Badgers are charismatic, black-and-white striped mammals which share their scientific family with otters, weasels and ferrets, and are protected in the UK under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 (Bennett & Willis, 2008). They live in underground setts, some of which have been found to extend from 20-100m or more, with the largest in the UK having over 50 entrances (Badger Trust). This post is going to look at the controversial topic of badger culling in the UK, the process of reducing badger population to control the spread of Bovine TB, a significant threat to British cattle.
Bovine Tuberculosis is a disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium bovis. In cattle, it is a contagious respiratory disease that can potentially also infect goats, pigs, dogs and even humans. The bacteria can spread rapidly through a herd of cattle through respiratory transmission (Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs). Badgers have been suggested to be an important wildlife reservoir for the disease, and a source of transmission to British cattle (Bennett & Wilson, 2008): badgers infect cattle through contact with them, resulting in cattle being slaughtered: it is estimated that around 30,000 cattle are slaughtered every year due to the disease (Horton, 2020).
In the UK, government spending on culling badgers to control the spread of Bovine TB is huge: since it began in 2013, £40 million has been spent killing badgers, or an estimated £1000 per badger (Black, 2018). But is badger culling really an effective way of controlling bovine TB?
The most significant piece of scientific evidence around badger culling came from the government supported Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT). This project was designed to determine the benefits of badger culling in controlling Bovine TB, and involved trials of “proactive”, “reactive” or no culling across large areas between 1998-2005 (Donnelly et al., 2007). The final report found that “badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain”, and that whilst widespread culling reduced TB incidence inside culled areas, it caused behavioural changes in badgers which led to an increase in bacterial transmission between cattle and badgers outside the culling zone (Donnelly et al., 2007). The RBCT also found that only 5.7% of TB outbreaks can be linked to badgers, and that 80% of the 11,000 badgers culled across the study period did not have TB (Badger Trust).
“Our findings confirm that infectious contact between badgers and cattle is related to badger density in a manner that is strongly non-linear.” – Donnelly et al., 2007
A number of scientific studies indicate that culling badgers is only a successful control on the spread of bovine tuberculosis if it is widespread and repeated. But what does the public think of this approach? In 2008, Bennett & Willis conducted a survey into public opinion around badger culling, using interviews and value analysis to determine the thoughts of 400 participants. According to the study, 83% of the respondents agreed that “badgers are an important wildlife species in Britain”, but over half also agreed that active management of badger population is necessary. Although people were in favour of managing badger populations, they were also against a cull: 87% agreed that badger populations should be controlled without killing them, and 73% directly objected to the cull (Bennett & Willis, 2008).
Another study investigated the ethical side of badger culling. In their study, which asked “would a virtuous government kill Mr Badger?” (a reference to the wise but gruff character in Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows”), McCulloch and Reiss (2017) looked at the UK government’s response to the findings outlined in the RBCT in terms of ethics and morality. They found that the government was not necessarily prioritising justice through undertaking badger culling, writing:
“Justice is the first virtue of government, and the analysis has found badger culling to be problematic in this context. Based on government figures of achieving a 19% reduction bovine TB incidence over 9 years, around 85,000 badgers will be culled to prevent the slaughter of approximately 18,000 cattle. This translates to around five badgers culled for each cow that avoids slaughter. Furthermore, whereas slaughtering ~18,000 cattle involves killing 0.33% of the baseline cattle population, culling ~85,000 badgers involves killing 38.6% of the baseline badger population.” – McCulloch & Reiss, 2017
The point they make in this research is clear: it is unfair to cull these animals when the science is saying that there are unintended consequences (such as the behavioural perturbation of badgers outside the culling zone, Donnelly et al. 2007), the cost of culling is so dramatically high (with control of the disease expected to cost taxpayers £1bn over the next decade, McCulloch & Reiss, 2017), when badgers already have a much lower population, meaning a greater proportion will be lost, and when there are more cost-effective alternatives available (such as focusing on cattle-based solutions as the RBCT recommended). One alternative to culling is badger vaccination. A Derbyshire Wildlife Trust trial in 2018 found that vaccinating a badger would cost £82, compared to killing it, which would cost £339 (Wildlife and Countryside Link, 2018). Vaccination could deliver a range of benefits: it prevents an iconic species from being threatened, needlessly killed or killed in an inhumane way; it saves taxpayers and farmers money to control the spread of Bovine TB; and it is a more effective way of controlling the disease in badgers, and therefore its transmission to cattle.
Earlier this year, the UK government announced plans to trial a vaccine for badgers over the next 5 years, and has committed to gradually phasing out intensive culling. Yet Environmental Secretary George Eustice still claimed that the legacy of badger culling has led to a “significant reduction in disease”, despite concrete evidence against it (Ghosh, 2019). For now, it seems we might soon see an end to badger culling in the UK. Until then, engage in discussions on the topic and appreciate the wonderful creatures which we get to share our planet with.
Badger Trust (n.d.) The Badger Cull. [online] Available at: https://www.badgertrust.org.uk/cull (Accessed: 10/06/2020)
Bennett, R.M. & Willis, K.G. (2008) Public values for badgers, bovine TB reduction and management strategies. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 51(4), pp.511-523
Black, G. (2018) After spending £40m, the government’s new badger cull review appears to confirm what opponents have said all along. [online] Available at: https://www.thecanary.co/discovery/2018/11/13/after-spending-40m-the-governments-new-badger-cull-review-appears-to-confirm-what-opponents-have-said-all-along/ (Accessed: 10/06/2020)
Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (n.d.) What is Bovine Tuberculosis (TB)? [online] Available at: https://www.daera-ni.gov.uk/articles/what-bovine-tuberculosis-tb (Accessed: 10/06/2020)
Donnelly, C.A., Wei, G., Johnston, W.T., Cox, D.R., Woodroffe, R., Bourne, F.J., Cheeseman, C.L., Clifton-Hadley, R.S., Gettinby, G., Gilks, P.& Jenkins, H.E. (2007) Impacts of widespread badger culling on cattle tuberculosis: concluding analyses from a large-scale field trial. International Journal of Infectious Diseases, 11(4), pp.300-308
Ghosh, P. (2019) Badger culls have varying impacts on cattle TB. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.yk/nred/science-environment-50005580 (Accessed: 10/06/2020)
Horton, H. (2020) Badger culls to be phased out in fabour of vaccinations, Government announces. [online] Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/03/05/badger-culls-phased-favour-vaccinations-government-announces/ (Accessed: 10/06/2020)
McCulloch, S.P. & Reiss, M.J. (2017) Bovine Tuberculosis policy in England: would a virtuous government Cull Mr Badger?. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 30(4), pp.551-563