Dr. Richard Meyer served on the Government Consultative Panel for three years, wrote The Fate of the Badger (Batsford 1986) and worked for a year with WWF. This post is adapted from his submission to Defra as part of the public consultation process on bovine tuberculosis.
The background is briefly that the majority of farmers have long believed that badgers give TB to cattle. I will try to show in plain English why the planned ex-officio cull of badgers by farmers is misguided, uncivilised and dangerous.
Misguided? The most telling evidence is simply historic. On-farm intradermal tuberculin testing (‘Test & Slaughter’) reduced bovine TB after the war in the National Herd to residual proportions (in the south-west due to a combination of other factors). Achieved without a single badger being targeted it was in effect a national no-cull zone. Indeed as recently as 2008 Defra claimed, “Many countries have eradicated bTB through the systematic application of the tuberculin skin test alone and the slaughter of all test reactors”. This in itself implies cow-to-cow transmission. Were it not so, badgers or any wildlife host would have been spreading the disease before the 1970s just as it is claimed they are now, for badgers were widespread then, as now.
Cattle are kept and bred much more intensively now than previously and TB is a stress-related disease. Even the Independent Scientific Group and the Ministry’s vastly experienced principal scientist at the Ministry’s Woodchester Park Study Area, Dr Chris Cheeseman, opposes a cull partly on these grounds, as good science always has. Sanctioning an inevitably haphazard killing programme by unco-ordinated farmers is a desperate political (and economic?) response to manipulated farming opinion which merely demands that “Something must be done”.
Badgers have been singled out because they are large, recognisable and live in settled communities. This makes some, but crucially not all, relatively easy to catch. Wouldn’t it be tragic if a badger with TB is actually the canary in the mine? Video evidence has shown cattle avoiding badger products (i.e. soiled pasture) whereas of course badgers are ‘magnetised’ to cowpats for the insects they harbour; it is not difficult to see the most likely direction of bacterial transmission! Yet deny all this and it remains a scientific truism that the more you look the more you find; the corollary is also true, Don’t look, won’t find. In concentrating on the badger other potential hosts are ignored or only cursorily examined, eg. feral cats, rats, deer, hedgehogs, moles etc, not to mention possible mechanical vectors such as corvids and starlings. Where do we stop?
Uncivilised? Can we lecture the rest of the world on conservation while killing a protected species because its presence is seen as a nuisance? Killing things on suspicion or circumstantial evidence is no civilised answer. Since dead-stock is a live-stock farmer’s end product – directly or indirectly – they are immured to a throughput of animals. However low priced beef and milk is hardly reason to destroy wildlife which has been our heritage since time immemorial. A human failure no doubt but as in a bad TV detective thriller so in bad science: get a ‘prime suspect’ and fit in the evidence. If intensive farming was discouraged and consumers had to pay a fair price for food (perhaps not assuming an inalienable right to eat cheap meat every day), we could encourage a healthier population and return to civilised farming, causing animals less stress and paying farmers a fair return for their work. (There are indeed many farmers, often organic and small scale, some with closed herds, who have alternative views which should be listened to.) If all else fails, vaccination of cattle as for humans, is the only civilised and practical answer. The Krebs Report as long ago as 1997 stated “The best prospect for control of TB in the British herd is to develop a cattle vaccine”, and £18 million was spent proving vaccinating young calves was effective. TB is a treatable disease and with an effective DIVA test (Differentiate between Infected and Vaccinated Animals) only EU law stops this.
Dangerous? Traditionally, farmers proclaim strong views loudly. Most though would admit to not having the time, expertise or scientific curiosity to investigate the epidemiology of a complex disease like TB. It’s not surprising they seek a simple ‘final solution’ having been repeatedly told by NFU and the old MAFF (careers depended on this) that the badger is villain not victim. If the countryside does belong to us all and farmers are its stewards, it is disingenuous to claim there are too many badgers while shedding crocodile tears about diseased badgers.
In conclusion, disease is natural in wild populations yet TB in particular reduces where there is less stress: peturbation lessens and ecosystems recover. Mycobacterium tuberculosis is endemic and affects a wide range of species; it can never be entirely eradicated as under proper agricultural control and is of negligible danger to humans (since pasteurisation of milk). It is an agricultural problem and therein lies the solution. Killing badgers, in short, is a political decision not a scientific one. If the government and agricultural leaders ignore this it will alienate conservationists, animal welfare bodies and much of general public causing a storm of repugnance, civil disobedience and possible direct action while the reputation of farmers will sink even lower.
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