What to do about badgers

What should Britain do about bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in the wild badger (Meles meles)? Here’s a list of notifiable diseases affecting livestock in Britain. That list includes bTB.

In 2007 the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB concluded, ‘after nearly a decade’s work’ reviewing the science, that ‘while badgers are clearly a source of cattle TB, careful evaluation of our own and others’ data indicates that badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain.’ Yes, the Government’s own Independent Scientific Group concluded that culling can make no meaningful contribution.

Vaccinating badgers against TB is an attractive idea. There’s in vivo evidence that it works. In case you don’t know: in vivo science is done on live organisms, in this case, live badgers. The National Trust (NT) says that there may be a place for culling but on current evidence, NT supports vaccination.

But when you consider the details, it may look a little bit different. We’re talking about a wild animal. A vet has to trap the badger, cage it and inject into its muscle. Farm livestock get a lot of injections but of course, they don’t like it. Cattle farmers may use a crush to restrain the animal while injecting. The distress caused to a cow or bullock, when held in a crush and given a jab, is one thing but doing that to a wild badger? There’s a photograph of the procedure in the veterinary website I’ve just linked to.

Here’s a summary of the science about vaccinating badgers. It quotes the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) saying ‘vaccination will need to be continued for a number of years in order to maximise the benefits’ and ‘the duration of immunity is also currently unknown so repeated vaccination may be required to maintain immunity’. It points out that badger cubs can’t be vaccinated until they emerge from the sett, therefore ‘badgers are unlikely to be vaccinated at an age when they are most responsive to the vaccine’. Also, ‘Trapping and vaccinating badgers involves very high labour costs.’ I’m not inclined to shrug off that last point. These are hard economic times.

Is vaccinating badgers more or less expensive than shooting them? Is it crueller or less cruel? Is it likely to be more or less effective in controlling bovine TB? Is M. meles really the main reason cattle get TB or is it more to do with livestock transportation?

The British countryside isn’t a wilderness, untouched in some appealing dream of ‘natural’ land. It’s been managed for many centuries. Until recently, badger populations were managed by methods that are now outlawed. Rightly so. I don’t condone digging out setts or baiting badgers with terriers. But have we gone too far in the other direction? Since 1973 M. meles has been a protected species. The badger is vulnerable to road kill but it doesn’t have natural enemies. Badger populations are increasing. Are they increasing too much?

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About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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12 Responses to What to do about badgers

  1. “very high labour costs” – and creating rural jobs? I take your point about who pays but wanted to include who might be paid.

  2. I would be more interested in the reasons for the population growth. Yes, they have no natural predators, but there are several animals within the UK that I am aware that do not have natural predators, and we do not feel the need to cull these.

    Is their population overshooting? In which case it will collapse. My theory would be that there has been an increase in their primary food source, and perhaps addressing this would be less controversial 🙂

    Expanding on this, what would be the consequences further down the food chain of removing 1/3 of badgers? They prey on small rodents, as well as juvenile rabbits, and of course insects.
    How will the removal of X of a badger population affect the rabbit population in the coming years? Do rodents and rabbits present a larger problem to agriculture? Maybe not to livestock farmers, but to agrarians.
    They do eat a lot of vegetation too, but I do not think the UK availablilty of vegetation has exploded in recent years.

    If it is not an increase in a food source, then maybe it is a decrease in competition, so maybe the population of foxes has decreased, or other insectivores.

    • argylesock says:

      These are v interesting points. I hope to research this more and blog about what I find.

      • Been poking around a bit on this topic, and a number of papers point to the recent trend for milder winters as being a cause of population increase, and I saw a documentary which mentioned that the badgers primary food source when in their setts for raising young was earthworms, and as the ground was not freezing as it used to, they were able to continue foraging for longer. The downside was that when the young appeared in spring, the drier springs meant that the ground was too tough to easily access the earthworms, which led to an increase in mortality.

        • argylesock says:

          This is interesting. We had a long series of mild winters but haven’t the last 2 or 3 been very cold? I don’t recall how long a badger generation is, so perhaps there’s a delayed response to such changes in the earthworm supply. Now I’m wondering what effect 2012’s wet summer will have had. It’s been tough for many insects which you mention as another group of prey species for the badger.

          If the badger population does enter a boom/crash cycle that might involve starvation, I guess.

          One thing you suggest is a fall in the fox population but I doubt that. Vulpes vulpes is another species I hope to blog about, including the way it’s moved into cities.

  3. The winters do not necessarily need to be mild throughout, as with the flowering of Daffodils etc http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-16465133 It is more that the prolonged periods of frozen soil are not appearing until later in winter, and then sudden frosts/snowfalls occur.

    When you write about Vulpes, you should check out the BBC docu “Unnatural history of London”…it made my face go O.O and that doesnt happen very often.

  4. lowerarchy says:

    Great article. I agree with your point about the difficulties of injecting a wild animal. I’ve heard folk saying the destruction of hedgerows is also an issue. I’ll read more and come back x

  5. Pingback: Owen Paterson on badgers | Science on the Land

  6. Pingback: Badgers and cattle | Science on the Land

  7. Pingback: Owen Paterson talks to farmers | Science on the Land

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