While growing up in South Africa I was fortunate enough to spend many a holiday in the Kruger National Park or similar nature reserves containing the big five and other amazing animals. While I concentrated on getting to know more about African animals, there were three iconic animals that I couldn’t help but love and admire. These three animals were the hedgehog, the fox (the British one with red-orange fur) and the badger. This was probably due to reading English children’s books such as C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series and Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox book. Not only are these creatures adorable to look at but there’s something mystical about them as well, particularly the badger.
Having this admiration for badgers, it was a shock when I became aware of the UK government and British farmers having a mass ongoing culling operation, due to the belief that the badgers are transmitting Bovine Tuberculosis (BTB) to their cattle. What’s more, is that the European badger is a protected species in Britain and Europe but that doesn’t matter if they have BTB. Badgers are not alone with transmitting diseases to domestic livestock. Some examples include wild boar giving pigs swine fever and migratory birds spreading avian influenza to poultry.
Badgers have been around for centuries and are almost mystical in nature.
Badgers are the biggest native carnivore/omnivore in the Uk. They would however be the second biggest had the wolves not been wiped out in the sixteenth century. Badgers live in family groups called a sett. They are nocturnal and live in a den underground with a diet mainly consisting of birds, small mammals, insects and fruit. Badgers have poor eyesight and so rely mainly on their noses. Badgers follow ‘scent lines’ to navigate around the European countryside. The badgers make these lines using a scent gland under their tails, which produces a pungent liquid called musk. They then use their scent lines to locate regular feeding areas. These stocky animals can live in the wild for up to 10 years. Badgers also use communal latrines.
Badgers are an incredible animal and are very important for the British ecosystem.
The Culls History
In April 1971, a dairy farmer brought the dead body of a wild badger found on his land into the local government Animal Health office in Gloucester. A veterinary officer conducted a post-mortem examination of the animal. He described pathological lesions caused by tuberculosis and identified its causal bacterium, Mycobacterium Bovis, in fluids taken from the badger’s lymph glands. The diagnosis was later confirmed by scientists at the government’s Central Veterinary Laboratory and was immediately transferred to other officials and experts within the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Within four years this individual had initiated a major research programme into ‘TB in cattle and badgers’, involving parallel laboratory, clinical, experimental and field investigations, all conducted by Ministry scientists and field officers. They concluded that it was TB.
In 2013 the England government started a culling operation to decrease the number of badgers in the countryside limiting the spread of BTB.
Badgers have become scape goats for the BTB disease.
Despite a public outcry and British wildlife groups condemned, however, the English government keep opening up new areas to cull with larger quotas set. As it stands now in the year 2021, 75,930 badgers are planned to be killed across 61 cull zones in 20 counties in England. Since the beginning of the cull 200,000 badgers have been killed. Professional hunters are recruited usually in the Autumn/Winter period and go out in the cloak of darkness to shoot the badgers which have been caught in preset baited cages. At the beginning of the cull, all the information was displayed publicly however anti-cull protesters clashed with hunters. From then on, it’s been a very secretive affair and mostly hidden from the public eye. The prediction is that the badger cull will continue for the next four to five years.
Listening to a podcast that included top scientists and conservationists, it was concluded that culling badgers will not cure the disease. Researchers state that 95 per cent of cattle which get infected are infected by other cattle herds. Yes, there is evidence that badgers can spread it as well, however, it is spread mainly by cattle to cattle rather than badger to cattle. The number of cattle moved around the country in 2019 equated to 4,5 million with 14,5 thousand cattle being moved from a high-risk BTB area to a low BTB area.
Most BTB infections are from cow to cow not badger to cow.
If several badgers are killed in a set in one area the survivors will move out of that area in search of other badgers. Or other badgers may move into that empty area to expand their territory. This then spreads the disease rather than localising it.
A similar example can be seen in South Africa with black-backed jackals. The jackals are shot on farmland because they predate on sheep and poultry. When the dominant jackal has been killed a new jackal or new pair of jackals will enter the open territory thus continuing the cycle of eating and killing. When the jackals aren’t shot, they defend their territory from other jackals, limiting the number of livestock killed.
Black backed jackal persecution has the same result as badger culling.
Another problem caused by removing badgers out of the area is that like jackals, foxes move into those abandoned territories. The foxes then target the ground-nesting birds and can cause bird species to decline. This in turn results in fox culling. I know, crazy right.
BTB is not just isolated to cattle and badgers. There are a variety of other animals that can carry BTB as well. If culling was the answer, which it’s not, we would have to empty the entire British countryside of wildlife to eradicate BTB. So, by now you must be thinking, but what about a vaccine? Well (drum roll) there is a vaccine.
The vaccine rollout for badgers is very labour intensive and costs just about as much as the actual culling does. The vaccination process is underfunded and what’s more, the government in some circumstances have issued cull licenses to areas where the badgers have already been vaccinated. Research into a cattle BTB vaccine is ongoing but slow.
Badger being vaccinated.
To begin with, it has been established that there are too many cattle in the UK. However, not all British farmers should be seen as the bad guy in all of this. In one camp there are the pro culling supporters, and in the other camp are the conservationists and pro-vaccination supporters. At the end of the day, both types of farmers want the best for his or her cattle. Hundreds of thousands of cattle are killed each year in Britain because they test positive for BTB and thus are unfit for human consumption. That’s a lot of potential money lost to the farmer who in normal circumstances doesn’t make a lot of money, to begin with anyway.
Farmers are continually under pressure to keep their cattle safe from infection.
As said before, Autumn and winter is culling season. Conservationists will be approaching farmers, urging them to have permission to vaccinate the badgers in the area. At the same time, pro culling lobbyists will be approaching these same farmers urging them to kill the badgers that live in the surrounding areas. This can become quite a challenge as some farmers can be open-minded about vaccinating while others are stubborn and prefer the culling method.
In high-risk areas, cattle should be tested every six months while in low-risk areas, they only need to be tested every four years. This is a very stressful time for farmers and some conservationist and scientists have seen farmers cry openly in public when they discover that the herd or members of the herd has tested positive. This stress is not a once-off thing as it may happen again in another three years’ time.
Moving cattle around the UK is the biggest spreader of BTB infections.
The vaccine for badgers is the same used for cows as well as humans. However, to make matters worse a cow that is immune to BTB because it’s been vaccinated will test positive on the current test for BTB. The difficulty for farmers is distinguishing the difference between an infected and vaccinated cow. If a cow tests positive before it is sold but the farmer swears it has been vaccinated, this can cause problems. The government has stated that they have come up with a more reliable test but this remains to be seen.
The badger cull is a complex issue with a mixture of political, scientific and an emotional problem. Although the UK governments plan is to stop culling badgers by 2025, it remains to be seen what actually might happen. The saying that goes “If it pays, it stays” is fitting here as cows are more profitable than badgers and thus badgers are left with the short straw. According to Domonic Dyer, the CEO of the Badger Trust. Says that there is change happening and more MPs are moving the way of vaccination and not culling. At the end of the day, the issue lies with cattle and how cattle are managed across England. Every year more and more badgers are culled for a cause that they may contribute about ten per cent towards the issue anyway.
The fate of the badger remains to be seen.
Wild Live: The badger cull.2020. YouTube
TGS. The Badger Cull. 2020. YouTube.
Cassidy, A. (2019). Vermin, Victims and Disease: British Debates over Bovine Tuberculosis and Badgers. In Vermin, Victims and Disease: British Debates over Bovine Tuberculosis and Badgers. Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-19186-3
Ham, C., Donnelly, C. A., Astley, K. L., Jackson, S. Y. B., & Woodroffe, R. (2019). Effect of culling on individual badger Meles meles behaviour: Potential implications for bovine tuberculosis transmission. Journal of Applied Ecology, 56(11), 2390–2399. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.13512