A matter of life and death

“I don’t believe it. Prove it to me, and I still won’t believe it.” These words were written by the late Douglas Adams, author of the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. However they could just as easily have been written by the Welsh Assembly Government’s Rural Affairs Minister Elin Jones or its Chief Vet Dr Christianne Glossop. Neither seem capable of believing that bovine TB in cattle can be controlled without killing large numbers of badgers. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence showing that killing badgers is not only unnecessary but could also be counter-productive, Jones and Glossop have pressed ahead with their plans for a so-called pilot cull in Wales.

A news release confirming that the cull will target badgers primarily in north Pembrokeshire was issued in January this year. In it, Elin Jones stated: “We know that cattle and badgers are the main sources of the disease and that, if we want to achieve our aim of eradicating bovine TB, we have to tackle the disease in both species.” Actually, we don’t. Following the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) in England, the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB (ISG) concluded in their final report that “badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain.” They also found that cattle control measures could “reverse the increasing trend in cattle disease incidence that has been a feature in GB for decades.” Just this week in fact, it has been reported that bovine TB infections fell during 2009. This has been achieved solely through improvements in cattle-based TB control measures as no badger culling has taken place since the end of the RBCT.

Elin Jones also stated in her news release that: “The approach we will be taking in the pilot area, carrying out a badger cull alongside strict cattle controls, has not been tried before in the UK. However, it is proving successful in countries like New Zealand, where wild possums and cattle are the main sources of infection.” This is, quite frankly, one of the most ridiculous arguments in favour of the planned cull that I have ever read. Badgers are not possums. They have a complex social system which is disrupted by culls like the one planned by Elin Jones and it is this which makes those culls only marginally effective – or worse.

Back in February some of the scientists who had been involved in the evaluation of the RBCT published further evidence showing that badger culls are not cost effective. They also pointed out that culling badgers could in fact increase rather than reduce the number of cattle with TB. In defending the planned Pembrokeshire cull Dr Christianne Glossop relied on the argument that the Welsh cull will be different, so different as to “prevent true comparison” with previous culls carried out in Britain. “We are confident of a much longer-term success rate as a result,” Glossop said. The basis for her confidence is difficult to pin down but would appear to involve crossing fingers rather than listening to reliable scientific advice.

Another critic of the Welsh Assembly Government’s badger killing plans is Dr Chris Cheeseman, the recently retired Head of Wildlife Diseases at the Central Science Laboratory. He spent much of his 42 year career as a wildlife ecologist studying bovine TB in badgers. In a radio broadcast in February, and again in an article published last Monday in the South Wales Evening Post, he has branded the decision to go ahead with a badger cull as perverse. In his newspaper article Dr Cheeseman says: “To put in place improved cattle control measures is sensible and necessary, but the scientific evidence shows that badger culling could make things worse.” He also questions “the sense of a disease control initiative that can be guaranteed to geographically spread the disease” and concludes by saying: “How anyone can contemplate doing something that might make the situation worse is beyond me.”

Responding to Dr Cheeseman’s original radio broadcast, Dr Glossop said “the policy we’ve developed has the support of the British Cattle Veterinary Association and the British Veterinary Association, and that’s good enough for me.” In the case of bovine TB however, the vets are simply out of their depth. As the ISG said in its aforementioned final report: “It is unfortunate that agricultural and veterinary leaders continue to believe, in spite of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, that the main approach to cattle TB control must involve some form of badger population control.”

This coming week sees an important development in fight to stop the Welsh badger cull. On Monday and Tuesday (22nd and 23rd March) the High Court, sitting in Swansea, will hear arguments relating to the legality of the cull. The judicial review is being brought by the Badger Trust, which will ask the Court to quash the TB Eradication (Wales) Order 2009 under which the cull is authorised. The Trust’s case is summarised in a news release issued by law firm Bindmans LLP.

Up to now, the response of Elin Jones and Christianne Glossop to arguments against badger culling could be summarised as “La, la, la, we’re not listening.” I hope that the High Court can be relied upon to take a more serious approach to this complex matter. I hope too that readers of this blog will make a donation to the Badger Trust’s legal costs. After all, for the badgers, this is a matter of life and death.

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