Bovine Tuberculosis (bTB) has long been a problem for cattle farmers in the UK. Cattle found to be infected with bTB are routinely destroyed and this can have a devastating effect, both financially and emotionally for those whose stock is affected. It is claimed that wild badgers are carriers of tuberculosis and readily infect cattle grazing in the vicinity of their setts. Therefore the only means of successfully preventing infection is by culling and removing badgers from land upon which cattle are grazed. Once an animal has contracted bTB the disease spreads readily and other animals in a herd quickly become infected when they come into contact with the waste or exhalations of their companions. Badgers range over a wide area and mark their territory with urine which can contain a high proportion of bTB bacteria.
But badgers are not the only carriers of bTB. Deer, dogs, cats, horses and goats can also be carriers, although sheep are rarely infected. The viewpoint of the government being that bTB can only be eradicated by controlling its incidence in native wildlife – by killing wild badgers. Understandably, this suggested policy has provoked much heated debate among animal lovers and the farming community and the decision by the government to a localised cull of badgers has only served to fan the flames. There is actually an effective vaccine available but the logistics of vaccinating every single wild badger in the UK on an annual basis is clearly not a practical option, especially given that only non-infected badgers can be vaccinated. It would in theory be possible to trap, test and vaccinate all badgers living in a sett, but the cost is not seen as acceptable by farmers. As yet there is no bTB vaccine suitable for cattle which is not prohibited under EU law.
The most humane method of culling badgers would be to cage-trap then humanely destroy them. This is viewed as too expensive however, so "free shooting" will take place instead. Obviously, some animals may be injured but not killed outright and instead will be left to die slowly underground. The cull is set to take place across two areas at a cost of £7 million per area and up to 5,094 badgers may be shot.
Independent scientific experts concur that large-scale, long-term culling will yield only modest benefits and could only serve to worsen the situation before any improvement is seen. Farms bordering the cull areas will probably be left worse off as surviving badgers will probably be chased across borders potentially taking the disease with them. Even the UK government admits that a wide-area sustained cull over a period of nine years might only achieve a 9 to 16% reduction in incidences of the disease.
It has further been suggested that there should be greater emphasis on cattle farming controls and that the cattle TB test needs to be more accurate. Some herds test negative for TB when the disease is in fact still present in some animals.
Supporters of the badger vaccination proposal argue that blanket vaccination will ultimately eradicate the disease in the wildlife pool. Badgers are relatively short-lived with only a five year lifespan. If the vaccination project is continued for five years, the majority of animals initially in the programme will have died out and the remaining population will be clean and healthy.
The debate will undoubtedly rage on until a workable solution acceptable to all sides is found. As usual, it would appear that wildlife is in the way of business and the cheapest solution will win out.
Image credit: Tobias Akerboom (at hutmeelz)