Furry and cuddly? Savage and to be avoided at all costs? Whatever your opinion on them, do they deserve to be killed? Hundreds of badgers were set to lose their lives as part of a pilot cull in England and Wales, causing a widespread uproar. This controversial move by the government, set to take place this week, was pushed back last minute to next summer due to timing issues.

The recently announced delay has been blamed on the Olympics and the weather: the summer games meant that police found it difficult to control the protests until after the Olympics and Paralympics were over and the bad weather has caused problems for farmers in baiting and conducting surveys. The halt to the proceedings has given those against the cull some temporary relief.

The badger cull is to curb the spread of bovine tuberculosis, which is caused the bacteria Mycobacterium bovis. Farmers have long been eager to initiate a cull as there has been an increase in cases of bovine TB from 1998 to 2011. Badgers can infect cattle by contaminating their feeding areas via urine, faeces and droplet infection. Bovine TB can deal farmers a huge financial blow and can be disastrous as there are no visible symptoms of the illness until the disease has really progressed.

In 2007, the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBTC) conducted a £50 million experiment to evaluate effects of a badger cull – the results actually suggested that the cull would not work. After the badgers in the study area were killed, the number of infected herds fell, but there was increase in amount of herds infected in the 2km ring surrounding the culled area. This was caused when infected badgers fled to the safe outer surroundings, taking TB with them – dubbed the ‘perturbation effect’.

Five years after it was suggested that culling wouldn’t work, new evidence has been presented in support of the cull. It seems that after continued monitoring of the same sites, the boost of TB in the surrounding ring does not persist: the data suggests that with culling there could be a 16% reduction of herd infections within nine years. The cull was given a green light after a pivotal meeting in December 2011 where experts advised the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

The decision to cull has been hugely controversial, sparking widespread protests. Queen guitarist Brian May has been fiercely against the cull, launching an online petition which has gained around 155,000 signatures to date. Even Christl Donnely, a member of the original trial, comments “Is it worth culling so many animals for 16% fewer infected herds?”

In a letter to the Guardian, more than 30 animal disease experts have warned that the culling could actually cause the number of infected cattle to increase. This included the Royal Society president Lord May and the president of the Zoological Society of London Professor Sir Patrick Bateson. Furthermore, badgers are not the only culprit in the spread of bovine TB – 50% of new TB cases actually occur via cattle to cattle transmission.

With the execution day postponed, groups opposed hope to be able to abolish the cull completely. “We welcome this postponement, but this must not be a temporary reprieve, but must mark an end to all cull plans.” says RSPCA chief executive Gavin Grant. Other methods to combat TB include vaccination of cattle, but there’s a snag – this is illegal in Europe, as it is difficult to distinguish vaccinated from infected animals. Convincing European authorities to change their minds will be an uphill battle.

So what is next for badgers? The culling is still set to go ahead next year, but only time will tell if the anti-culling protests can bring an end to it.

Faiza Peeran

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