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A badger emerges from its nest.

England is debating whether to cull European badgers (Meles meles).

Photograph by Richard Packwood, Oxford Scientific/Getty Images

Cathy Newman

National Geographic News

Published June 6, 2013

Britain's Parliament held a four-hour debate in the House of Commons this past Wednesday, and it wasn't about public spending cuts, the war in Afghanistan, or abortion rights.

It was about badgers.

A badger, for those not acquainted with the species, is a mammal about three feet long with gray fur, a mouthful of sharp teeth, and a black-and-white face striped like a zebra crossing. Meles meles, the European badger, is indigenous to the United Kingdom, lives in an underground labyrinth of tunnels called a sett, and feeds on worms and grubs. There are about 300,000 badgers in England.

The badger has been around long enough to have survived two Ice Ages, but if the Conservative-dominated coalition government executes its plan, some 5,000 will not survive two government-led trials that are the prelude to a culling policy that aims to reduce the spread of tuberculosis (known to be carried by badgers) in cattle.

In 1971, a dead badger was found in a barn in Gloucester, autopsied, and found to be infected with TB. The concern—that badgers transmit the bacterium to cows, thereby putting a farm at risk of being shut down until the infection has cleared—has enmeshed scientists, politicians, government bureaucrats, and farmers ever since.

Opposition Gathers Steam

Last year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) announced its intention to test the "safety, humaneness, and efficacy" of culling by targeting 5,000 badgers in Gloucestershire and Somerset—two infection hotspots.

As the proposed cull drew closer, the controversy widened to include celebrities like Queen guitarist Brian May, who led a protest march in London last Saturday and recorded a song called "Badger Swagger"; the rock star Meatloaf; and actress Dame Judi Dench, who posted a video on YouTube calling for a stop to culling.

An anti-culling petition has 235,000 signers, and there's an online threat of a voodoo curse on Environmental Secretary Owen Patterson, a hard-line advocate of the cull. Others have weighed in with tweets, blogs, and letters to the editors of British newspapers. "Cull the politicians instead," one reader wrote the Daily Mail. On the other side, a farmer's wife pointed out that "we wouldn't be having any of this nonsense if this was about culling rats."

Costly Issue

According to DEFRA, bovine TB cost taxpayers £100 million last year. Over the next decade costs are estimated to rise to £1 billion. In the late 1990s, the government appointed an independent commission to study the problem. Ten years and £50 million later, the report, Bovine TB: The Scientific Evidence, concluded that the overall benefits of proactive culling were modest, and that "given its high costs and low benefits we therefore conclude that badger culling is unlikely to contribute usefully to the control of cattle TB."

A DEFRA spokesperson disputes that, however, and says that since the report was published, further research has shown that the benefits of reducing TB remain for many years after culling has stopped. According to a DEFRA statement, "No other country has successfully tackled bovine TB without addressing infection in both wildlife and cattle."

Bovine TB is rarely transmitted to humans—the number of cases in the UK is very small, and pasteurization kills the bacteria in milk. It is possible, says Nigel Gibbons, DEFRA's chief veterinarian, for people who work or live closely with infected animals to contract TB by inhaling the bacteria or coming into contact with the animals' secretions.

The economic impact on farmers whose cows test positive, however, can be profound. A farmer whose operation is shut down by infection can be out of business until the infection clears, which could take months; the cows are, in effect, quarantined. TB vaccination for cattle and badgers has its own set of complications. Current testing is not sophisticated enough to distinguish between cows vaccinated for TB and those infected by it. The effectiveness of the injected badger vaccination, depending on whose figure you take, is between 65 and 73 percent. Studies are going forward to develop a better oral vaccine for badgers, as well as a more sophisticated test for bovine TB in cows.

The controversy is full of biological complexities, colored by politics, and awash in contentious statements. "The policy appears to be little more than a sop to [the] farming sector," the executive director of the Humane Society International/UK wrote in a piece on the website Badgergate. "The only way we can do this [control bovine TB] is to cull," the head of the British Veterinary Association told the Telegraph.

Look Out, Mr. Badger

If the cull happens—plans are to use marksmen with rifles and shotguns—animal rights activists have announced that they will disrupt culling activity by blowing vuvuzelas, setting off fireworks, and shining lights. "Activists will take matters into their own hands," Robbie Marsland, UK regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, told the International Business Times. "The police have told us they fear mass public disorder if this cull goes ahead."

Exactly where and when will the culls take place? "We don't comment on security matters," a DEFRA spokesperson said.

"It will end up in a mess," said Chris Cheeseman, a former scientific adviser to the government who has spent 35 years studying badgers. "It's not supported by science. It will not solve the problem. It is not cost-effective. And it will probably make it worse."

The debate has some quintessentially British aspects to it. "To some extent, it's a rerun of the fox-hunting debate, a split between town and country," explained cultural anthropologist Sean Carey, a research fellow at the University of Roehampton's Department of Social Science. "The townie has a romanticized version of the badger, which has a privileged place in English literature. Mr. Badger in The Wind in the Willows is an outsider but has heroic qualities. The country farmer, on the other hand, prides himself on realism. It's a case of 'let's get rid of the sentiment and get practical.'"

Meanwhile, the debate in the House of Commons—which had no legislative muscle to it anyway—turned out to be a disappointment for the anti-culling side. The Labour Party demand that badger culls be abandoned was rejected by a vote of 299 to 250.

5 comments
Hugh Jorgan
Hugh Jorgan

 Cool, this should give Edwin Jagger a domestic source for badger hair. Maybe it will bring down the price for their shaving brushes.

Nigel Miller
Nigel Miller like.author.displayName 1 Like

Regarding the figure of 5,000 badgers being culled in two areas, to call them "trials" is nonsense. The minister in charge, Owen Paterson, has already publicly stated he intends to extend the culling to another 40 areas in the UK over the next four years and, in his own words, "It will take 20-25 years of hard culling" to reach his target. Do the math and instead of 5,000, substitute 100,000, and that is only a projection for four years.

Ama Menec
Ama Menec like.author.displayName 1 Like

The Welsh Government thought to carry out a badger cull a couple of years ago until it realised the tourism industry would take a big hit as a result. So, they have started a vaccination programme instead, using a BCG vaccine which is very successful in badgers...more successful than it is in humans in fact. Their visitor numbers now exceed what they were before the cull was announced. We need to show Westminster they are needlessly persecuting our native wildlife for the failings of the dairy farming industry, and the push to repeal the hunting laws of the UK by the far right, by boycotting holidaying in the cull zones, and telling the tourist boards why. All pressure must be put on the UK government to follow the lead of the Welsh by vaccinating badgers instead.

Nigel Miller
Nigel Miller

@Hikaru Sulu

The medical statistics can be found on the Health Protection Agency website. Between 2000-2011 there were roughly 350 recorded cases of human infection in the UK, that's an average of around 29 a year. According to the 2011 UK census there were 63.2 million people in the UK. So statistically the odds of you catching bovine TB are currently around 2,179,000 to 1 against.

Compare that with the human strain of the disease mycobacterium TB where the total number of cases was just under 96,000 or 8,000 a year, odds of 79,000 to 1 against.

These statistics do of course depend on where you live and how old you are but there is clearly a far greater chance of you catching the disease from another human than from any animal.

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