There’s supposed to be a badger (Meles meles) cull happening right now in parts of England. I say ‘supposed to be’ because there’s not a lot about it on the news.
It’s about bovine tuberculosis (bTB). This disease is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium bovis which can infect badgers as well as cattle (Bos primigenius). Whether badgers spread the infection is controversial. As I’ve described in previous posts (‘tuberculosis’ and ‘badger’ tags) the science says it’s a waste of time to cull badgers. Senior scientists say the real problem is cattle being moved around, giving bTB to each other.
We’re not getting news updates about the cull in England and I’m starting to suspect a news blackout. But today, here’s a report from Auntie Beeb (the BBC) about vaccinating badgers in parts of Wales. ‘In March 2012, the Welsh government dropped plans to cull badgers, saying the decision was based on science and the law. Ministers instead ordered a five-year vaccination programme.’ I think the Beeb means vaccinating badgers, not vaccinating cattle.
In that BBC report Steve James, a dairy farmer in Pembrokeshire and deputy president of the National Farmers Union in Wales (NFU Cymru) says, ‘They’re culling in [parts of] England and vaccinating in parts of Wales, so we’ve got both policies going ahead. But we know that vaccination on its own is not going to deliver an improved TB situation in Wales. We will definitely be looking to put pressure on the Welsh government, particularly if it’s shown that [culling badgers] is working in England.’
Also in that BBC report Steve Clark of Gwent Badger Group speaks against the cull. He says, ‘We suspect between 90%-95% of badgers culled will not have TB but none of the carcasses will be examined to prove the point. We are grateful that the Welsh government has looked at this in a different way and has opted to pursue vaccination for badgers. We just hope that Westminster will look at the science in the same way rather than allow farmers to carry out a pointless cull.’
Don’t get confused between these two people with their similar names! Steve James of NFU Cymru has an open mind about whether it’s better to cull badgers or to vaccinate them. Here’s an interview with Mr James. He does think that wild mammals can be important reservoirs of bTB. ‘In New Zealand it was possums [I think he’s talking about the brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) which was introduced from Australia to New Zealand] and after a long-term strategy they have reduced TB… Ireland has seen TB in cattle cut by a third after culling badgers.’
Mr James goes on to say, ‘We have heard our Minister [Alun Davies] talking time and time again about farmers needing to become more efficient and resilient but surely losing so many cattle in the prime of their productive lives is one of the biggest impacts on efficiency in Wales and the resilience of farmers and their families is so sorely tested by this horrendous disease. Yet cattle keepers, despite doing everything that they possibly can to keep the disease out, are helpless unless Government is prepared to accept the need for this disease to be proactively removed from the wildlife population.’
[Edit] The day after writing this post, I wrote about the Irish bTB story.