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The Problem Isn’t Badgers, It’s (Politically Led?) Bad Science

September 19, 2012

Animal and land husbandry are rich with examples of how scientific research doesn’t always mix easily with politics.
Extraordinary intervention excepted, we are about to see the hugely controversial beginning of massive badger culls authorised by DEFRA to in an attempt to eradicate Bovine (cattle) TBaka bTB – across parts of the English countryside which some see as our enduring, unchanging birthright, where contented cows, cosy badger setts and comfortable farmers all happily co-exist….

A similar version of this post has also been published in The Huffington Post.

In reality we know the English countryside is not unchanging. Of necessity it changes, in its physical shape and in its function, all the time. ‘Rural’ is by no means essentially ‘rustic’, but that’s not what we like to think.

And so it is with the licenced firearm badger cull to come.

After years of posturing and shadow boxing, it looks like the ‘War of the Rurals’ has finally begun….

A conservative response
The conservative (little ‘c’) response to the bovine tuberculosis problem is to start the hunt – a traditional way to extinguish vermin which also happens to be the strategy of choice of significant numbers of Conservative (big ‘C’) supporters.  Sorting it all out in time-honoured mode is in this view the obvious manoeuvre.

Unfortunately it’s not really going to work. The National Farmers’ Union and the majority of farmers – but not all – may believe that badger culls will do the trick, and a lot of politicians want to keep the farmers onside. And it will probably pay electoral dividends for a while. But longer term this ‘solution’ is could even make things worse, not better,  if by ‘better’ is meant permanently halting the spread of bovine TB in milk-producing cows.

The evidence-based debate about badger migration (‘social perturbation’), natural (‘badger impermeable’) barriers to habitat, other sources of infection (e.g. deer) and so on rages still.  It does not however point to massive cullings as the primary way forward.  There’s a lot more to it than that: short term ‘saving’ of public money by passing the buck to individuals (hunters) won’t deliver long term.

Extended, expensive and elusive
Lessons more or less learnt from the disastrous ‘Foot and Mouth’ cow pyres of a while ago, DEFRA and large numbers of scientists have been in a grossly expensive huddle on bTB for several years; the cost (whether justified or not) by now must be incredible.   And for a while it looked as though progress might be made.  Vaccine development programmes have been scheduled, with the hope that TB would start to be eradicated, perhaps by blanket vaccination, without recurrent recourse to shotguns, gassing, snares or poison.

At least (and at last) it looked like the gold-plated veterinary-political pow-pows would come up with a good result for financially challenged farmers, cows and badgers, all.

Now most of the British trials have been abandoned.  The Welsh Government has chosen to continue vaccine development, but overall diminished investment in research suggests conclusive clinical resolution of bTB will remain elusive.

It is strange indeed that a vaccine for TB in humans has been available for years and is, where appropriate, routinely used, whilst one for badgers and / or cows remains beyond our grasp.

Shunning the science
Most farmers, and most politicians, are not scientists.  One might imagine that the production of food – which is surely the prime purpose (along with management of the total environment, and land husbandry) of farming – is a strong candidate for the application of science.  Verified knowledge is however often trumped by tradition.

Reluctance to adopt the obvious strategy – a TB vaccine for cows – is rooted in costs, regulations and commercial interests around certified ‘free from’ herds and, say some, premium milk prices.  But I, a human mammal, was given TB protection as a child; and so probably were you. The case at every level of governance for more scientific, less ‘traditional-action’ policies on protecting herds from tuberculosis is strong.

Complex, yes. Retro, why?
The veterinary epidemiology of bovine and badger TB is complex. It involves factors as varied as those already discussed (e.g. badger perturbation patterns) and wider issues such as biosecurity and how factory farm stressors influence infection in cows.  And that’s before we get to issues around developing vaccines: direct costs, timelines and who – very critically – should take the lead on this, whether for badgers or cows.

Nonetheless, acceding to farmers’ incessant, voluble (though not unanimous), evidence-denying, ‘traditional’ demands for a big badger cull, with guns and individual licences, is a backward-looking response to the genuine and serious problem of bovine TB.

We should not be surprised that most farmers in Britain are not scientists and are not, it seems, much interested in what the research has to say.

But science in our food and eco-industries is at least as important as important as in other areas of production.  It is worrying that the disinterest in research of farmers also apparently applies to DEFRA ministers – politicians who, with civil service advisers, are supposed to take shape policies and initiatives in accordance with the best evidence and resources they can procure.

If they were doing so, the badger cull in England would surely not be progressing as currently proposed.

Not cuddly and not competent?
This isn’t ‘just’ about cuddly badgers (actually, they aren’t), nor is it ‘only’ a matter of respect for the natural environment and how these animals for some symbolise green issues (critical though these are).

This is at core about political judgement and leadership.  It’s about not playing to the gallery.  It’s about looking to use and enhance validated scientific knowledge, to find real answers and ways forward.

Government ministers may not have training in natural science or environmental studies, but we can reasonably expect them to develop policy underpinned by what, on balance, these disciplines tell us or could tell us.  What hope for the future, as food and other natural resources become more stretched against climate change and rising population, if politicians fail to give rational leadership and realistic support even on bovine TB?

The Government’s go-ahead for licenced firearm badger culling suggests that science is less important than nebulous notions of ruritania, by-passing state responsibility, and short term political advantage.

Hilary Burrage was previously a member of the DEFRA Science Advisory Council.  She writes in a personal capacity.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2012 14:25

    Reblogged this on Far be it from me –.

  2. Patricia Betty permalink
    September 20, 2012 20:24

    Activists are threatening to take to the woods and fields to attempt to disrupt a cull of badgers due to start this autumn in western England after a bid to halt the plans failed in the appeal court on Tuesday.

    Volunteers plan to patrol the cull zones wearing high-visibility jackets and using powerful torches and megaphones to try to make it impossible for the trial culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire to take place. Raves and other music events are also being proposed, that will focus attention on the cull and make it more difficult to carry out.
    Read the rest here

  3. September 20, 2012 22:00

    Looks like I’m not the only person who thinks vaccination and biosecurity are the way forward:… ‘The scientist [Lord Krebs] whose research is being cited by the government to justify its plan to cull badgers in England has described the scheme as “crazy”.’

  4. September 20, 2012 22:01

    Petition started by the musician Brian May:

    Stop #badger cull – e-petitions

  5. September 20, 2012 22:18

    Quote: @marycreagh_mp ~ In Government Labour spent £11 million developing injectable #badger BCG. 6 trials started in 2010, five were cut by government.

    >> What a waste of good research!!!!!!!

  6. September 21, 2012 13:24

    The ISG made a number of recommendations, mainly that culling badgers was not an effective method of controlling bTB and that increased cattle measures would be more efficacious.

  7. September 23, 2012 21:10

    Some more research which readers may like to consider (note the sum involved, now effectively ?put aside):

    Implementation of the Kreb’s review recommendation on large scale badger (Meles meles) removal to quantify the effect on the transmission of Mycobacterium bovis from badgers to cattle will result in the clearance of badgers from a number of 100km2 areas. The ecological consequences of the near total removal of a single species is not understood. This proposal seeks to study the effect of badger removal on the food web dynamics of vertebrates (mammals and birds) during the Randomised Culling Trial.

    Project Documents
    • Final Report : The ecological consequences of removing badgers from an ecosystem (379k)
    • Final Report – Annex : Appendix 1 (2762k)
    • Final Report – Annex : Appendix 2 (58k)

    Time-Scale and Cost
    From: 1999 to: 2007

    Cost: £1,846,627

  8. September 24, 2012 22:14

    Guardian editorial (and comments thereon): Badger cull in the interests of no one: ….
    ‘Once again a British government has chosen to seek the best possible scientific advice and then ignore it’

    [also letter from Defra Chief Vet & Scientist, arguing the converse:

  9. Phil Latham permalink
    November 2, 2012 18:25

    There are many problems with the management of TB. Inevitably though you can’t escape the simple truth that you cannot remove TB from the environment by only culling a portion of animals that carry it. Both cows and badgers need culling if they are TB+ve.

    We might jump at the chance of vaccinating cattle but until the DIVA test is available we can’t use it as we’ll lose our export market for meat on the hook, live exports, semen and offal. So vaccination is appealing but currently illegal and therefore we cannot use it.

    Vaccination of badgers is also appealing but unless it’s government backed it may just prove cathartic from those who do not wish to cull badgers. Piecemeal implementation of a vaccination plan on a random number of badgers, of unknown ID and disease status hardly constitutes a control policy.

    Pertubation effects are obviously a concern but the effects were only for a short duration and may possibly be limited with less porous boundaries. However the best solution may be to start on the perimeter of the epidemic rather than the middle and this may mitigate the impacts of disturbance as healthy badgers move towards healthy badgers it’s not propagating a problem and vice versa with diseased animals. The science says that pertubation effects were reduced over time, a fact that was not available when the ISG report was first published.

    Unfortunately the vaccination tools we wish to use are not proven or available so the only current option is to apply a cull in badgers and a cull in diseased cattle. RTA studies reported in the RBCT suggests levels in hotspots up to 30% so there is a significant disease problem in these areas.

    During the hand wringing of the last administration TB escalated from 4000 cows/year to 26000/year so we can hardly accept that the current model is working. We must choose a path that will reduce animal suffering but also reduce the burden of pressure on the families involved. It’s easy to sneer at this pressure and make political capital out of the Tory/rural connection but the pressure is very real and the emotional and financial toll are dramatic.

    I have no doubt that there are many systematic failings from AHVLA on the way the system is currently implemented, and that can be improved I know, I’m a victim of many but I also know that there’s a high probability that badgers brought TB to my herd because we don’t buy in cattle and there are no deer in our area.

    It is possible for me to try and restrict badger access to feed and some of our housing but completely absurd to suggest we can eliminate badger cattle interaction completely as our cows graze for 9 months of the year. There’s a limit to how biosecure we can make our facilities not least because of the costs. It has to be remembered that for the vast majority of dairy farmers the cost of production still exceeds the price paid by processors.

    I have been happy to use the gamma interferon test, despite the 4% false positives, to try and eradicate TB from my herd as quickly as possible but we have not been successful to date. The reality is that we now face farming with TB for an undefined period so business planning is impossible, the costs are huge and I am stuck. I can’t get out and have to endure undermined losses for an undetermined period, how can I continue to invest in that situation.Those that are on the front line living on farms where TB exists cannot be dismissed

    What we need is a clear strategy to eliminate TB. If we can utilise rapid badger side tests for cage trapped badgers we might be able to distinguish between diseased badgers and healthy ones allowing us to vaccinate those that are healthy while culling those that are not. Without the development of a strategy to do this a broader cull to clear out infected badgers in an area is essential to stop the cycle of infection. It is a political judgement but I think unless we can find a suitable plan B a cull is the right one.

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