Shoot badgers? Vaccinate badgers? How about not blaming badgers?

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.

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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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11 Responses to Shoot badgers? Vaccinate badgers? How about not blaming badgers?

  1. ~Felicia~ says:

    So many are asleep with broken souls. Animals are magical, spiritual, special things. It’s sad.
    ~~~~Felicia

  2. beeseeker says:

    This is all confounded by glibly given “lies, damned lies and statistics”. I don’t think the general media has any understanding of what is going on so adopt a buck shot approach. Hope the scientific evidence is properly gathered, analysed and used wisely in the future.
    Badgers, farmers and the public deserve nothing less!

    • argylesock says:

      I aim to contribute to informing people.

      • beeseeker says:

        Sorry, my reply was not a criticism of what you are doing – which can only be a good thing, but rather of the seemingly haphazard approach of politicians and the media to what is proposed/happening.
        Please keep up the good work.

        • argylesock says:

          Oh thank you! In fact, it didn’t occur to me that you might be criticising. You’re not that sort.

          You might not happen to know that I’m using this blog as part of what could pompously be called my ‘portfolio’. I have several academic publications, an article in an industry newsletter, and acknowledgements in two textbooks. (One of whose authors might be reading this thread… am I allowed to name the book yet, Dr …?) I started Science on the Land after a casual suggestion by one of the senior scientists I know, and it’s become a real joy. One of these days I hope that somebody will pay me to write popsci.

  3. Tony says:

    Sadly, what this whole saga might do in time, is to provide a further disconnect by the public at large from farmers, who steward over 75% of the land in the UK and in turn feed a great many of us. I don’t really know where I stand on this badger issue as I am prepared to see both sides of the argument and if I mention the need to control other mammals who carry Tb, am I an animal murderer? If we must control Badgers, then we must look at the other sources of Tb as well. As Sam has stated before, stricter controls on movement should be enforced more widely too. I refuse to politicise this saga, as I’m a townie who votes Labour, which doesn’t exactly make me someone who would understand the plight of the farmers.

    • argylesock says:

      Is 75% of land stewarded by farmers in the UK? That’s more than I thought. Where did you find that number? In my post about bTB in Ireland, posted soon after this one, there are some numbers about how many people are involved in agriculture. A far higher % of Irish than British.

      I’m watching with interest for the new cattle movement controls, announced by David Heath and due to start coming into force in October 2013. Another of my blog posts describes those new rules. Will they do some good? bTB prevalence has varied widely over the last few decades, and between different places. So it certainly isn’t a fixed problem.

      To answer your question: of course you’re no animal murderer. Unless you’re a strict Jain, you kill organisms or cause them to be killed. That’s why I’m open to be persuaded that shooting badgers could be the right way forward. As for being a townie who votes Labour, you’re in plenty of company! and your opinions are as valid as the next person’s.

      • Tony says:

        Thanks Sam, I just state general points which I feel are equally valid. We need to stand by our farmers in this country and yes, I have heard the 75% figure banded about around the place, so I’ve stuck with it. I like you, are open to views and each of our own views are quite likely to upset others. This Badger issue has many people divided and that will continue. My reference to the townie was referring to the fact of course that the general public aren’t really switched on to the farmer’s role within the rural community, even if I’m slowly getting there myself. It has taken me many a year to understand how difficult their job is and the role they play for the rest of the population. They don’t want to be animal murderers either and I firmly believe that to be the case. As ever, I’m enjoying our chit-chat and my comments are aimed more widely rather than directly at you. It doesn’t seem to matter what we discuss, controversy will never be far away, GM, Badgers, HS2 and even nature conservation policy isn’t free from it. More to come from me on that over the coming weeks and months, as I learn more. I love science now, even if I hated it at school, all those years ago, I just keep learning.

  4. Pingback: What the British government is doing about bovine tuberculosis | Science on the Land

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