Photo: Badger, Badger, Badger from FatMandy Flickr photo stream

I have never really been that bothered about badgers – I noticed: the wildlife programs; the cuddly toys; and even that they have a certain cuteness.  But other than this I had no strong opinions about badgers.  I was then a bit surprised at my own annoyance to the recently announced first mass badger cull.  I had to ask myself why I was so irritated.

The first licence for the mass culling of Badgers in England was issued on September 17th  and covered a 300 square-kilometre region of Gloucestershire.  Licences in other areas are expected to follow.  This step is being taken in an attempt to control the spread of tuberculosis (TB) to cattle – with badgers being seen as a ‘natural’ reservoir of infection.  A total figure of 28,541 infected animals in 2010 alone, and a cost to the taxpayer in England of £500m to control over the last 10 years seems to call for drastic measures.   In addition farmers who have to destroy infected cattle are not adequately compensated for their losses and many already living in financially acute conditions.

There can be little doubt that badgers, like most wild animals, carry zoonotic diseases – ones that can be transmitted to other species.  Yet the benefits of a mass cull are far from clear.  The only Randomised Badger Culling Trial set up in 1997 after the Krebs review found that culling could slightly reduce levels of TB among cattle in the targeted regions but that rates subsequently increased in neighbouring areas.  Moreover any reduction in levels of TB could not be maintained in the long term and benefits did not justify the costs of culling.  Members of the government’s Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB (ISG) concluded that “badger culling is unlikely to contribute effectively to the control of cattle TB in Britain”.

Perhaps then my negative reaction to the cull policy was because this was the latest example of politicians ignoring sound scientific advice for short term political advantage.  The intention to cull was originally announced in 2010 by the then agriculture minister James Paice, a Conservative politician and former farmer who had promised to act while in opposition.  This could be interpreted as a policy to bolster support for the Tory led coalition in rural communities.

I am not the only one concerned about the badger cull.  As part of a wider study into how biosecurity interfaces with other concerns in our global world, I and my colleagues have been asking members of the public about their concerns about zoonotic diseases.  The project is mainly geared towards worries about avian flu but the subject of badgers was raised spontaneously in all but one focus group. People did not express concern about the plight of the badger for sentimental reasons but rather they talked of this animal as a proxy for debates about uncertainty and doubt. The badger case speaks to wider issues in terms of disease management and modern farming. Everyone we spoke to seemed to be well aware that there were two sides to the ‘what is to be done’ debate and were very cautious about cutting this particular ‘Gordian Knot’.

The government in acting unilaterally to favour one side of the debate may have shot ‘themselves in the foot’ by pushing people to ‘make their minds up’ prematurely.  Early indications are that this issue is now gathering strong opposition with an anti-cull e-petition gaining over 100,000 votes, mass protests planned and police holidays cancelled.  It also seems to slam the door shut on any notion of evidenced based policy that may have wider implications than the fate of a few badgers.

Update: When is a U-Turn not a U-Turn? When it’s a shelf

23 October 2012

The Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, today announced that the proposed pilot cull of badgers in two areas will be ‘shelved’ until the summer of 2013.  The stated reasons were because of ‘bad weather’ during the summer and the recognition, late in the day, that there were far greater numbers of badgers in the target areas than originally budgeted or planned for.   The statement was made against the backdrop of legal challenge from the Badger Trust, continued scientific resistance and public opposition.  The Minister was however clear that the policy was “absolutely intact. We will deliver pilot culls from next summer.”  What is not clear is if anything will be very different by next summer.  The desire to refer to this as a delay, rather than completely forsaking the policy, may be because the coalition seems to be suffering from its own epidemic of damaging and contagious U-turns.