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European Badger

A European badger peeks out from behind a tree stump.

Photograph by DamianKuzdak, Getty Images

Cathy Newman

National Geographic

Published August 28, 2013

Despite petitions, threats from animal rights activists, and Parliamentary debate, a controversial badger cull is under way in England, the BBC reports.

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 thanks to a Conservative-dominated coalition government plan, some 5,000 will not survive 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 discovered 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 hot spots.

As the proposed cull drew closer, the controversy widened to include celebrities like Queen guitarist Brian May, who led a protest march in London in June 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 drew hundreds of thousands of 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 in 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."


 Hundreds of people in central London wearing black and white outfits and masks join the National March Against the (badger) Cull.
Hundreds of people wear black and white costumes to join the National March Against the Cull in central London.

Photograph by Andres Pantoja, Demotix/Corbis


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

Plans are to use professional marksmen with rifles and shotguns over a six-week period. Animal rights activists have threatened to disrupt culling activity, though Avon and Somerset Chief Constable Nick Gargan told the BBC his force has been prepared for some time.

"It will end up in a mess," predicts 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.'"

Angga Kurniawan
Angga Kurniawan

All i can say is just because we can kill does not mean we have to, i live in Tasmania, and when wallaby populations grow they cull them as well, badgers have been on this planet a lot longer than us and have more right being here than us, stupid politics to keep farmers happy, makes me mad, killing any wild animal should be a crime in itself.

Martin Hall-Kenny
Martin Hall-Kenny

It is estimated that the National Farmers Union represents a bare 30% of UK farmers. Of that number, less than half proactively support this cull. The farmers want a solution that works rather than rhetoric that is meaningless and a cull that is ineffective. They are being blinded by government and bullied by the self-serving union. I am a member of several organisations trying to save wildlife in general and badgers in particular. It's not seeing badgers as 'romantic' little cartoon characters. It's dealing with bio-diversity issues and moral/ethical values. I live in a small rural village in Dorset with a population of less than 300. I am NOT a townie. Let me give you some facts...

97% of bTB infections are spread, herd to herd. Badgers play no part in this. Farmers readily admit to flouting bio security. Replenished stock from Europe following the Foot and Mouth outbreaks were not checked for bTB.

When a cull is done, healthy badgers as well as sick ones are killed. The government make much about autopsies on 10% of the kills but play down the fact that the hunters themselves select those carcases that will be examined- I can't imagine them choosing carcases where there hasn't been a clean kill - part of the governments pilot to determine if the cull could be carried out humanely. As the population declines in a cull zone, terrified animals desert their setts and the area. Other animals come into the 'infected area' and take up residence This is called perturbation. It means that; 1) you NEVER know just how many badgers are in the area and 2) it makes containment of the disease impossible.

We (the animal  welfare and protection organisations) have offered to roll out a vaccination program across the nation. The reason the government has not taken this course themselves is that they estimate it will cost £2200/3000 per year, per badger for five years to vaccinate. £11,000/14,000 over the period. The vaccine ACTUALLY costs £16 per shot which comes to £80. The remainder of the governments costs will go on wages, fuel, stroking and spinning their public image.

Our volunteer vaccinators, trained by sympathetic vets and organisations stand ready to deliver this viable alternative to this ill-conceived and mismanaged cull. We are even raising to match DEFRA funding to pay for the vaccines.

NB If the UK government does NOT take advantage of this then I think we should look for who is getting rich off the back of this. Follow the money!

PLEASE... if you live in Britain, contact your MP and KEEP contacting them. If you are extra-national, bring pressure by getting your local wildlife centres/vets/scientists to write to British newspapers and politicians. This must NOT continue, not in my name, not in my country!

Mike Roost
Mike Roost

badgers got bad in the name so they will live like the bad to the bone badgers they are!

ian a.
ian a.

us humans playing god once more

Kyle Martin
Kyle Martin

Curious to what this might do to the food web. I do not believe it should be done simply because of pressure from cow farms. I'm sure there are other ways for farmers to limit cow interaction with the badgers.

Robert Goldsmith
Robert Goldsmith

All i can say is just because we can kill does not mean we have to, i live in Tasmania, and when wallaby populations grow they cull them as well, badgers have been on this planet a lot longer than us and have more right being here than us, stupid politics to keep farmers happy, makes me mad, killing any wild animal should be a crime in itself.

Mathieu Langlois
Mathieu Langlois

Living in Alberta, I often hear farmers jabbering about their hunts... and it seems that once they start killing, they can't stop themselves.  Once they have a gun in their hands, they turn crazy and shoot everything that moves. They start with Prairy dogs and Squirrels, then move on to Skunks, Coyotes, Porcupine... and finish with Woodpeckers, Magpies, Songbirds... and the list goes on and on. If UK starts doing that... what happens in the Prairies of North America will more than likely happen there. 

Here, I saw the MD give bounties for Wolf and Coyote pelts because there was "too many". They didn't give any limit of kills, the rule was bring in as many as you can so their number decrease. They didn't worry about loss of genetic diversity, or about the consequences on the pray population due to having only a few Wolves and Coyotes left. They only worried about their cash, and what costed the least, and that's the problem of our world today. Leaders only think of cash, money, and their own benefits, regardless of the consequences in the future. Leaders only go with what's easy and what pays now, but very few do what's best and what's right. 

Sagan Nelthorpe-Cowne
Sagan Nelthorpe-Cowne

"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.'"

... what about the "person" who has just had enough of human beings killing everything in their path?

Mick Rogers
Mick Rogers

One must surely wonder this that this proposal has actually started it's taken them long enough, endless tea breaks no doubt all courtesy of the British taxpayer.
As the report says Bovine TB is rarely transmitted to humans, plus there is a  pasteurization process.
.I thought my government were a pack of weirdos I obviously thought wrong.

peter thomas
peter thomas

just another example of the stupid british ideal of removing the problem by destroying it...its complete nonsense and ultimately just another smokescreen to distract the confused public from their other "bent" affairs!

it has come to my attention that BTB is possibly transfered to domestic pets, should we cull them too? say good bye too poor old puss or fido? i think not!

this has nothing to do with being humane or the beef industry, which i might add, worldwide is responsible for massive climate change!, its all political.

we must put a stop to this right now, petition, protest,get in the way and be active!

Deano D.
Deano D.

Lets start a cull on UK politicians , That will make better changes.

tony perry
tony perry

in relation to what Jane has to say i do not think any farmer worth his salt wants to see badgers being culled. The science states the culling of badgers will not stop B.T.B. Would it not be better to spend money on a treatment for T.B in badgers rather than to pay people to shoot the badgers?

craig hill
craig hill

Dear UK:

Round 1000 of the badgers up before the Tories can kill them all, GMO them with rottweiller anger, dump em in Parliament and lock the doors.  That would constitute the greatest culling of the 21st century. 

Jane Smith
Jane Smith

Mr Carey needs to understand that this is not about romance it is about science and protection of British Wildlife.

When randomised badger culling trials took place to form the Independent Scientific Groups final report, only one in seven badgers were found to be infected by BTB. The ISG final report said that badger culling is unlikely to contribute usefully to the control of BTB in Britain and recommend that TB control efforts focus on measures other than badger culling. These trials costs the country the best part of £50 million. Why has this been ignored?

I feel sorry for the farmers as they are the ones who will feel the true backlash of this. People will stop supporting them. Look at any online poll to do with badger culling and it is always a huge majority against it. Farmers need to wake up, they need to tell DEFRA and the NFU this is NOT the way to go. This is their livelihoods - vaccinate to eradicate.

"The culling of badgers is not the answer to the control of BTB in cattle" Lord John Krebs - the countries most knowledgeable scientist.

Martin Hall-Kenny
Martin Hall-Kenny

As a PS to my post... Gloucester Constabulary are indicating that policing this cull for just 2 months has already cost in excess of £1,000,000. This is just one police force. Somerset is likely to be similar and, if the government roll the cull out to ten 'hot spots' next year, the cost will be substantially higher. Do the math... Gloucestershire = £1,000,000 for 2 months = £4,000,000 for eight months = £20,000,000 for five years and that is just the cost of policing one county. Multiply that out across ten areas and it will be £200,000,000. Now factor in the actual cost of shooting/caging/gassing as well as the fact that a significant percentage of the public will vote with their wallets and stop buying British farm can see where this is going.


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