• Robert Spicer

Bovine TB and the Badger Cull

Later today (11th September 2012), a rally will be held at College Green, Bristol against the planned badger cull. With Queen guitarist, Brian May, a high-profile supporter, the “Stop the Cull” rally may well garner interest, and thrust the spotlight on the complicated issues surrounding it. The rally happens at the same time that the Court of Appeal is due to announce its decision in a recent challenge to the legality of the cull, namely that Caroline Spelmen , the then Secretary of State for DEFRA, acted outside of statutory powers in allowing landowners and farmers to cull on their land. But what are the facts and arguments surrounding the badger cull?

Bovine TB is a particularly nasty strain of disease which leads animals – badgers and cattle alike – to die a vicious, prolonged death. The test for TB is conducted in live animals, is notoriously unreliable and thus does not provide conclusive evidence that an animal is infected. Cattle are slaughtered if that they mayhave the disease. Only post-mortem tests can be undertaken to establish whether infected or not.

One of the biggest problems in this dispute is the conflicting scientific evidence. Animal rights charities take the view that a link between bovine TB and badgers has never been conclusively proved. However, farming groups and the Government, stating that due to the proof that badgers carry the disease, and the proof that badgers pass on the disease to cattle, the link is established. Both views have supporting scientific evidence. Thus, one outcome of the Court of Appeal hearing today will hopefully address the scientific approaches behind the dispute.

The Randomised Badger Culling Trial, undertaken recently, found that a reduction in TB in cattle over a 150 km2 area, plus a 2km surrounding ring, would amount to 16% over 9 years. However, again those statistics can be taken as evidence by either side.

The West and South West areas are particular affected by bovine TB; with a quarter of all farms in the area closing in 2010. In a community that has been ripped apart over recent years, this is just another farming issue that has restricted this sector and made it unprofitable – only a few weeks ago the dairy farmers hit the news when it was announced that due to the price of milk many farmers are operating at a loss.

Farmer’s Weekly have produced a helpful list of key facts and figures, reproduced below:

Disease Status

5.4 Million – total number of TB tests on cattle in England in 2010

25,000 – approximate number of cattle slaughtered for TB control in England in 2010

3,622 – number of new TB incidents in 2010. This is a 7.5% increase on 2009 (herds where at least one animal tests positive for bovine TB, when the herd had previously been TB free)

10.8% of cattle farms in England were under cattle movement restrictions at some point in 2010 due to a TB incident.

22.7% of cattle farms in the South-West were under cattle movement restrictions in 2010

£500 million – the amount it’s cost the taxpayer to combat the disease in England in the last 10 years

£1 billion – what it will cost over the next decade without taking further action

£90 million – amount Defra spent on TB control in England during 2010/11, including£6.9 million on TB Research & Development

£30,000 – the average cost of a TB breakdown on a farm, of which around £10,000 of this falls to the farmer

Badgers

250,000-300,000 – the number of badgers in Great Britain according to national population surveys carried out in the 1980s and 1990s.

190,000 – estimated number of badgers in England according to 1995 JNCC report. The current population is likely to be considerably larger.

Between the last two national badger surveys (mid 80s and mid 90s) the population grew by 77 per cent, despite 50,000 badgers being killed on the roads each year.

30-75% – estimated proportion of cattle breakdowns due to badgers, depending on local circumstances

28.3% – the average beneficial effect in proactively culled areas from the Randomised Badger Culling Trial up to July 2010.

But when you take account of the negative impacts from perturbation the average net reduction in confirmed TB incidents after culling is 16%, which is the equivalent of preventing 47 out of 292 cattle herd breakdowns.

Vaccination

£30 million – Defra investment in cattle and badger vaccination since 1997

£20 million – the planned investment in further vaccine development over the next 5 years

The first injectable badger vaccine (Badger BCG) was licensed in March 2010

Vaccinating badgers costs an average of £2,250 per km2 per year

Unknown – the time it will take to see a beneficial effect in cattle from badger vaccination.

Unknown – the time it will take for an oral badger vaccine or a cattle vaccine to be licensed and deployed.

Sadly it seems that the issue is potentially down to cost. While most farmers would fully support an alternative to a cull – they are, after all, used to caring for animals as opposed to killing them – the cost of vaccination in its current form is too much. Which leaves us with the option of “to cull or not too cull”, but, sadly, as can be seen from the facts above, doing nothing is simply not an option.

References:

BadgerWatch

DEFRA

Farmers Weekly

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