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Is the badger a scapegoat?

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Badgers are being blamed for spreading bovine TB but are they being used as scapegoats?

Professor John Bourne ( Chair of the Independent Scientific Group (ISG) on bovine TB) stated (AVTRW looks at the science of TB Vet Rec. 2008 162: 571-572):

‘I think the most interesting observation was made to me by a senior politician who said, “fine John we accept your science, but we have to offer the farmers a carrot. And the only carrot we can possibly give them is culling badgers”.’

Badgers are being blamed for spreading bovine TB but are they being used as scapegoats? Is there now too much emphasis and too many resources being channelled into the cattle/badger link, at the expense of finding a proper and long-term, lasting solution for farmers? One just has to look at the forum entitled 'Wildlife Reservoirs' on this site to see just how much more debate there is about the badger compared to any other issue - and this site was set up to try and focus on the other issues.

The benefits of a cull are said to be limited and short-lived (ref. 1). Shouldn’t the government and NFU, instead, be concentrating all its money and efforts into an alternative, easier, more reliable vaccination and ancillary test programme for cattle and get a derogation from the EU so this can be implemented as a matter of urgency?

Common sense would suggest that it is likely that as TB is so endemic in the environment and it is such a very ancient disease, badgers have always been susceptible – some will succumb to disease, most will not or become resistant. Badgers will search for beetles and other insects in cow pats. Such pats may contain the bacteria that causes bTB. Slurry too may contain the bacteria too. Badgers may well forage where slurry, mixed with milk from reactors, is spread (yes, this IS one of DEFRA’s suggestions (ref 2) for disposing of milk from reactors, as this milk is not allowed to be put into the food chain). It is therefore not surprising that some badgers become exposed to the bacteria. So whilst bTB is in cattle, it is likley to be in badgers (and other mammals) too.

TB bacteria can survive in the soil for months (ref. 3)(particularly in cool, damp conditions). DEFRA confirms that slurry can contain the bacteria and so poses a risk of spreading disease, so why are there still so many streams and watercourses where slurry pollution is still a problem? And, although illegal, there are also still cases where waste milk is poured into streams, another potential source of infection.

Whilst the primary host of bovine TB is cattle, the organism has been isolated from a wide range of species, including deer, pigs, sheep, horses, alpacas, dogs, cats, moles, mice and rats. There is currently little active surveillance in the UK of bovine TB in other mammals. These species are usually referred to as ‘spillover' or 'dead end' hosts as they are not believed to be involved in sustaining the disease. However, this is only an assumption as research to date has concentrated only on the badger. Cats (estimated populations of well over 1 million feral and 7.5 million domestic pets – ref 4) and around 60 million rats (ref 5), in particular, are far more numerous than badgers (around 288,000 – ref 6) and likely to live in closer proximity to cattle. Cats are more likely to drink raw milk from dairy cows. Apparently (ref. 7) ‘all mammals, including cats, are susceptible to the disease to a varying degree; cats can contract the causative bacteria (M bovis) if they come into close contact with the source of infection’ (so can presumably spread it). There have been cases of other domestic animals, such as goats and alpacas that have become infected with bovine TB. Whilst such incidents are still rare the Welsh Assembly government has ploughed ahead for power to enter land for the purpose of testing cattle, sheep, goats, other ruminants and swine for bovine TB (ref 8).

Previous culling experiments, scientific evidence and commissioned reports have advised that badger culling is not the answer and are poor value for money. The perturbation effect can even make matters worse outside cull boundaries. The cull proposed for Pembrokeshire aimed to kill all badgers in the targeted area over a five year period, yet the majority of these badgers are claimed to be healthy. In order to undertake the badger cull in Pembrokeshire, WAG gave itself draconian powers of entry. Some believe these powers are a serious infringement of basic human rights and civil liberties, thereby creating a dangerous precedent. The cull area even includes a well known nature reserve with active setts where the public are able to watch badgers. The reserve has water buffalo that are regularly tested and are clear of TB, so why risk the inevitable public outcry of destroying badgers in an area where TB is not a problem? It is said that the outcome of any cull will not be known for many years and then any results are likely to be difficult to assess properly because of the other measures being proposed alongside the cull. Will culling wildlife bring any immediate or even long-term benefits for cattle owners?

It is clear that the WAG did not properly consider the possible indirect repercussions from the cull in Pembrokeshire and underestimated the opposition and public outcry that has ensued, particularly when it became clear to people that it was not supported fully by scientific evidence and could even have detrimental effects on the Welsh tourism and food industries. The badger is a much loved British mammal . The group leading the opposition to the Welsh cull, is the Pembrokeshire Against the Cull (ref 9).

The Badger Trust, the organisation that campaigns for the protection of the badger, launched its judicial review against the Welsh Assembly Government's decision for the mass cull in Pembrokeshire. This was lost on 16 April 2010 when the High Court ruled that the Welsh Ministers did have the discretionary power to carry out a cull. The judgment (Badger Trust, R (on the application of ) v The Welsh Ministers (2010) EWHC 768 (Admin) 16 April 2010) did state, though, that 'it is not for this court to substitute its views as to the appropriate strategies for combatting bovine TB. This case is solely about the legality of the Minister's Decision to make the Order'. One key aspect of the judicial review related to the predicted reductions (6-9%) in TB breakdowns as a result of the proposed culling of badgers. The court decided that the 6-9% was indeed 'substantial', ie being 'more than insignificant or trivial'. However, the Badger Trust obtained authority to appeal against this decision. This appeal was heard on 30th June 2010 in Cardiff before Lord Justice Pill, Lady Justice Smith and Lord Justice Stanley. At the start of the day, there were two grounds of appeal by the Badger Trust to be considered. These were that the judge erred in law in holding:

1) That 'substantially reduce' in section 21 (2) (b) of the Animal Health Act 1981 meant simply a reduction that was 'more than merely minor or trivial'

2) That, once it arose, the discretion to make an order under section 21(2) could lawfully be exercised without considering the balance between the extent of the benefit in disease terms and the extent of the killing of wild animals required to achieve it. 

On the 13th July the Court of Appeal handed down judgment which concluded the the proposed badger cull for Wales was unlawful. The Badger Trust successfully argued that the High Court made an error of law in holding:

1. That the words 'substantially reduce' in section 21(2)(b) of the Animal Health Act 1981 meant simply any reduction in TB that was 'more than merely minor or trivial' 2. That, once it arose, the discretion to make an order under section 21(2) could lawfully be exercised without the Minister doing any balancing act to consider the harm involved (i.e. killing over 2,000 badgers) against the potential benefit (which the Minister's own model predicted to be a reduction in the rate of cattle herd breakdowns of just 0.3% of farms annually). 3. And, in addition (this third point was raised at the hearing following questions from one of the three judges and allowed to be included), the Trust argued that the Ministers erred in making an Order for the whole of Wales having only consulted on the basis of the Pembrokeshire IAPA and on the basis of evidence which, at best, supported culling in the IAPA only. The Welsh Ministers conceded the appeal by reference to this point and the court unanimously agreed that it rendered the Order unlawful notwithstanding their findings on the first two points.

In respect of 3 above paragraph 104 of the judgement is of particular significance:

'104. Moreover, if the contention of the Minister as to the possible extent of the area of an order made under section 21 were correct, Parliament would have authorised the making of a statutory instrument providing for the extinction of a protected species in the whole of England and Wales on account of a small reduction in the incidence of a disease. This is so unlikely and unreasonable an intention to attribute to Parliament that it cannot be right. I do not think that the importance of reducing the incidence of bovine TB affects this.'

Giving the lead judgment, Lord Justice Pill, one of the three judges who determined the appeal, sounded a warning to the Welsh Assembly Ministers when he said that [para 72]: “It is not open to the Welsh Assembly Government immediately to make a fresh Order in the same terms but covering only the IAPA [Intensive Action Pilot Area] and to proceed forthwith with a badger cull there.”

A letter printed in the Guardian on 16 July 2010 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/jul/16/badger-culls-more-difficult) from Gwendolen Morgan (Bindmans), the Solicitor acting for the Badger Trust said "I acted on behalf of the Badger Trust in its appeal against the proposed badger cull in Wales. In fact, the implications of the judgment go much further than your report suggests (Appeal court quashes badger cull, 14 July). The court ruled that not only had the order permitting the cull been drawn too widely, but that the Welsh ministers had also acted unlawfully in misinterpreting section 21 of the Animal Health Act 1981 as giving them power to cull if they could achieve a reduction in TB which was "merely more than trivial or insignificant". They also unlawfully failed to carry out a balancing exercise to weigh up the harm involved (ie killing over 2,000 badgers) against the potential benefit – which the minister's own model predicted to be a reduction in the rate of cattle herd breakdowns of just 0.3% of farms annually.

This means that a minister contemplating any future cull will have to overcome a series of hurdles thrown up by the judgment. These include having to have robust scientific evidence to prove that a cull would substantially reduce disease in livestock and then conscientiously balance this against the potential harm to wildlife. The Badger Trust hopes that Defra will now be led by the science, which all points towards a combined approach of vaccination and cattle controls as the most effective and economic solution."

Wales' chief vet, Dr Christiane Glossop, who is advising on the proposed badger cull in Pembrokeshire, admitted that officials had found evidence of bovine TB in areas of Wales where badgers do not appear to be infected and even in areas where there are known to be very few badgers (Anglesey). "(There is) every indication that these new breakdowns are the result of cattle movements," she said. "Farmers know that. They understand that part of the disease equation here is about circulating infection within cattle herds and between cattle herds."Source: BBC News

Interestingly despite the Welsh Assembly Government's (WAG)'s controversial proposed cull of badgers, which was due to start in Pembrokeshire 2010, being declared illegal on 13 July 2010 following the legal challenge by the Badger Trust, WAG subsequently started another public consultation (http://wales.gov.uk/consultations/environmentandcountryside/consbadgercontrol/?lang=en) for a similar compulsory badger cull in Pembrokeshire (closing 17/12/10). It has now clearly defined the area. England are recommending a farmer-led cull or vaccination of badgers. This too is out for consultation (closing 8/12/10) (www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/consult/tb-control-measures/index.htm). There was still massive public opposition to badger culling but it was not until there was a shift in power from Plaid Cymru to Labour at the Welsh Assembly that the culling plans were finally abandoned and instead badgers are now being vaccinated in the Intensive Action Area.

Despite an overwhelming response to a public consultation in England, opposing badger culling, the Coalition government ignored results and are proceeding with a trial cull of badgers. The shooting is being paid for by the farmers but the periphery costs, such as policing, will be publicly funded. The Badger Trust launched a judicial review to try and stop the culls. It failed, even at appeal. Provisional licenses have now been agreed for the two cull areas and it is understood shooting will start in late autumn 2012. As public opposition grows (in just a month around 150,000 signed a Government e petition to try and stop the culling) and many are threatening to take direct action when the shooting starts, it is not known what will happen. It is likely police costs will escalate, public safety will be an issue and the farmers involved will be the ones to suffer the consequences - the same farmers that have suffered so much already as a result of the existing policy.

Ref 1. www.bindmans.com/index.php?id=725
Doubts linger over wisdom of Welsh badger cull despite rejection of judicial review, press release 6/4/2010
Ref 2. Dealing with bovine TB in your herd (last updated May 2008) – DEFRA booklet.
Dealing with bovine TB in your herd (last updated May 2008) – DEFRA booklet
Ref 3. Badgers and Bovine TB
BADGERS & BOVINE TUBERCULOSIS Last Updated: 25th June 2007
Ref 4. Cats, facts and figures
Pet Food Manufacturers Association (PFMA) statistics
Ref 5. Rats threaten to engulf streets
Ref 6. Information about badgers
Ref 7. What steps had been taken to identify whether TB is carried by cats?
Ref 8. Testing requirements for other animals.
Gwlad special edition Bovine TB, Summer 2009
Ref 9. Pembrokeshire Against the Cull

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