The decision to cull badgers in Wales as part of the fight against bovine TB is ill-judged. Its effects will ripple much wider than the chosen culling area, and they could hit farmers as well as badgers.
The Welsh Assembly Government’s announcement this week that culling will be allowed in a “pilot” TB hotspot area makes no sense. First, it flies in the face of the most comprehensive research into the issue. Trials over the last ten years or so in England, carried out for the Government by independent scientists, concluded that badger culling could make no meaningful contribution to the control of bovine TB. Prof John Bourne, who led this research, has even told Welsh Assembly members that culling could actually spread the disease.
Second, the cull will not, as claimed, add anything to the scientific debate. The work led by Prof Bourne was conducted rigorously, subjected to independent audit, and written up in authoritative peer-reviewed scientific journals. It was the most comprehensive piece of research to date on this issue and it is hard to see what a single trial, which does not appear to have clear objectives, could add to it.
Third, and even more worrying, as a result of the announcement in Wales, pressure is building for culling elsewhere. The Ulster Farmers’ Union were quick this week to call for measures to tackle the “wildlife reservoir” of the disease, even though in Northern Ireland TB levels have almost halved since 2002 without any badger culling at all. Tighter restrictions on overdue TB tests, increased use of supplementary Gamma Interferon testing (a more effective test than the prevalent skin test), and more sophisticated systems to monitor and track the spread of the disease, all introduced in that period, might have something to do with this.
Feelings on the issue of badgers and bovine TB understandably run high. On one hand there are the farmers suffering not just the crippling effects on their livelihoods, but also the trauma of seeing the animals they care for slaughtered. On the other, the possible eradication of whole populations of one of our iconic woodland species provokes public outrage.
In England, both farmers and conservationists wait with bated breath to hear whether the Government will lift the moratorium on badger culling. The Government has dragged its heels on this issue, and the announcement in Wales will just add fuel to the already vociferous pro-cull lobby.
But the Government must make its decision based on the independent scientific trials, for which it paid at least £50 million, rather than bowing to one side or the other. Badgers must not be made a scapegoat, but at the same time a proper programme of measures focused on cattle must be resourced. Otherwise it begs the question, why bother commissioning such research in the first place?