The closest most of us get to a badger is when we drive past a dead one splattered on a public road and I hate to see any animal killed like that, even pestilential rabbits.
But many livestock farmers, particularly those with dairy herds, in some parts of England and Wales would like to see many more dead badgers because they blame them for spreading tuberculosis (TB) in cattle.
If that disease is found in even one animal in a herd during regular veterinary tests, the infected animals are slaughtered and sale and movement restrictions are enforced. More than 25,000 cows confirmed with TB were slaughtered last year – and badgers were blamed for at least half of those infections – and financial losses can be high.
The argument about whether killing badgers would reduce the incidence of bovine TB, especially in so-called hot spots such as south-west England and Wales, has gone on for more than a decade. Results from killing badgers in government-run trials – by trapping, then shooting – proved inconclusive and the debate continued.
As the north of England and Scotland have been relatively free of bovine TB – in spite of the lunatic efforts of some farmers to bring the disease into these areas by buying cattle from TB hotspots – shooting badgers has not been an issue here.
Testing cattle before and after movement into Scotland has been made more rigorous.
But TB cases in the worst areas continue to increase and the disease continues to spread.
It now seems that the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will authorise farmers to shoot badgers, something for which at present they can be prosecuted. “Free” shooting would cost an estimated £200 per square kilometre of an infected area compared with about £2,500 for trapping and shooting, so look no further for its attraction.
There are many arguments for and against killing badgers. One, from animal welfare and specialist badger groups, is the contentious one that they do not spread bovine TB. Specifically against free shooting is the possibility that badgers might not be killed, but wounded and either die slowly and painfully or, an extension to the argument, be driven by pain and fear away from their setts into other, possibly previously uninfected, areas.
Those in favour of shooting insist that badgers spread bovine TB, that the national badger population is estimated at 600,000 and increasing, that only 5,000 a year might be shot and that they are not at all like their cuddly image as presented in generations of books for children.
Anyone who has seen a badger close up, alive or dead or, of course, on television’s Springwatch, appreciates that. They are powerful, brave, thickset, animals that can defend themselves ferociously if attacked; that is why we still get bloodthirsty morons digging them out to fight dogs.
Whether they should be shot in thousands to thelp control a disease that scientific evidence has not yet completely confirmed they cause is another matter. But I don’t have dairy cattle with TB in an infected area with a big badger population.
With or without killing badgers, it would be good to think that bovine TB might eventually be eradicated. Remember that it almost was once. Then again, so was sheep scab, until it made its comeback in the early 1970s and has once again become endemic.
However, the recent announcement by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) that rinderpest has been eradicated shows what is possible. Luckily, as is often the case thanks to Britain’s geographical position, rinderpest – German for “cattle plague” – was not found here. In Africa, Mongolia and Arabia it could wipe out herds.
As the last known case was in Kenya in 2001, it has been declared eradicated.
As the epizoote which caused rinderpest is a relative of the measles virus Dr Juan Labroth, chief veterinary officer with FAO, took the chance to emphasise the importance of his profession: “The role of veterinarians in protecting society is underappreciated – we do more than just take care of fleas on cats and vaccinate dogs.”
I can think of a few practising vets who would agree with that. We’ll have to see whether bovine TB will eventually follow rinderpest into the history books. Judging by the present slaughter rate for infected cattle, a cavalier attitude by some livestock farmers to prevention and the continued debate about badgers – cause or scapegoat? – it won’t be any time soon.
It should be sooner for bovine spongiform encephalitis (BSE), the brain infection that at one time threatened the British cattle industry with a peak of 37,000 cases in 1992 and a total of infected cattle so far of more than 183,000.
But Scotland was BSE-free in 2009, 2010 and so far 2011, and it can be assumed that almost all cattle of the generation most likely to have contacted BSE from infected feed are dead. That has been recognised by increasing the age of cattle tested for BSE from 48 to 72 months from the first of this month. Every eased restriction is one more step forward on a long road.