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?