Tweet Your Voice, Save a Badger

The badger cull is a hot issue in the UK at the moment. At the start of June the House of Commons voted to go ahead with the cull, despite a lack of science supporting it and heavy opposition from the public. The whole issue came about because of the increasing problem with bovine TB, which is seriously affecting farmers involved in the cattle industry. To understand the issue, you first need to understand bovine TB.

The worst areas of England affected by bovine TB are in the west. Two counties in the region, Somerset and Gloucestershire, have been selected to run trial badger culls. The issues surrounding the cull are its effectiveness at reducing the cases of bovine TB, and its humaneness. For the cull to take place in a certain area, the RSPCA has stated that certain criteria must be met. These criteria include support from the local community, that farmers issued a licence to take part have a high level of marksmanship, as the badgers will be shot. The RSPCA report counters the claims that are being used to support the cull.

Supporters of the cull claim that bovine TB is spread to cattle from wildlife, mainly badgers. The RSCPA reports that a 2007 study carried out by The Independent Scientific Group said " our results indicate that while badgers contribute significantly to the disease in cattle, cattle-to-cattle transmission is also very important in high incidence areas and is the main cause of disease spread to new areas." This means that there are other ways to control the disease without killing wildlife, such as vaccination and better biosecurity procedures carried out by farmers. The RSPCA report also references previous attempts to curb disease by culling wildlife. The specific event mentioned is Europe's attempt to stop the spread of rabies by culling foxes. That cull proved ineffective. The procedure that finally worked was vaccination, which has resulted in a near eradication of rabies in many parts of Europe. The same method can be used to curb bovine TB by vaccinating the badger population. Bovine TB isn't just an issue in the UK, Europe has also had to deal with it. However, countries, such as France have managed to eradicate the disease without culling badgers.

Another claim the RSPCA disproves is that the implantation of laws protecting badgers has led to an increase in bovine TB, as badger numbers have increased. However, badgers do not have large territories, so even if infected badgers increased in one area, it would not explain the increase in the spread of the disease throughout England. The more plausible cause for the spread of TB is the movement of cattle over long distances. The incidence of badgers being infected with TB is also low. The RSPCA reports a finding from Durham University that "only one out of nearly 400 badgers killed in road accidents in Cheshire over two decades tested for the disease turned out to be positive"  Research has shown that in undisturbed badger populations the animals' social structure mitigates against new incident cases of the disease. Strategies based on culling may have been a contributory factor to the increase in disease." These findings highlight how common actual contact between badgers and cattle is.

In the last 10 years there have been a number of factors that could have led to the increase in bovine TB cases. These include fewer restrictions on the movement of cattle and less TB testing. The foot and mouth outbreak, which resulted in millions of animals being killed, meant that farmers had to replace their killed cattle, many of which came from the south west of England, where bovine TB is most common. When a farm does have animals that test positive for TB the killing of the animals means an increase of new animal turnover within the herd. This affects the pecking order and causes stress amongst the cattle. Stressed cattle are more likely to get sick. The disease also spreads quite easily between cattle. According to the RSPCA the testing carried out can also throw up false negatives, meaning that infected animals are not removed from the heard. The increased movement of cattle in the UK coincides with the increase in bovine TB.

Numerous qualified individuals, including prominent vets, zoologists, and scientists, sent a letter to The Observer on Sunday saying "the complexities of TB transmission mean that licensed culling risks increasing cattle TB rather than reducing it...culling badgers as planned is very unlikely to contribute to TB eradication." The cost of the cull to taxpayers could be as much as £20 million. The vaccination of badgers and  improving biosecurity would cost significantly less. For example, if a farmer has an infected heard, a cull can cost that farmer around £27,000, as opposed to the cost of £4,000 for improving their facilities to create biosecurity.

Supporters of the cull also claim that vaccinating the badger population is not practical. However, vaccination programs in Wales, who voted against a cull, and by UK wildlife organisations prove that it is possible. Also, it isn't necessary to vaccinate every single badger because all badgers in a family group will benefit from the immunity of a single member. If the incidence of TB in badgers is  reduced the number of cases of infected cattle will also be reduced.

While culling is due to start in August, the battle to stop it is still on. Many celebrities have joined the fight. Queen guitarist, Dr. Brian May CBE, is a strong advocate for animal welfare and one of the most vocal anti-cull activists. His petition has already received over 250,000 signatures. This more than surpassed the amount of signatures needed for it to go to the government for discussion. However, the more signatures it has, the stronger its voice will be. Even though it is a UK government petition, anyone can sign it.

The aim of the cull is to reduce the badger population by 70%. Its summertime date was set to protect baby badgers that are born in the winter and spring. Animals killed in the cull trials will not be tested for TB, they will only be checked to see if they were shot humanely, which is surely a flaw in the monitoring of TB prevalence in badgers. Science states that the killing of badgers could spread the disease, as family groups will be reduced, resulting in badgers moving greater distances to re-establish these groups. While scientists know that badgers can transmit TB to cattle, the actual extent of this is unknown.

Many of you are probably wondering why farmers don't vaccinate their cattle.
There is a vaccine, the same one given to badgers, which can also be given to cattle. Unfortunately, the BBC reports that the EU has banned its use in cattle, simply because it can effect the TB skin test.

We can all join together and do something very simple, but effective. We know how awesome everyone is at mobilising on twitter to make a statement. Let's do this for the badgers. Let’s pick a time and a date to join together. Let's get #STOPbadgerCull to start trending. Are you up for the challenge?

To talk more about the badger cull, tweet any questions to our youth team members or the youth team twitter account @ISFYOUTH1

Sources: RSPCA; Backing Badgers: Why the cull will fail

BBC - Badger cull August start denied by police 

BBC: Q&A: The badger cull 

Some further reading:

Badger cull furore is distracting attention from the real problem

The Wildlife Trusts


By Siun



Photo credit: Peter Trimming