One thing we all know and agree on is that Lord Krebs' and the RBCT Trial states that culling badgers in small areas increases the spread of bovine Tb and increases the frequency of bTB within badgers.
SO WHY ARE FARMERS ILLEGALLY CULLING?
No one can deny that bTB has spread across the country over the last decade yet controversy rages as to the reason for the spread.
Illegal culling by farmers:
Consistently the press has publicised prosecutions and they are possibly just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to illegal activities that can contribute to the spread of bTB. There is no doubt that cattle movements bring the disease to different parts of the country through legally slack restrictions or illegal travel but the percentage spread by illegal activities such as small-scale culling has, until now, not been looked at and the results are shocking.
In most cases, new outbreaks are traced back to hotspot areas but in many cases research would suggest the rate of local spread hides illegal culling.
The graph below shows the spread from 1986 to 2008 from some isolated pockets to areas we all know defined as hotspots.
Bio-security, cattle movements, vaccination of badgers and cattle (once allowed) are the only long term effective, scientific and sustainable ways forward. Stricter measures to stop cattle spreading tuberculosis to other cattle is the only way to combat the disease effectively.
The EU contributed £32 million to the UK to combat bovine TB in cattle but doesn't give funds for badger culling. A total of £116 million has been received by the European Commission to date.
Europe said, “The Commission provides substantial financial support (1) to the approved UK bovine TB eradication program; for 2012, €31.2 million was allocated to implement a rapid eradication strategy. There is no EU financial support provided for the culling of badgers.”
Sloppy practice was exposed by the European Commission. EU inspectors found that the removal of cattle with bTB was below the target of 90% in 10 days, and that in the first half of 2011 more than 1,000 cattle had not been removed after 30 days (2). They found that there were 3,300 overdue TB tests as of May 2011 and that "many" calf passports – used to track movements – were incomplete. Missed targets on both the rapid removal of cattle with bTB, the follow-up of missed tests, and "weaknesses" in cleaning and disinfection at farms, vehicles, markets and slaughterhouses are all at levels exacerbated by lack of adequate supervision. All these problems increase the risk of TB spreading between cattle. They also found that only 56% of disease report forms had been completed on time, with the authorities blaming lack of resources.
Local authority surveys provided evidence that some cattle farmers may have been illegally swapping cattle ear tags, i.e. retaining TB-positive animals in their herds and sending less productive animals to slaughter in their place.
There are 8.5 million cattle in Great Britain on 81,000 holdings, with 2.4million movements a year.
The government accepted most of these failings yet have done little to rectify the situation and measures introduced in January 2013, whilst welcome, are not nearly enough.
In New Zealand the real breakthrough in control of bovine TB came when farmers bought into the idea that they were a factor in its spread and thus restricted cattle movements and increased bio-security. Vet, Prof. John Bourne, says, "Despite some improvements, the government is still going nowhere near far enough with bio security... It is not badgers that spread the disease throughout the country; it is cattle." On that we are all agreed.
But there is another area that isn't covered and this comes under the heading of “illegal activities". This is the illegal killing of badgers that seems to be going on undercover of darkness. Recent research would suggest it is not an uncommon practice. Yet this appears to be organised and sustained. For a long time, reports of illegal killing of badgers have appeared in the press. In September last year a tenant farmer was convicted of pumping slurry into an active sett (3). A spokesman for North Yorkshire Police said, “This was a very callous and heartless act of cruelty to these protected animals who will have died a horrible death. The court’s punishment reflects the seriousness of this distressing act. Those who persecute badgers should remember that it remains illegal to kill badgers in North Yorkshire.”
In January this year a group of men were convicted of badger baiting. The judge condemned them as "barbaric and abhorrent". The badger baiters reportedly laughed as their dogs ripped the defenseless creatures apart. (4)
28 illegal incidents were reported in Gloucestershire alone in 2010. (5)
Ian Hutchison, who heads UK crime prevention for Operation Meles, a joint project by police and animal welfare organisations said, "There is a lot of this going on and there will have been cruelty in Gloucestershire. There are gangs traveling through the county who think it is a macho thing to do. Some have even pumped slurry into setts effectively drowning the badgers in excrement. It is the most cruel and sick activity. There have been some people inciting this sort of behaviour online, suggesting ways in which to kill them and we are monitoring them."
The "Badger Welfare Association" fuel these activities by claiming that they can identify infected setts. Just like magic potions for the 1800s it is all smoke and mirrors; there is no way to identify an infected sett in the same way that you cannot identify an infected cow by looking at it. In fact badgers don’t actually seem to be affected by bovine Tb, like most wildlife they are infected by cattle and are, in the most part, carriers. Research has shown badgers in the same closed sett and community are not all infected. (6)
In Wales in July last year the S4C Pobol y Cwm showed a program that confirmed our worst fears that, not only were farmers taking matters into their own hands, but that it was organised. (10) On the program, a man who lives in northwest Wales said, “The effects of TB has forced communities to take extreme steps.” In justification, he said it had got to the point “where nothing was being done” and stated, “It’s time to do something about it.” He didn’t accept it was cruel and confirmed he knew of others who also did this. He confirmed he killed 3-4 badgers a night and had been doing that for over six years. If we use a standard working year that would equate to over 5,600 badgers in total.
Farming in one area and consistently losing cattle to bTB, doing the same thing, getting the same outcome, changing nothing, and yet still carrying on is surely not sensible. Surely we cannot condone any lawbreaking, but the approval doesn’t just come from isolated pockets of farmers it stretches way higher to the highest levels in government too and this is probably the most appalling abuse of power. Moreover, it could actually be a a major factor in the spread of bTB.
Elin Jones said, “Farmers have been betrayed and may well decide to act unlawfully. Farmers will now have to consider how best to protect their cattle and I for one would not blame them however they choose to do that.” It is no surprise that this accepted lawbreaking should continue and is it little wonder that farmers feel they have been given a green light. (8)
But it is not just law breaking that is at the centre of this issue, or the fact that it’s openly encouraged - the issue is that they are actually making matters worse. A small scale cull can only spread the disease further, since it cannot be contained. The spread of the disease outside a killing zone is known as perturbation, which can only be prevented by providing hard boundaries. So these localised culls can actually be making matter worse.
The Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) was a 10 year trial costing £50 million and slaughtering 11,000 badgers. It is the only peer reviewed study on bovine TB in cattle and stated, “Culling badgers could have no meaningful effect on the control of bTB in cattle.”
The government’s own Bovine TB Eradication Group for England that included veterinary professionals was set up in November 2008 but did not support badger culling as an effective policy. (9) In the end, 30 eminent animal disease scientists launched an attack on the government’s “mindless” cull stating, "Bovine tuberculosis is a serious problem for UK farmers, deserving the highest standard of evidence-based management."
Lord Krebs of the RBCT said, "The scientific case is as clear as it can be; this cull is not the answer to TB in cattle. The government is cherry-picking bits of data to support its case." In the RBCT trail we saw a drop in the cull zones of incidents of bTB, but around the periphery we saw an increase in incidents of bTB especially in the badgers. So scientifically if we cull badgers inside the cull zone we increase the prevalence of bTB outside the cull zones. These illegal culls could actually be contributing to to the spread of bTB. Dead badgers found on the road are often attributed to these illegal culls. (13) But now science is looking at illegal activities as well. 'Innovative techniques for estimating illegal activities in a human-wildlife-management conflict', a paper written by a research team from Bangor University, the University of Kent and Kingston University, has revealed - for the first time - the estimated rate of illegal badger killing.
Bangor University called for further in-depth research to be carried out in this area. (13) They estimate that a higher than previously thought percentage of badgers are being culled illegally and this alone could have a devastating effect on the spread of bTB and these incidents need to be factored in. (11) Dr Paul Cross from Bangor University said, “The proportion of farmers estimated to have killed badgers should be considered by policymakers and in the wider debate. Intensive badger culling is one approach being considered by policymakers, in an attempt to control the spread of tuberculosis in cattle. However, studies investigating the effects of badger culling on TB outbreaks in cattle have not factored in the prevalence of illegal badger killing and its potential to spread disease.”
Bangor University believes that more than 10% of farmers have taken matters into their own hands. Farmers in Wales who illegally cull badgers may be responsible for spreading bovine TB further afield. Whatever your standpoint we are all united in wanting to see bTb removed from our cattle and wildlife populations.
Illegal killing of badgers is against the law and could increase the spread of bovine TB but until officials, the government and the NFU whole heartedly decry badger baiting and the illegal slaughter of these creatures, we fear this will continue to encourage farmers to take the law into their own hands and thus increase the spread of bTB.