Why does any scientific debate or study about bovine TB always start with badgers?
Why are Badgers always at the head of the 'Blame Queue'?
5th August, 2016
With the publication today of a new report that admits badgers tend to avoid direct contact with cattle, LESLEY DOCKSEY asks why are badgers still being blamed for bovine TB?
"Any law that interfered with how a man chose to spend his leisure is tyranny." The Times, reacting to the Bill to ban bull baiting being voted out in 1800.
On 12 July, there was an anti-badger culling event, to launch the Badger Mosaic outside the Houses of Parliament. Team Badger, a large coalition of national, local and grass roots animal and wildlife welfare organisations, was urging the government to abandon the roll out of new badger culling areas, indeed to abandon the culling policy altogether.
Following this, a meeting took place inside Parliament. MPs, journalists and members of various animal-related organisations gathered to hear presentations from three ‘badger experts', Professors John Bourne, Ranald Munro and Rosie Woodroffe.
Professor Bourne was the Chairman of the Independent Scientific Group in charge of the well-known Randomised Badger Culling Trials (RBCT).
Professor Munro chaired the Independent Expert Panel that was given the task of deciding whether the 2013 pilot badger culls in Somerset and Gloucester were safe, humane and effective.
Professor Woodroffe was an assistant on the RBCT and has since done other badger and bovine TB-related studies.
Following their individual presentations, Dominic Dyer, CEO of the Badger Trust, posed a challenging question: Why, he asked, does any scientific debate or study about bovine TB always start with badgers? Why do they assume that badgers are a major part of the problem, when there is almost nil evidence that badgers are the cause of TB in cattle?
Dyer said he had only traced one experimental study in which badgers produced TB in cattle, and that took place in very unnatural and manufactured conditions.
This was not what the panel wanted to hear, and the reaction was defensive. But Dyer is correct. There is always this given in any discussion on bovine TB - that badgers are part of ‘the problem', when it appears that none of the governmental scientific community wants to seriously study the cattle-to-cattle problem.
But why this assumption - this bias? Where does it come from?
There is, unfortunately, a section of humanity that seeks thrills through blood-lust; that gets its pleasure, its ‘sport', from killing animals, and in particular wild animals; and that thinks setting dogs onto a hounded, trapped and cornered animal which fights for its life and gets ripped to bloody pieces, is the best thrill ever.
Bear baiting only stopped in Britain because we had killed all our native bears and it became too expensive to import them. Bull baiting was finally outlawed but badgers continued to be persecuted. Over the centuries the population dropped - almost, in some areas, to extinction. They were gassed, poisoned, snared, trapped, baited and their setts were damaged and destroyed. Many farmers still regard them as dirty vermin that need to be cleared from the land.
Despite that, wildlife champions fought for their protection. But in 1971 something happened that took badgers back to square one. The first badger was found with bovine TB. A woman who had worked for a vet during the early 1970s said that she couldn't understand why farmers were suddenly coming in with dead badgers and other wild animals, demanding that the vet tested them for bTB.
All the measures that had almost eradicated TB in our herds during the 1950s-60s had just been dropped and over the years incidents of bTB started to rise again. But now farmers had something to blame - the badgers themselves.
So the badger was not only a commonly persecuted animal, it was now a scapegoat for a problem that had arisen among cattle. And despite modern science and various studies, it is still the first thing mentioned in any discussion about bTB.
Consider the RBCT. The final report is titled:
Bovine TB: the Scientific Evidence
A Science Base for a Sustainable Policy to Control TB in Cattle
An Epidemiological Investigation into Bovine Tuberculosis
Then why is the whole exercise known as the Randomised Badger Culling Trials?
Professor Bourne makes the point that a lot of their work concerned cattle rather than badgers; that their conclusion was that ‘culling badgers would make no meaningful contribution to controlling TB in cattle'; and that cattle-based measures were the way to go. He supports ‘a determined focus' on such measures. However, the only cattle-based measures he mentions are vaccination and risk-based trading.
When asked why scientists and the Government weren't, for example, pushing for the enforcement of biosecurity measures on farms, his reply was: "It would cost the farmers too much." But bTB is costing the farmers. Wouldn't it be more cost-effective to install measures that prevent cattle-to-cattle transmission, by far the greatest provable source of bTB in cattle?
It was Professor Woodroffe's PowerPoint presentation on the perturbation of badgers that highlighted a problem with this whole debate.
The starting point is that culling a significant percentage of badgers will cause the remaining members of any sett/clan to flee their territory and integrate with other badger groups. However, Irish research has shown that the borders of sett territories can be fairly fluid, and that badgers visit other groups in order to mate. How else would they avoid inbreeding? So ‘perturbation' of some kind already exists among badgers.
The PowerPoint images Woodroffe uses make the assumption that the badgers which are fleeing their territories are, without exception, infected with TB. The next images go on to assume that the fleeing badger will infect all the badgers in the new group. It is this kind of thinking which allows a study headed by Woodroffe to find that only around 6% of infected cattle catch bTB from badgers, yet the badgers are then judged to be ultimately responsible for around half of cattle infection.
She has now produced another study in which they collared and tracked badgers' interaction with cattle. Not surprisingly, they found that badgers tend to avoid close contact with cattle (already proven in the Irish study) and cattle also tend to avoid grazing near badger latrines, so there must be some other way that badgers infect cattle. And there is the bias.
Woodroffe is reported as saying "There is strong evidence that badgers transmit bTB to cattle, as well as for cattle to cattle transmission and for livestock to give the disease to badgers." Again, badgers are put first as the cause of TB in cattle and where, might one ask is this ‘strong' evidence?
Most wildlife people would agree with Woodroffe's conclusion that the infection can lie in the ‘environment', but talking about possibly infected badger urine and latrines while ignoring the many thousands of acres of pasture covered with cattle slurry every year from herds containing infected cattle, not to mention the possibly infected faeces from cattle grazing in fields, is scientific nonsense.
Whether cattle defecate or slurry is spread, earthworms rise to the surface to feast on the result. During dry periods when the ground is hard and worms are not close to the surface, digging through cow pats is the badger's best opportunity to access its favourite food. The worms may carry the TB bacillus. Or the badger may ingest some of an infected cow pat. That is one sure way a badger can become infected.
But what about the cattle?
They slobber and lick, and breathe heavily over their companions. They graze on grass that has been fertilised by spreading cattle slurry, and a walk over any field with cattle turned out in it will demonstrate how closely they graze to their own droppings.
They eat silage made from grass fertilised with slurry, and in her interview with BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Woodroffe stressed how very long ("...weeks, even months...") the TB bacillus can last in the environment. One of the ignored findings of the RBCT was that farms that made pasture silage showed a higher incidence of bTB.
Dominic Dyer welcomed the new research "as it adds more weight to previous research that proves cattle and badgers largely avoid each other." He outlined his summing-up of the research but said that the message being put out to the media yet again blamed the badgers. And he added: "I think this now largely comes down to the fact that leading scientists and academics in the field of bovine TB research do not want to admit they got it wrong and that badgers cannot easily pass TB to cattle."
As he suggested at the Westminster meeting, the assumptions about badgers and bTB, like those fabled and non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction that led us to invade Iraq, have become an accepted ‘truth' on which to build government policies. Defra always claims it is ‘using every tool in the box' to defeat bovine TB, but badger culling is the only tool that hits the news.
No science properly addresses how badgers could really infect cattle, and science certainly has not produced the hard evidence to support what are at the moment only assumptions. Nor will scientists or Defra seriously address the various ways in which TB in cattle is not only constantly re-infecting the cattle, but is also infecting wildlife. For the sake of our farmers, their cattle and the wildlife, it really is time they did.
And for those of us trying to protect the badger and, incidentally, also wanting to see farms with healthy TB-free cattle, our lobbying must be directed at forcing the government into ending the badger culls and enforcing effective cattle-based measures.
Yes, it may cost the farmers but surely, dealing with bovine TB in their cattle in the current fashion is costing them and the country far more.
Lesley Docksey is a freelance writer who writes for The Ecologist and other media on the badger cull and other environmental topics, and on political issues for UK and international websites.
Dominic Dyer's book Badgered to Death (Canbury Press), tearing apart the case for blaming the badger for spreading TB to cattle, has now been published.
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