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The social structure of badger families is perturbed by the loss of a single member, and this can cause the spread of any TB they may be harbouring. Photo: Tim Brookes via Flickr.
The social structure of badger families is perturbed by the loss of a single member, and this can cause the spread of any TB they may be harbouring. Photo: Tim Brookes via Flickr.
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HSI calls on farmers - 'go badger-friendly' to control bovine TB

Lesley Docksey

10th June 2014

Following new research showing that even culling a single badger from a family can cause a 'perturbation' that spreads TB, a new call has gone out on farmers to give up on culling, and 'go badger friendly' to control the disease.

Killing badgers is not an effective way of controlling TB in cattle, and could indeed make things worse not better for farmers.

The Humane Society International UK has urged farmers "to reject badger culling and become badger-friendly instead, because protecting the species is one of the best ways of mitigating the risk of infection spreading."

The call follows the publication of new research by Jon Bielby and colleagues suggesting that even small-scale badger culling might increase rather than reduce the spread of bovine tuberculosis.

The paper, 'Badger responses to small-scale culling may compromise targeted control of bovine tuberculosis' examines the 'Test-Vaccinate-Remove' (TVR) approach to TB control, under which badgers are trapped, tested, then vaccinated and released if found healthy, or culled if found to have TB.

It concludes: "our findings suggest that implementation of TVR ... risks exacerbating the TB problem rather than controlling it. Ongoing illegal badger culling is likewise expected to increase cattle TB risks."

A blow to Northern Ireland cull plans

Although no actual culling is due to take place this year, the research is a blow to supporters of the projected pilot badger cull in Northern Ireland, which would follow the TVR approach.

Mark Jones, executive director of Humane Society International UK, said the research "demonstrates yet again that the Government's badger cull policy simply isn't supported by the science and must be abandoned."

"This new research confirms what we and countless experts have been saying for years, that killing badgers is not an effective way of controlling TB in cattle, and could indeed make things worse not better for farmers.

Even one culled badger can trigger TB spread

The problem is that badgers live in tight family groups with defined territories, and even the removal of one of their number can cause upset and movement in and out of a family group with the possible risk of infecting other areas - a phenomenon known as 'perturbation'

According to the paper, "Existing simulation models predict that TVR could reduce cattle TB if such small-scale culling causes no perturbation, but could increase cattle TB if considerable perturbation occurs."

"Using data from a long-term study, we show that past small-scale culling was significantly associated with four metrics of perturbation in badgers: expanded ranging, more frequent immigration, lower genetic relatedness, and elevated prevalence of Mycobacterium bovis, the causative agent of TB."

Other research has shown that while badgers can harbour latent TB, undisturbed family groups can develop immunity to the disease, never becoming infectious to other badgers and, more importantly for farmers, to cattle. Left alone, therefore, they pose little threat.

HSI advice: look after your badgers!

HSI UK says farmers can be badger-friendly in three key ways:

  • Not allowing badgers to be culled on their land under DEFRA's policy
  • Actively facilitating badger vaccination on their land
  • Protecting badgers on their land from disturbance, including illegal persecution


"It's time now for farmers to recognise that leaving badgers alone whilst they get their own farming industry practices in order, is the best thing they can do to stem the tide of cattle TB infection"
, said Jones.

"So we urge farmers to make a fresh start and pledge to be badger-friendly by protecting not persecuting badgers on their land. A policy of badger vaccination can help develop that immunity while leaving the family group undisturbed.

"If they don't, they may well be condemning themselves and their neighbours to an even worse cattle TB future."

Hugely unpopular

The pilot badger culls in England have been hugely unpopular with the public as well as with all wildlife organisations, and they have resulted in a public-relations disaster for farmers across England, not just in Somerset and Gloucestershire.

Becoming badger-friendly could do a lot to help farmers win back the public support they used to enjoy.




Lesley Docksey is a freelance writer who writes for The Ecologist on the badger cull and other environmental subjects.

See her other articles for The Ecologist.


 

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