To cull or not to cull? It is in fact a question that has already been answered in England; to cull.
The government has ordered a pilot cull of badgers in west Gloucestershire and west Somerset to slow down the spread of Bovine TB in cattle. It is however, an extremely divisive issue and one that looks set to become the next, great countryside battle.
Farmers in west Gloucestershire have already been granted a license that will allow them to kill up to 70% of badgers in their area. We don’t quite know when they will start shooting and it’s likely to remain a secret until the first shot is fired.
The reason? Animal activists. Many farmers in the area have reportedly been threatened and some have received texts and letters trying to intimidate them into submission. Why stoke the fire by publicising the date you’re going out to start shooting badgers?
Hardline activists aside, there is a proper debate to be had about Bovine TB. Mainstream groups like RSPCA, The Badger Trust and the Wildlife Trust are all firmly against the cull.
The scientific evidence, they say, just isn’t there. They point to a 10-year study by the Independent Scientific Group (ISG Report) which concluded, ‘badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain.’
They say culling can even make TB worse - when groups are disrupted, badgers can roam to other setts, spreading the disease. Many also argue vaccinating badgers would be a much healthier, more humane way to control TB.
It’s happening in Wales and many counties in England are already rolling out vaccine programmes for badgers. So why not just catch them and vaccinate them? It sounds so easy – but apparently it’s not.
The government, along with many farmers, argue injectable vaccinations are ineffective if the badgers already have TB. They also have to be vaccinated every year to ensure their babies are protected and the costs are sky high - someone has to trap each animal to administer the treatment. An oral vaccination may solve some of these problems- but that’s a long way off coming to market.
Farmers are convinced that when culls took place more than 20 years ago they were only slaughtering around 6,000 cattle a year - it’s up to 26,000 now. They also point to the ISG report which found if 70% of badgers are culled over 4 years, the area would see a reduction of somewhere between 12 and 22% in TB.
For farmers, whose livelihoodsare at risk, that’s compelling evidence and shouldn’t be ignored.
In truth the science, along with the issues, are extremely complex.
A mixture of strategies might be the only viable and effective way to control TB and until the pilot cull is complete we won’t have all the answers.
What’s certain is that marksmen in west Gloucestershire will take to the fields and shoot badgers and activists will try to stand in their way. (Not literally but some are threatening it).
The quiet woodlands of Gloucestershire and Somerset will become the turf on which this battle will be fought.