Bovine TB is a serious problem but it must be remembered that it is a cattle disease. The TB skin test is only 80 per cent sensitive (i.e. accurate in picking out animals that are genuine infected). It misses up to 20 per cent of infected animals and these remain within the herd to continue to spread TB.
For this reason, elsewhere in Europe the test is used only as a herd test and the whole herd will be culled rather than just the individuals found to be positive.
There have been two large increases in Bovine TB in cattle over the years; in the 1990s BSE killed 819,500 cattle. Similarly, in 2001 a foot and mouth outbreak killed over 600,000 cattle and in both cases in the urgency to replace them, cattle were moved around the country even before the TB testing had caught up with the back log.
Lord Krebs who advised on this worrying issue created the randomised badger culling trial (RBCT). This was the largest experiment in the world on bovine TB examining the role that badgers play in infecting cattle. The trial lasted eight years, cost the tax payer over £53m and killed 11,000 badgers. It was overseen by the Independent Scientific Group and peer reviewed and no substantial or respectable body of science have contradicted their conclusions.
Important points from the RBCT conclusions:
"Badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to the future control of cattle TB in Britain."
"Substantial reductions in cattle TB incidence could be achieved by improving cattle-based control measures."
"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."The government is now being selective in what science they choose to believe. They admit that even after nine years of badger culling they can only expect a 12-16 per cent reduction in TB outbreaks in cattle.
In fact they are basing their estimates on the RBCT but there are several large differences:
- They will shoot free-running badgers with high velocity rifles. The badger is a small, compact animal, difficult to shoot cleanly - even the deer trust does not allow shooting at night as it is too dangerous.
- They will be killing for a period of six weeks whereas the RBCT was only killing for 12 days.
- They must kill 70 per cent of the badgers without causing local extinction but the population is unknown (and unsurveyed) so how is this possible?
Science tells us that a cull will increase bovine TB in cattle in the first few years and indeed increase the level of TB in the remaining badger population. This experiment will measure only whether free shooting is humane, effective (at killing enough badgers) and viable (it will not test its effect on bovine TB). Yet wounded badgers will make their way to their setts and never be found.
With approximately 60 shooters required to cover the area of land issued with a licence using ammunition that can travel up to two miles if missing the target, there is a also a safety issue for humans, farm animals and wildlife.
Once more the badger will be the scapegoat for an ill-conceived election promise by both Conservatives and Liberals. This is a purely political act which will potentially kill 130,000 badgers, 85 per cent of which are likely to be healthy.
People must not underestimate the number of farmers that are against the cull of badgers and keen to protect them, believing that vaccination of badgers is the answer. Particularly in the South West where many farmers rely on tourism - in the form, for instance, of holiday homes and farm produce - as means of making their farms viable.