The Government says culling of badgers is necessary as part of efforts to tackle spiralling rates of tuberculosis (TB) in cattle. Some 28,000 cattle were slaughtered in 2012, and officials warn costs to the taxpayer of dealing with the disease could reach £1 billion over the next 10 years. Each individual outbreak costs an average of £34,000, with farmers having to pay £12,000, and £22,000 borne by the taxpayer.
What is the evidence for a cull of badgers?
It is widely accepted that badgers spread TB to cattle, and officials estimate around half of herd infections come from badgers. A long term study showed that proactive culling of 70% of the badgers over a 150 square kilometre area over four years could be expected to reduce the incidence of the disease in herds by 16%. The reductions were greater inside the cull area, but culling caused badgers to move around as their social structure was disrupted, spreading disease and causing a short-term increase in infection in herds just outside the cull area. The Government also points to experience from other countries, including Ireland, New Zealand and Australia which all successfully tackled TB in livestock using culling of wildlife which spread the disease.
Why is it controversial?
Experts, including some involved in the long-term trial, have raised a number of concerns about the policy, including that the gains will not be very large and costs could outweigh the benefits.Animal welfare and wildlife groups claim killing badgers will be inhumane and the policy is not backed up by the science. But farmers say the disease is devastating their businesses and lives and that everything possible must be done to tackle it.
So why isn't the focus on vaccination?
The Government insists it is pushing forward with vaccination, but it is a long-term strategy. A vaccination for badgers is available but has to be injected, and a oral vaccine which can be put in bait is still some way off, according to officials. Nevertheless, Wales has opted for a vaccination strategy, and a number of landowners, including conservation groups and some farmers, are vaccinating badgers on their land. Officials estimate it will take some ten years to get a usable vaccine for cattle that is allowed under EU trade rules.