Dairy farm in Somerset, a county with a high bTB incidence. The farm has a certain dilapidated rustic charm, but it's hardly an environment in which strict biosecurity can be guaranteed. Photo: Elliott Brown via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
Tall stories: BBC's anti-science support for badger culling
2nd March 2016
A programme to be broadcast on BBC2 promoting badger culling as the answer to bovine TB is praised in the corporation's flagship Radio Times, writes Lesley Docksey. But both are criticised by experts for their inaccuracy and bias. The main reservoir for bTB is, and always has been, the cattle themselves - and that's where the real solutions begin.
Many wild animals can contract bovine TB, and badgers can certainly carry the infection. But shooting large numbers of mostly healthy badgers will not help cattle farmers tackle a problem their industry has created.
The latest issue of the Radio Times must be making anti-culling badger people spitting mad.
An article by Terry Payne titled 'An Unlikely Star' is advertising a programme, in the 'Land of Hope and Glory' series to be broadcast by BBC2 this Friday 4th March at 9 pm.
By her own admission, Jane Treay's film has set out to make a very partisan case for culling badgers. As quoted by Payne, she says: "There is a massacre of our dairy herds going on and it is not being covered".
The 'massacre' is the number of cattle being slaughtered because of bovine TB - around 30,000 a year (not all of which have bTB). What is never mentioned is the greater 'massacre' of cattle slaughtered for other reasons. For example, in 2008 75,000 were slaughtered because they were infertile.
Nor can Treays claim that the issue of bTB in cattle is not being covered. It constantly appears in the Western Region media, and other media outlets, in farming programmes on radio and TV and papers devoted to farming.
As Mark Jones, veterinarian and policy manager of the Born Free Foundation comments: "The article paints a wholly inaccurate and biased picture of the situation facing cattle farmers affected by bovine tuberculosis."
And far more space is granted to the NFU and farmers wanting to cull badgers than is given to those people trying to argue on scientific grounds that badger culls won't help the farmers or their cattle.
The real 'reservoir' of bTB is the cattle themselves
The 'unlikely star' of Treays' film is Somerset farmer Maurice Durbin who has had TB on his farm since 2010. Faced with that information, Jan Bayley of the Animal Welfare Group commented: "To have continuous incidents suggests that TB is endemic in his herd."
One wonders whether the vets and Defra inspectors constantly visiting his farm had ever suggested as much. Mark Jones agrees: "Bovine TB is a significant problem for our cattle industry. This problem has been exacerbated in recent years because of cattle farming and trading practices which are not focussed on disease control, and by successive governments which took their eye off the ball, particularly during the BSE and FMD crises. So much so, that in some parts of the west and south west the disease has effectively become endemic."
In fact, the strong possibility of endemic bTB in herds is something that should be taken very seriously, studied and acted upon. Durbin has lost a third of his 320-strong pedigree Guernsey herd to the disease which, so the article says, is "often transmitted in the urine of badgers." And note, not badgers possibly infected with bTB, just badgers. There are theories as to how transmission between cattle and badgers takes place, but nothing is proven.
Mark Jones adds: "Many wild animals can contract bovine TB, and badgers can certainly carry the infection. But shooting large numbers of mostly healthy badgers will not help cattle farmers tackle a problem their industry has created.
"The fundamental difficulty with bovine TB is that the primary test used to determine whether cattle are infected only detects between 50-80% of the infected animals, leaving anything from one-in-five to one-in-two (that is anything between 20% and 50%) of infected animals in the herd to continue spreading the infection. With ever larger herds this creates a huge problem, and is the reason so many herds suffer multiple breakdowns."
The real answers are frequent testing and strict biosecurity
Durbin's farm has been "effectively closed for all this time". Of course it has. Mark Jones continues: "The testing limitations mean that, in order to control the spread of disease, very strict testing regimes must be introduced and adhered to, movement restrictions on known infected herds and farm biosecurity measures must be rigorous, and enforced risk-based trading is essential to ensure clean herds do not become infected from herds, which though declared 'disease free' actually still harbour infection.
"These are the measures which enabled bovine TB to be successfully brought under control back in the late 1950s and 1960s during the so-called 'area eradication strategy'. Under that scheme, the number of cattle slaughtered because of bovine TB was reduced from a peak of 25,000 in 1959, to less than 10% of that figure a decade later. It's worth noting we didn't even know badgers could be infected with bovine TB until 1971."
Treays says: "We hear lots about the inhumanity of culling badgers, but nothing about the 30,000 cattle that are being shot each year because of TB."
Being shot? Does Treays know anything about the slaughter of cattle in abattoirs? She claims that she "loves" badgers and that it was right that they had become a protected species but "now it is out of balance. The job of protecting them is done."
Seeing that badgers are still dug out of their setts for badger baiting, most would disagree with that. She continues: "No one is speaking up for the dairy industry...We have got to have a more reasoned debate."
'It's the bloody do-gooders' - is it?
The NFU is constantly bleating about the state of the dairy industry, the price of milk, the threat of bTB and the necessity of culling badgers. But it refuses absolutely to have a reasoned debate with the scientists.
Yet as Mark Jones says: "Playing the 'badger blame game' will not solve the bovine TB problem for farmers. The 'massacre' of cattle must of course be tackled, but not by massacring badgers, which won't help struggling farmers and may well make things considerably worse."
Payne's article ends: A tearful farmer Durbin is clear where the blame lies. "It's the bloody do-gooders. They interfere with everything we do."
By 'do-gooders' does he means scientists, vets and wildlife experts?
Lesley Docksey is a freelance writer who writes for The Ecologist and other media on the badger cull and other environmental topics.
Also on The Ecologist:
- 'So badger culls are working? Liz Truss, produce your evidence!' by Oliver Tickell
- 'In the dark: badger cull cost-benefit report is state secret' by The Ecologist
- 'Will the badger cull cost the Tories the election? It certainly should!' by Dominic Dyer
- 'Fail - 2014 badger cull didn't kill enough badgers to be effective' by Rosie Woodroffe
- 'Defying reality - Natural England authorises 'unlawful' cull' by Lesley Docksey
- 'Whistle-blowing monitor reveals: how not to run a badger cull' by Lesley Docksey
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