Wales demands 'objective evidence' before killing badgers. Whatever next?

| 21st October 2016
Welsh Badgers at Dinefwr Park, Llandeilo. Photo: Neil Schofield via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
Welsh Badgers at Dinefwr Park, Llandeilo. Photo: Neil Schofield via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
Wales has achieved enviable success in reducing bovine TB in its cattle herds without killing badgers, writes Lesley Docksey. The farming lobby is still demanding an England-style cull, but the Welsh government's 'refreshed' policy on bTB remains firmly science-based and no badgers will be killed without 'objective evidence' of infection.
Will we ever get an 'objective confirmation' that badgers give TB to cattle? No science in the last 45 years has provided definitive proof that badgers play any significant role in giving cattle TB. And there's no reason to think that will ever change.

On October 18 the Welsh government announced a "refreshed" policy on bovine TB.

This is because the current policy was designed to last for 5 years. That draws to a close at the end of this year, and they are running a 12-week consultation on the next steps.

They are already implementing 'hard testing' of cattle, which is seeing a rise in the numbers of infected cattle being slaughtered.

But the proposed policy mentions the possible culling of specific badgers that have been found to have bovine TB. Cue the farmers yelling for a 'proper cull' and headlines in the Welsh media saying 'No, it will not be an English type cull'. But that, as ever, is what many farmers want.

On the other side of the fence, some wild-lifers were in uproar over the very mention of badgers being culled. But all was not as it seemed. Let's go back to the beginning.

Wales's success - without killing badgers

In 2008 the Welsh Assembly announced plans for a badger cull. In the same year they carried out a TB Health Check on all Welsh herds. This was followed with a programme of annual testing and cattle movement control.

Over the years this has resulted in a near 50% drop in cattle slaughter rates, while the badger culling was put on hold, and finally ruled out in 2012, since when NFU Cymru has kept lobbying for a badger cull. To date, no badgers have been killed.

Yet while the slaughter rate was slowly dropping, each hint of a rise saw NFU Cymru claiming that bovine TB was out of control. That the bTB testing was identifying more infected cattle was never considered.

In December 2015 Welsh farmers again called for badger culling, because the trial badger vaccination programme had been halted due to the lack of vaccine (something that affected all badger vaccination projects).

At the same time the cattle slaughter rate had again risen, giving farmers and their unions the opportunity to talk about the 'reservoir of bTB' in the wildlife, and the need to eradicate the TB by eradicating the wildlife, AKA badgers. And in February this year, Carmarthen County Council voted to lobby the Assembly to introduce a badger cull.

However, Defra figures show that although the slaughter rate has indeed risen between July 2015 and July 2016, over the same 12 months new herd incidents have dropped by 19%, and herds not officially free of TB (non-OFTB herds) by 10%.

In the light of these figures one has to conclude that the rise in the slaughter rate does not show a disease out of control; it shows that more stringent bTB testing is finding more infected animals within herds already hit by the disease.

Badger Trust is winning evidence-based argument

Looking at the storm of protest from wildlife lovers, and the media hype about Wales possibly culling badgers, Peter Martin, Chair of the Badger Trust, writes:

"The Badger Trust has maintained close ties with the Welsh government's TB team over the years and have been greatly impressed and completely supportive of their rational, scientific approach to eradicating TB in cattle through carefully applied and stringent testing regimes as opposed to culling badgers.

"The Trust will continue to provide whatever advice and support we are asked for and commend the Welsh TB team for their determination, commitment and conspicuous success in driving down this dreadful disease whilst maintaining a healthy wildlife population."

He continues: "Let's be clear: the Trust is in a long war with the countryside, farming and political establishment who have control of Parliament and the media, and the backing of the NFU, Countryside Alliance and British Veterinary Association.

"Despite all that we have managed, small as the Trust is, to persuade the Welsh Government not to give in to this powerful lobby and to stick with their current, successful regime of strict cattle controls and improved testing."

It is clear from the Consultation document that the Welsh government has studied and gained valuable information on how the disease develops and is maintained in the Welsh herds. Though badgers are mentioned, they appear to have little importance compared to cattle trading and animal husbandry.

Indeed, it looks as though what Wales is planning, in its 'refreshed' bTB policy, is pretty reasonable, as they are including even tighter cattle controls. However, they will be 'looking at the policy' in Northern Ireland where badgers are trapped and tested, and those with TB humanely killed.

Wales Government demands 'objective confirmation'

Lesley Griffiths, Wales's Secretary for the Environment and Rural Affairs, has said she will explore whether a similar approach could be used in high incidence areas where there is chronic herd breakdown, and an "objective confirmation" that badgers are infected.

But there is no assurance for pro-cull farmers that any culling will take place.

'An objective confirmation.' That is something that has been missing in the decades-long debate about badgers and bovine TB. We need to know just how many badgers culled in England have the disease; whether they are infected with the same strain of TB that the nearby cattle have; and whether, if left alone, badgers will naturally develop immunity.

There are a myriad of questions about badgers and their possible link to cattle with bTB - questions only ever answered by the assumption, unsupported by evidence, that badgers are to blame.

Most of all, will we ever get an 'objective confirmation' that badgers give TB to cattle? I doubt it. No science in the last 45 years has provided definitive proof that badgers play any significant role in giving cattle TB. And there's no reason to think that will ever change.



Action: respond to Wales consultation on bovine TB.

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.  



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