Somerset badger culls may not be enough to halt TB

Whoever believes that “Problems are only solutions in disguise” hasn’t experienced bovine tuberculosis (TB) in their herd and the heart-breaking testing, re-testing and slaughtering of reactors that goes with it. Or had experience of shooting badgers to try to control the spread of the disease.

Thankfully, so far, the Borders and North Northumberland have been virtually clear of infection and entirely clear of authorised badger shooting. But unless some method to first control then eradicate bovine TB is found, whether by more effective badger killing or not, then the dangers of it spreading from TB ‘hotspots’ in parts of Wales and south-west and midland England are always with us.

Not least as in our area and elsewhere in the north and Scotland, enough farmers to be dangerous have brought in cattle from known TB areas, as has happened where other dangerous infectious diseases are concerned. It’s remarkable how some successful, intelligent businessmen can take the short-sighted view that “It won’t happen to us”.

Bovine TB is one of several diseases to prove that the worst can happen to the best managed livestock businesses; last year more than 28,000 cattle were slaughtered in England to try to control TB at a public cost of about £100 million.

The argument about badgers’ part in the bovine TB explosion of the past decade continues. Do badgers spread the infection to cattle or cattle to badgers in the first place? What’s the reason for a quadrupling at least of badger numbers to an estimated more than 900,000 in 30 years? It can’t all be to do with, over the same period, a catastrophic decline in the number of hedgehogs – part of a badger’s diet – from 16 million to less than one million.

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) finally authorised a trial cull of badgers in Somerset this autumn. The badgers have proved extremely difficult to spot and shoot, even for expert marksmen, and while the numbers shot can be calculated precisely the original and revised estimated population for one small area of Britain cast doubt on the overall estimates given above.

In short, we don’t really know how many badgers there are or how much havoc they are really causing by urinating and dunging on grassland. Shooting them might help, but there is a theory that those not shot rapidly move to another area, continuing to spread the problem.

In spite of Defra boss Owen Paterson’s contention that the Somerset shooting cull had been safe, humane and a success, no-one can bet against the problem reaching our area in the next few years. And it won’t be a solution in disguise, it will be a horrible human and animal welfare headache.

Sharp frosts have reminded us that this is autumn and for a few growers of oilseed rape another reminder has been large flocks of migrating geese settling on their fields. I’m not sure how much long-term damage they do, but it’s an unsettling sight.