The last instalment of the Brock Wars saga ended with the rebel alliance (led by the Badger Trust) neutralising their opponents’ Death Czar (the Welsh Assembly Government’s Elin Jones) with the recent Appeal Court ruling against badger culling. Inevitably however, there is a sequel to this epic tale. As predictable as ever, the farmers (or at least, those who apparently represent them) are striking back. Let’s leave the Star Wars references behind and look more seriously at these attempts to keep badger culling on the agenda.
There is little new in the farming lobby’s response to what they see as a set-back. The National Beef Association for example, in a press release issued last week, trots out a barrage of arguments which are as familiar as they are inaccurate. They refer to a “rapidly expanding badger and cattle plague” when figures show a decline in TB in cattle and there are no figures at all to show whether the disease in badgers in increasing, declining or staying at the low levels that have previously been found. Then there is the tired old claim that TB “will be spread ever more widely to, at the moment, healthy badger setts” leading to a “huge increase in the number of badgers which … will now die an unpleasant emaciated death from TB.” See my blog post Bovine TB myth #1 for the counter-argument to that.
Another statement made by the NBA is that “Records show that TB erupts among badgers in heavily infected areas when their population is too thick on the ground and immediately reduces when it is thinner after infected badgers are removed.” Yet scientists have shown that there is no simple relationship between the population density of badgers and the level of TB in the species: see for example, Tuberculosis: the disease and its epidemiology in the badger, a review by Chris Cheeseman and colleagues. In addition, Chris Cheeseman (in an article entitled Culling badgers will make TB worse) also states that culling “will actually increase the prevalence of TB in the residual badger population.”
The NBA concludes that “The solution to this problem lies in eradicating the disease in both cattle and the primary source of infection, badgers, for the sake of both species.” This is of course complete nonsense, as the primary source of TB infection in the cattle population is other cattle who have the disease (a disease often missed by the inadequate TB skin test, see this letter to the Western Telegraph). And how does the NBA propose that TB should be eradicated from badgers? By “a targeted cull in limited areas” – a measure which would not only fail to eradicate the disease in badgers, but would help to increase it in cattle!
The NBA is sadly not alone in calling for TB ‘control’ measures which could well make matters worse. The Farmers Union of Wales (FUW) has called for badger culling licences to be issued to cattle producers. It has also called for the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 to be “reviewed with a view to repealing it” on the basis that badger numbers are “extremely high” and that there is “overwhelming evidence showing that badgers are having an adverse impact on other species.” This argument conveniently ignores the devastating impact on wildlife of modern farming practices and gives an indication of the line that some are going to take in their attempts to have badgers killed. (See also my blog post The badgers and the bees.)
In the BBC News report in which the FUW attacks the law protecting badgers, the National Farmers Union of Wales – while expressing the hope that a badger cull will eventually take place – warns farmers against carrying out their own, illegal culls. NFU Wales President Ed Bailey is quoted as saying that if farmers take the law into their own hands “we will lose the public support that we have at the moment” and that “Unless it’s a co-ordinated cull you could in fact be making matters worse.” Recognising the increased risk of badger persecution following its success in the Court of Appeal, and also the likelihood of increased calls for badger protection laws to be relaxed, the Badger Trust has today called for people to be vigilant and to ensure that all incidents of persecution are detected and reported.
Clearly, despite the successful fight against the Welsh badger cull, this is not a time for complacency. The recent judgement in the Court of Appeal placed significant barriers in the way of a future badger cull, but the administrations in charge of agriculture policy in both Wales and England are committed to ‘controlling’ badgers. While Brock remains under threat from the ‘dark side,’ we, the friends of the badgers, must continue to be a force to be reckoned with.