Badgers and tuberculosis
19 September 2012
Bovine tuberculosis is a serious disease of cattle that needs to be addressed. We need to find effective, sustainable and publicly acceptable solutions to this disease.
As a significant landowner, using cattle as a valuable component of our land management, we are sympathetic to concern within the farming community over bovine TB. However, we don't believe that culling badgers is the way forward.
We have opposed the proposals to cull badgers included in recent government consultations in both England and Wales for the following reasons:
- Culling badgers risks making bovine TB worse unless it is carried out in a co-ordinated and highly synchronized way, over extensive areas, and for at least four years. There is considerable risk that such a cull would be impracticable and unsustainable.
- Shooting free ranging badgers is untested and has no place in a science based approach.
- Vaccinating badgers does not risk making TB worse. We believe that, together with cattle testing and movement controls, vaccination is a more sustainable, publicly acceptable solution.
After almost a decade of detailed scientific study, the Independent Scientific Group on Bovine TB submitted its final report to Ministers on 18 June 2007. They concluded that 'badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain' and that 'the rising incidence of disease can be reversed, and geographical spread constrained, by the rigid application of cattle-based control measures alone.'
Their studies on the effects of culling badgers showed that killing over small areas will make the bTB problem worse, as animals move in search of safer ground or others from outside move in to fill the vacant territories, such movements (or perturbation) lead to an increase in levels of infection.
We are opposed to badger culling and will not allow badgers to be killed on our land.
To overcome the effects of perturbation killing badgers would need to occur across large areas of countryside (at least 150 km2), it would need to be carried out for at least four years, in a carefully co-ordinated and synchronised way. It will be expensive and logistically challenging. An incomplete cull or one that is abandoned part way through is likely to lead to an increase in disease outbreaks in cattle rather than a reduction.
It is important to note that analysis of the impact of the culls carried out as part of the Independent Scientific Group's work has continued after they completed their report. This has shown that the benefits of culling on reducing TB outbreaks have persisted for longer than was anticipated when the report was written. However, the science continues to suggest that any reduction in TB outbreaks within the culling zone and the immediate surrounding area is modest (around 16%) will take a significant time to be realised (9.5 years) and will cost participating farmers more than it will save them. Even with an efficient, time consuming and costly cull around 84% of TB outbreaks will still occur.
The scientific study carried out by the Independent Scientific Group was based on cage trapping badgers and humane dispatch. Both the Welsh Assembly Government's badger cull proposal and the options being proposed in England include shooting free-ranging badgers as a measure to keep the costs of culling down. This is an untried and untested culling method. The impact of shooting badgers on perturbation is unknown but there must be a risk that it will make matters worse. For these reasons we do not believe that shooting free ranging badgers can be part of a science based approach to combating bovine TB. Shooting badgers in the open at night will also raise significant logistical and health and safety issues.
Another key finding from the ISG work was that culling should be carried out simultaneously across the whole culling area, otherwise there was a risk that perturbation of the badger population would increase disease spread. Most of the trial culls were carried out in a synchronised way over 8-11 days. The Government proposals in England are to allow culling over an extended period of 6 weeks which, we believe, risks increasing badger movement and disease spread.
Other advances in tackling TB
There have been advances in other strategic approaches to tackling TB since the Independent Scientific Group report was produced. Most notably an injectable badger vaccine is now available and licensed for use. Clinical field trials have shown that vaccination reduced the number of badgers testing positive for TB by 73.8 per cent. The researchers concluded that whilst vaccination is unlikely to be the sole solution, it could provide a new and important component of bovine TB control in the UK.
The badger is protected under the Bern Convention on the conservation of European wildlife and natural habitats, and by the Protection of Badgers Act 1992. Killing badgers can be permitted to prevent the spread of disease where no other satisfactory solutions exist. We believe that vaccination, together with improved cattle testing and movement controls represents a satisfactory solution that should be pursued by the Governments in England and Wales.
In addition, we recognise the importance of reducing the risk of cattle to badger, or badger to cattle transmission. It is therefore important that up to date biosecurity advice on measures to reduce such contact (eg. on the management of feed stores) is properly disseminated and fully implemented.
In the medium term, the best option for eradicating bovine TB is the development of an oral vaccine for badgers, to enable wider and more cost effective deployment, and a cattle vaccine.
Will there be a cull?
On 14 December 2011, Caroline Spelman MP, Secretary of State for the Environment announced that licence applications would be invited for a badger cull in two pilot areas of England in 2012, with a view to extend the culling to further areas from 2013. The pilot culls will be designed to test the assumptions made by Government on the effectiveness, humaneness and safety of shooting free ranging badgers. These pilots are being planned in West Gloucestershire and West Somerset and culling is likely to take place in autumn 2012.
On 17 September 2012, Natural England announced that they were issuing a licence for the badger culling pilot in West Gloucestershire. The RSPB’s nature reserve at Highnam Woods is close to, but outside, this pilot area. We will be vaccinating the badger population on this reserve from autumn 2012 as we believe this is the most positive practical step we can take to both protect the health of badgers on our land and act as good neighbours to those nearby farmers who may be affected by the pilot cull.
We do not believe that two pilot culls will provide a scientific or representative assessment of a wider cull. Neither will it examine the impact of shooting free ranging badgers on the important issue of perturbation. We are also concerned that knowledge of badger populations in and around the culling zones will be insufficient to enable Natural England to set culling levels that are both effective and safe enough to avoid local extinctions.
If you are concerned about this issue there are two current petitions which are encouraging the Government to stop the cull and think again (see related websites section on this page).