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Is there an alternative future for badgers?

Badger culls are still taking place across the UK, despite calls for a halt from scientists and animal rights campaigners. Lush Times reporter Katie Dancey-Downs investigates whether badger vaccinations could offer a new hope in the fight against bovine tuberculosis

At the end of 2017, the casualties from another year of badger culling were counted, and the death toll stands at nearly 20,000 for that year alone. This is in the name of a government policy which scientists and environmental campaigners say risks doing more harm than good. The aim is to eradicate bovine tuberculosis in cattle, but the science says it could be doing the very opposite, and spreading the disease further.

The UK Government has now announced that the badger cull in England will be extended to 11 new areas, which the Badger Trust believes could result in over 35,000 badger deaths in 2018 alone. This announcement comes just weeks before a review on the badger cull policy is published.

A High Court challenge from campaigners against the UK Government’s controversial badger cull was recently lost [15/08/18]. This is not the first legal battle over badger culling, and in previous cases culling was also allowed to continue.

One scientist says there is another option - one which will not result in the loss of thousands of badger lives.

Vaccinate, don’t exterminate!

At the frontline of the battle, badger ecologist and academic at the Institute of Zoology, London, Professor Rosie Woodroffe has a long history with the badger cull, and is a former member of the Independent Scientific Group on cattle TB. She is now waiting to hear whether her proposed badger vaccination trial will be given the green light.

“We had a vaccination programme here in West Cornwall, but it was mothballed when there was a global vaccine shortage,” Rosie says.

After an international shortage of human vaccinations against TB, caused by manufacturing issues, badger vaccinations were put on hold. Now, the vaccines are available again, and Rosie’s home county is the proposed site for the trial. More than 1,000 badgers could be vaccinated every year in an area of around 200 km2 near Lands End in Cornwall, England.

Current government policy says that vaccinations should only be used in areas of lower TB risk, as vaccinating does not eliminate the animals already infected. This is another position with which Rosie disagrees.

Before they are culled, Rosie says there is no way to tell whether particular badgers are TB carriers or not. When badgers are killed, other badgers will often move into the newly available territory, and even if the badgers which were there before did not carry TB, the new inhabitants might well do - thus spreading TB further.

Rosie argues that vaccinations are cheaper, do not require policing, and will not spread TB elsewhere. Along with this, there is a ready army of volunteers, happy to step aside from protesting and work alongside the farming community, vaccinating badgers in the Cornwall countryside.

The science behind the cull

“Holy cow, it’s making it worse!”

This is the reaction from Rosie Woodroffe, as she hears the news that her prediction is correct - a previous badger cull trial is actually worsening the spread of bovine TB.

These were the results from the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT); Rosie was a member of the Independent Scientific Group (ISG) responsible for analysing the results. The data showed that culling badgers disrupts their behaviour, causing them to wander beyond their usual territory and take TB with them. The results were clear: when it comes to preventing the spread of bovine TB badger behaviour is just as important as the number of badgers.

Following the trial, the ISG concluded that badger culling could make no meaningful contribution to the control of bovine TB. This trial forms the backbone of UK Government policy, and yet key components have been swept aside. Following the report from the ISG, then environment secretary David Miliband asked the Government’s chief scientist David King to re-evaluate the results.

“We didn’t know it was happening, and David King made no effort to talk to us,” Rosie says.

She says it would appear that King chose to believe the evidence showing that badger culling works, but to dismiss evidence from the same study which showed that culling badgers might actually spread TB further.

Rosie says: “Badger culling is a really risky way of tackling cattle TB. If you get it right, you might somewhat reduce cattle TB, but it’s very easy to get it wrong.”

Culling works against badger biology, Rosie explains. Undisturbed groups of badgers never roam far from their territory, as neighbouring groups stand in their way. When culling comes into play, the loss of some badgers leaves others free to move into new territory, and with them goes TB.

Through tracking badger movements with collars, Rosie and her team at the Zoological Society in London have found no evidence that vaccinating badgers will cause the same behavioural disturbances and thus risk of further spreading Bovine TB, and indeed, found no significant disruption to the behaviour of vaccinated badger groups.

Mounting evidence also shows that badgers and cattle rarely interact, and in fact cows are more likely to give the disease to each other. Research shows that the amount of cattle contracting TB from badgers is probably as low as six percent, with estimates ranging between one and 25 percent.

Head of the Badger Trust, Dominic Dyer, accepts that badgers can spread TB to cattle. What he does not accept, is the idea that it can be done easily, or that badgers are the culprit in the spread of TB. For him, the badger has been demonised.

“There is no justification for the widespread destruction of a species that’s lived in Britain for tens of thousands of years, for a potential reduction of bovine TB that might only be ten percent,” he says, adding that significant reductions in Bovine TB will only be made by making changes in farming practices, not by culling badgers.

Like Rosie Woodroffe, Dominic Dyer fully supports the idea of vaccinating badgers: “It brings farmers, landowners, and conservationists together in a spirit of mutual respect and confidence that we just don’t get when we’re all fighting each other over culling.”

When science and policy clash

The science clearly shows that culling comes with huge risks, and yet the insistent message from policymakers is that the cull is a success.

The Government’s chief veterinary officer claims results of the 2017 cull prove that “culling can deliver the level of effectiveness required to be confident of achieving disease control benefits.”

The conflicting report conducted by other scientists paints a different picture. The Brunton report not only finds consistencies with the previous Randomised Badger Culling Trial, in that some areas of culling had a decrease in TB, and some had an increase, but the authors also say that, due to a lack of data, the findings of their analysis should not be used to infer whether the policy has been effective.

Rosie Woodroffe explains that when the Government says the cull is effective it is implying the cull is effective in controlling cattle TB. What it really means, is that it has killed its target number of badgers.

A review of the policy is currently underway, scheduled to report in late September to Defra ministers, and earlier this year, environment secretary Michael Gove publicly promised to reconsider the science. However, the new badger cull expansion spells bad news for badgers this year. As the results of the policy review are compiled, it remains to be seen whether the scales will tip in the favour of wildlife, and whether badgers will be given the reprieve of a ceasefire.

Vaccinations are cheaper, do not require policing, and will not spread TB elsewhere

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