England Begins Controversial Badger Cull

England is about to cull 5,000 badgers, asserting that they spread bovine TB. Some scientists are against it. And badger lovers are bereft.

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."