second region, after which another eight areas are to be announced.

While bovine and human TB are generally caused by different pathogens (respectively Mycobacterium bovis and Mycobacterium tuberculosis ) people do get sick from the cattle disease. Before milk pasteurisation there was a much greater incidence.

Dairy cattle are manipulated into producing far more milk than they can reasonably manage and their offspring are typically removed from their mothers within 24 hours of birth.

The trade has always resisted the idea that cattle transfer TB to other cattle, via nose to nose and faecal contact. But with the prospect of a BSE-type European ban in the offing – due to fears for the health of human consumers – UK government scientists are now examining the whole question of cattle-to-cattle transfer.

The true level of TB in cattle is not known, given the unreliability of MAFF’s blood test. If a better diagnostic method were developed, more disease would probably be discovered. This would inevitably make the test unpopular with farmers, given that more of their ‘stock’ would be condemned, and the prospect of a Euro ban made more likely.

The badger cull story is a familiar one of people scapegoating animals instead of looking squarely at their own vices.

Rather than badgers being the source of bovine TB, the reservoir for the disease is much more likely to be the UK’s commercial cattle. In human beings, the disease flourishes amongst physically and psychologically compromised individuals on poor diets and with inadequate housing. This is a fair description of life in cattle sheds and milking parlours. During winter months, they are kept in overcrowded, often badly-designed barns – conditions in which infectious disease spreads.