Badger cull: could new evidence end this feud for good?

Are supplementary badger culls in Gloucestershire and Somerset  just another shot in the dark when it comes to fighting bovine TB?

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There are two standard ways to kill a badger. One: trap it in a cage and then shoot at close range. Two: tempt it into the open with food, hide nearby and shoot from a distance. The second of these has been deemed inhumane by the British Vetinerary Association – yet both practices are now set to be extended in Gloucestershire and Somerset.

Why? Because Britain's badger v cattle debate still appears to be one of the UK's most entrenched, emotive and under-informed divides.

According to the National Farmers Union, in 2016 nearly 3,750 farms deemed “clear” of bovine TB were affected by new outbreaks of the disease. The implication is that at least some of last year’s 29,000 sick cattle contracted the illness from contact with badgers, who can carry the disease between farms.  

As a result, NFU President Minette Batters is a supporter of the governments’ present 25-year eradication strategy, which combines a mix of cattle testing, badger culling, and developing new diagnostic tests and vaccinations. “Only by using every available option […] will we have the best chance of achieving what we, and everyone else, wants – a TB free England,” she says.

This sounds like a well-reasoned position. And as a result the anti-cull protestors have so far had little more than anti-cruelty arguments and anthropomorphised fiction to fall back on - as Labour’s Shadow MP for Education demonstrated this week:

But what if the government’s comprehensive approach is flawed and killing badgers is in fact needless? On a farm in Devon, the Save Me Trust has been supporting an experiment to prove that, with better testing, it’s possible to eliminate TB in a cattle herd without having to touch the surrounding wildlife.

Instead of using the government’s current method, they’ve deployed a three-part testing system which has allowed them to identify and isolate infected cows more accurately and quickly. “We can do incredible things now with computers and all the knowledge that we have. Yet we’re still using a decades-old test for TB on cattle: it’s pathetic,” says the trust's Anne Brummer, who persuaded Defra to allow the project.

Brummer believes that with better testing, killing badgers will become an irrelevance. Badgers around the farm have tested TB-positive, she says, yet since they have comprehensively cleared the disease from the cattle herd it has not returned.

But how can Brummer be confident that the badgers won’t one day transfer the disease back? Because, she says, even though badgers can catch TB from cattle they can’t keep it alive for nearly as long. That appears to explain why a 1970s outbreak in Cheshire which must have also spread to the local wildlife was successfully eradicated by dealing solely with the infected cattle.

If Brummer’s conclusions are correct then many of the so-called “clear” herds that the NFU claims have contracted the disease afresh from neighbouring cattle or wildlife, may simply have been carrying un-detected strains within them all the time.

So will this end the debate for good? “If someone landed from Mars they’d solve TB in no time and laugh at our antiquated system,” says Brummer. But sadly she also thinks that there’s a lot of “folklore, ignorance and arrogance” that needs to be tackled first on both sides of the debate. “I have great sympathy with farmers; it’s hell for them. The current measures are not helping them and they’re simply following the guidelines laid out by government to date.”

There is thus an urgent need for Defra to publish more information about the impact of the present, cull-inclusive, policy. The Welsh government is already looking at the new program of improved testing, Brummer says. And the NFU says they would "like to improve cattle testing and believe the best way to do that would be through research on better diagnostics". But the entire UK must work more closely together if the disease is to be controlled.

Until that happens, the culling looks set to continue. As do the protests. According to Jay Tiernan from Stop the Cull, this year’s anti-cull movement is more organised and more high-tech than ever before. “The new wave of technology is quite exciting,” he says, and should help objectors disrupt the coming shooting season. Now Defra just needs to follow suit.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.