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Has the badger become a scapegoat?

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A Scandalous Falsehood

The Ecologist

1st September 2013

Former Queen guitarist and now animal advocate Brian May explains why the culling of badgers is not a solution to Bovine TB in cows

There is not a single scientist in Britain in this field who believes we should be culling badgers

Can you tell us a bit about the SAVE ME campaign?

Our campaign aims to bring about the better treatment of wild animals. Of course we care about all creatures but our main focus is the plight of the creatures of our countryside, who are so mistreated and abused and regarded as expendable. I believe that these animals have as much right to live decent lives free from unnecessary suffering as we do. I'm convinced that if the general public really knew just how appallingly some of these innocent animals are treated, there would be a massive outcry.

You're strongly in favour of the Hunting Act. Why is that?

The Hunting Act was a first and important step towards eradicating cruelty from the countryside. It has been the most successful piece of animal welfare legislation ever - but it is, of course, held in contempt by the perpetrators of the crime and widely flouted on private land by fox-hunters who think they are above the law. Unfortunately we are in the hands of a government that is almost entirely pro-hunt; completely out of touch with the will of the majority of British people. We need to resist very strongly the attempts being made to hurl Britain back into barbarity.

A powerful minority of detractors say the Act doesn't work.
The Hunting Act was given a bad start by Tony Blair, who not only didn't make it to the vote, but - as he admitted in his autobiography - effectively told his ministers not to enforce it properly! There are many, in positions of power, who have - by turning a blind eye - committed a crime themselves. It suits this present government to call the law ‘unworkable' and pretend the issues are unclear. But in fact, even in this climate of animal disrespect, many prosecutions have been successfully achieved, so the argument that because a law isn't working well enough it should be scrapped is completely specious. Can we imagine a similar argument about a law protecting children from abuse?

Did you ever imagine you would become an advocate for Britain's wildlife?

I have felt passionately about respect for animals all my life but it was the last election that called me to arms because I realised we were about to get a government that would try to bring back bloodsports. I decided to try and spread this knowledge as widely as possible through a campaign of information.

The government's plans for a badger cull are looming; why is this ethically untenable?

The issue is complex, but not as complex as the government would like us to believe. Quite simply there is not a single scientist in Britain in this field who believes we should be culling badgers - except the few in the employment of the government in DEFRA. That fact alone should make everyone smell a rat. The only long-term possibility of eradicating the disease is vaccination of badgers and eventually cows too.
But the extreme end of the NFU (which is very close to the extreme end of the Conservative party, who are in control right now) have been committed to killing badgers for a long time - as a symbolic gesture - and have now managed to make it look like their plan is backed by science. This is a scandalous falsehood.

I believe that the Environment Minister, Caroline Spelman, will have to abandon this policy at some point (just as she was forced to abandon her irrational plan to sell off our forests) because ultimately the farmers, who in the short term will lose popularity with the public as a result of this violent plan, will understand the cull cannot possibly produce a significant improvement in their situation and realise they have been betrayed.

And the very last argument for culling instead of vaccinating has also now disappeared because it is now clear that, per hectare, the cull will cost more than a vaccination programme.

What sort of suffering would a cull entail for badgers?

The plan is to license marksmen to shoot badgers in the dark, after they've been lured away from their setts. Badgers have very thick skins, and run very fast when disturbed. It's inevitable that some wounded animals will escape - suffering lingering deaths, and, if they are infected, carrying disease to neighbouring areas. This effect is called perturbation, and it's the reason the scientists who conducted the RBCT trial - which involved the killing of 11,000 badgers - advised against a cull. The government is ignoring the conclusion of the trial, which was, and still is: "Culling badgers can make no meaningful contribution to the control of Bovine TB in cows."

Is the badger being scapegoated for problems that are really the result of the appalling conditions inside the intensive dairy industry?

It's certain that bad farming practices in the past have allowed this disease to proliferate, and subsequently to infect surrounding wildlife. There are also many responsible farmers who have tightened up their biosecurity, working to treat their animals so that they are not so stressed and keeping their herds healthy. But there have been cases revealed recently of farmers illegally swapping identity tags in order to keep reactor cows in the herd, and some cases of the movement of animals from bovine TB hotspot areas into healthy areas, producing new infections. Clearly there is a lot that could still be done to lessen cow-to-cow spread of the disease.

Is the government just paying lip-service to a ‘solution' in order to avoid upsetting farmers by calling for radical change in the welfare standards of farmed animals?

I believe the cull is a political decision. Farmers played a big role in getting this government elected, and there is no doubt that the pressure on current ministers to deliver actions on election promises to farmers is enormous.

There is also no doubt that if we all stopped eating meat and drinking milk, this problem - this disease - would disappear. It's a sobering thought. But what are the hopes of educating a whole population that vegetarianism is the way forward? I certainly believe it is, for so many reasons, and in the future there will come a time when the human race will have to abandon eating animal products. But it will take time. In the meantime we need to combat this disease using common sense and respect for all the animals we breed in conditions that actually amount to slavery.

This policy is a pernicious distraction from the real task of eradicating the disease by vaccination. Even in the most optimistic estimates of DEFRA, culling our badgers can only deliver at best a 16% improvement over a period of five years - a paltry amount, with no guarantee about what will happen after that period. And estimates from independent researchers indicate that the improvement will probably be much less, and may even produce a worsening of the situation.
The government needs to be pouring all available resources into making vaccination work and that is primarily what we are campaigning for.

Brian May is the founder of SAVE ME. www.save-me.org.uk

Image of European Badger courtesy of www.shutterstock.com

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