Germany allows hunters to shoot 40-50,000 badgers a year for 'sport'. They use the justification that badgers go for ground-nesting birds, which the hunters also want to shoot - for 'sport'.
It sometimes seems that British lovers of wildlife are fighting a solitary battle to protect their badgers - from being culled through misguided government policy, and from illegally killed by those who have a horrible lust for slaughtering anything wild, anything that gets in the way of human activities and priorities.
But we are not alone in our fight. Despite being a legally protected species in the UK and the Netherlands, badgers are under threat all over Europe.
They are killed in huge numbers by ever-increasing traffic travelling much faster than it used to; displaced by development (including road building and 'improvement') and urban sprawl spreading day by day; blamed by farmers for damage to their land and disease in their animals; and targeted by badger diggers and baiters; it is a wonder they go on surviving. They do but, strong as they are, they need help.
And finally, Europe is coming together to protect its badgers. Following an initiative by ecological consultant Tom Langton, the Badger Trust reached out to other badger groups across Europe. The first to be approached were keen to be involved and banding together, groups from the UK, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, France and the Netherlands formed Eurobadger.
The vision: humans living in harmony with badgers
It is a growing organisation and since its founding in November 2015, Eurobadger is now recruiting one more country per month, and is supported by many other organisations. To quote their vision statement:
"Eurobadger aims for a world where humans live in harmony with badgers across Europe, without damaging or destroying them or their habitats."
In their first report, Eurobadger lays out some basic aims that would tackle bTB in cattle while safeguarding badger populations:
- Comprehensive testing of cattle;
- End the slaughter of badgers in the name of 'controlling' bTB in cattle;
- Where appropriate, reinstate whole-herd eradication;
- Ban movement of cattle from High Risk areas;
- Rapid introduction of cattle vaccination programmes;
- Monitor bTB levels in wild animals using 'road kill'.
Eurobadger was launched in the European Parliament in Strasburg on 15th April this year. Two weeks later Eurobadger met in Brussels with senior members of the European Commission. The meeting was organised with the help of the Acting Head of the European Commission's Directorate for Heath and Food Safety (Bernard Van - Goethem) and the Head of Disease Control (Francisco Javier Reviriego Gordejo).
It is a fact that "an astonishing half of the annual €62.5 million (£47.5m) that the EU spends on combating bTB goes to the UK."
Bernard Van-Goethem accepted that the EU was making a major investment in UK bovine TB reduction and he confirmed that he held regular meetings with the DEFRA Chief Vet in Brussels "to ensure these funds were being used to implement effective cattle based measures." Note the 'cattle based measures'. Although it once did, the EU does not and will not fund badger culling as a way to tackle bTB in cattle.
Eurobadger makes a clear case for tackling bovine TB without culling badgers, and the Commission agrees with Eurobadger that only cattle-based measures would eradicate bTB. One measure used in Europe but avoided by the UK is the 'whole herd eradication' in cases where it is clear that bTB is endemic in the herd and will not be dealt with slaughtering only those cattle that test positive for TB (particularly when the test used can be 20% to 50% inaccurate).
Issues concerning cattle vaccination and constant cattle movements (a key factor in spreading bTB) were raised. To quote Peter Martin, the Chair of the Badger Trust, "in Europe's eyes UK farmers treat moving cattle as a pastime", so numerous are the movements compared to other EU countries.
Eurobadger has also produced a comprehensive report on the state of bTB and badgers in the founding member countries.
The Netherlands is officially TB-free and has been since 1999, all due to cattle-based measures. Wildlife, including badgers, has never been considered to play a role in bTB eradication. Hence, neither badgers nor other wildlife has been involved in the bTB eradication programme.
It and the UK are the only countries in this group where badgers have legal protection. That had to be fought for as there was at one time a policy of wiping out the badgers, though not because of bTB or rabies (when there was gassing of badgers across Europe). But the Netherlands goes further.
The protection includes traffic measures in dedicated locations, re-introductions (the badger population had dropped to a catastrophic low by the 1980s, and is now recovering) and financial compensations for farmers for land damage.
England is the only part of the United Kingdom which is culling badgers. Scotland is officially bTB-free and Wales took the decision to not cull badgers but to address bTB with cattle-based measures: strict testing regime, biosecurity and movement controls. This approach appears to be working.
No official programme to reduce badger numbers has ever been implemented in Northern Ireland, but they have a Test-Vaccinate-Remove project in operation for badgers. Further, as New Zealand's First Minister Richard Prosser stated in October 2015 (page 17):
"Despite over 40 years of research, not one herd breakdown in Great Britain or Ireland has ever been proven to have been caused by badgers. 15% of bovine TB in the Northern Ireland herd is currently officially attributed to badgers, however this figure is based solely on the opinion of the veterinary officer attending the breakdown and not on any quantitative data."
This is not to say that badgers are not still persecuted illegally. Controls for cattle are strict and, apart from the bTB increase following the Foot & Mouth crisis in 2001, have been maintained at a manageable level.
The Republic of Ireland (RoI)
The wholesale and cruel destruction of badgers in the RoI on the excuse it would rid the country's cattle of bTB (it hasn't) has been notorious. Snaring and shooting removed thousands of badgers. At one point the official objective was to totally eradicate the badger population. Such an attitude has encouraged badger baiters and diggers, as well as 'cruelty tourism' - badger killers travelling from the UK where such activity is illegal.
In 2011, when EU money funded badger culling as part of bTB eradication, The RoI spent €3.6 million on killing badgers. That resulted in a reduction of just 55 of the cattle infected with bTB. It is hard for the Irish government to openly admit that killing badgers has resulted in nothing but dead badgers, particularly as the UK Environment Ministers have relied on the RoI as a justification for England's own badger cull.
The United Kingdom
In Britain the Badger Trust has been able to call upon an array of experts on both bTB and badgers, producing a long and very detailed report on the history of bTB in the UK.
Points of interest include that research in 2015 now shows that farms with herds of 150 or more individuals are 50% more likely to incur bTB breakdowns than those with 50 or fewer animals.
Badger vaccination schemes came to a halt during 2015, as the supply of BCG vaccine dried up, just at the time when plans for a roll out of badger culling to several new areas. In late 2015, vaccine production having recovered, the UK was told it could 'source the very small amount of badger vaccine needed from a supplier different to that currently used, including from one inside the EU. There is an indication that DEFRA may value mass-killing over vaccination as it incorrectly states that its hands are tied over sourcing, which they are not.'
New Zealand's poisoning of wildlife had been used by the UK government to support its culling programme - the oft-quoted bTB wildlife reservoir. But in October 2015 New Zealand's First Minister announced:
"There's been a 40% reduction in the number of infected cattle since movement control was introduced in 2012 ... this strongly suggests that effective movement control has been the real answer to TB in cattle all along. The single biggest reservoir and vector for bovine tuberculosis is cattle. It always has been cattle."
It is a tale of dishonesty all along. For all those wanting to understand the background to TB in our cattle; the constantly deferred vaccination programme; the move among the farming industry to cull badgers rather than to accept tough cattle based measures; the politics, misinformation and lack of science.
This report is a treasure trove of information. Read it and use it.
If you think badgers have it bad in England, spare a thought for those in France.
France has an estimated population of 80,000 badgers. Compare this to Great Britain, with a population estimated to be anything between 250,000 to 400,000 and around 60,000 killed on the roads each year. Then compare the amount of land available in France to that in Great Britain.
Even allowing for habitats not suitable for badgers, the difference does show what a hit French badgers may be taking. For a start, badgers are not protected in France and badger digging is a common activity. There are an estimated 2,000 badger-digging gangs, often augmented by 'visitors' from the UK. More cruelty tourism.
To understand the French attitude to wild animals, get your head round this: animals, both domestic and wild, were until 2014 classified in law as 'things', as in furniture, even though they were recognised as being sentient.
French law has advanced slightly although the French Assembly has refused to give any 'rights' to animals. And the French Environmental Code still does not recognize the sensitivity of wildlife (which constitutes the vast majority of animals living in France).
Killing as 'tradition'
One difficulty is, as elsewhere in Europe, the culture of hunting or as hunters would call it, 'tradition'. Germany for instance, allows hunters to shoot 40-50,000 badgers a year for 'sport'. Additionally, they use the justification that badgers go for ground-nesting birds, which the hunters also want to shoot - for sport.
In France there are the Wolf Catchers, which the Somme Préfecture is permitting to kill badgers (this is the subject of a Change petition), one 'reason' being that badgers 'damage farm machinery'. How, is anybody's guess, considering the size of agricultural machinery these days. Shooting allied with farming makes, as we in the UK know, a powerful lobby, even though around 90% of the French appear to support proper legal protection for all animals.
In the face of all this it is hard to believe that France has been officially bTB free since 2001. There are still outbreaks of TB in the cattle. Apart from slaughtering the infected cattle and whole herd removal, these are dealt with by the fairly widespread European practice of ring culling, in which all wild mammals within a 2km radius of a bTB outbreak, are killed. All of them. What does that do to the ecology of the area, other than totally destroying the balance?
In much of Europe, and in all of the UK, man has got rid of the keystone species, the top predators such as wolves, bears and lynx, creatures that maintain a rich and balanced ecology. This has a bad effect on the ecosystem. Badgers are mid-level mesopredators. Along with foxes and raptors, they have an important role to play.
But for some scientists they are now acting as 'top' predators while hedgehogs are mesopredators.
Where will it end?
With badgers and other wild species being killed with the unscientific aim of controlling bTB in farmed cattle, when it is the modern farming methods that need to be regulated, European ecology, our ecology, is becoming impoverished, unbalanced and ultimately unhealthy.
Beyond that, more wildlife populations are becoming infected with bTB - not just badgers but foxes, deer and wild boar.
There was never a more opportune and necessary moment for Eurobadger to take the centre-stage position.
Lesley Docksey is a freelance writer who writes for The Ecologist and other media on the badger cull and other environmental topics.
Find out more about Eurobadger (Badger Trust website).