Could our nation's feisty watcher of the wood, the European badger (Meles meles), a species which has been wandering around the UK for >500,000 years, and the emblem of Hufflepuff, become nationally extinct? The story of badger conservation in England is unfortunately a tragic one, but one which is also brimming with hope. It's a classic tale of short-term political and economic gain winning the arm wrestle against long-term thinking, science, ethics, and general common sense. Here's the low-down:
Despite the badger being listed as a protected species in Europe, they've actually been culled for over 40 years. But after 40 years of culling these animals, with ~67,000 badgers killed since 2013 and over £100million of taxpayers dosh spent, what have we learned? We've learned that culling these animals is scientifically flawed, ineffective, cruel, and hugely costly. Despite knowing this, the culls continue... and people have had enough.
📸 Neil Aldridge
In 2016 >108,320 people urged the UK government to stop killing badgers - an awesome gathering of will! Unfortunately, like trying to tell Trump to lay off the fake tan, this plea fell on deaf ears. In their official response, the government stated they would not only keep culling badgers, but that they would extend the culls into more areas (totalling 40 areas throughout England in 2019); backing this up with cherry-picked sections of scientific studies that distort the reality. Last year 32,601 badgers were culled and this year numbers may reach 60,000 - laid out these badgers would be 5x as tall as Mount Everest!! To return this slap in the face, the public now have a new 'stop the cull' petition with nearly 300,000 signatures! It's clear the British public want their badgers protected. But why are badgers being killed in the first place?!
📸 Vets and Vet Nurses Against the Badger Cull
Tuberculosis in cows
Badgers are legally protected from killing without a license, but in 2011 culling was re-introduced as a solution to bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in the UK. This cow tuberculosis is caused by a pathogen, Mycobacterium bovis, which is believed to be spread through bodily nasties - breath, sputum, urine and poo. Following infection, the pathogen can linger in the body for years before the host becomes infectious or even shows symptoms. bTB is certainly horrendous - it devastates farming communities as thousand of cattle are slaughtered each year (33,000 in 2017), it costs taxpayers >£100 million pyr, and it's perhaps the greatest animal health threat to the UK.
📸 Lance Featherstone
How Badgers got the blame - Foot in Mouth about Foot & Mouth
In 2001 the UK Foot and Mouth crisis led to a some pivotal decision making for the future of our little badgers. Around 700,000 cows were killed to prevent foot and mouth spreading. Following this, in a hasty and desperate move to replenish farmers stocks, hundreds of thousands of cattle were quickly transported from SE England to farms all over the country - with one big problem - there were no bTB testing controls. The next year saw huge rises in incidences of bTB and a 300% rise in the number of cows slaughtered. Whilst trying to push the blame away from themselves for this poor decision making, the government scapegoated our badgers, and they've been paying the price ever since.
📸 Josh Robertson
In reality, bTB affects countless mammals, including: people, hedgehogs, horses, pigs, cattle, sheep, boar, deer, badgers, dogs, foxes, cats, and small rodents. So whilst badgers may indeed provide a reservoir for bTB within the environment, so does every mammal in the UK - how would killing one species stop this? Additionally, only a very small % of badgers have bTB, with fallow deer and cats showing a higher prevalence for bTB in many areas. Other species also come in closer contact with cows, including: deer, dogs, cats, and rats. The truth is badgers are no more to blame for the UK's bTB outbreaks than they are for causing Brexit. They were portrayed as the villain during a political election where David Cameron sought to obtain votes from farmers and rural communities.
📸 Neil Aldridge
Without knowing how bTB was spread, these farming communities had been devastated financially and emotionally by bTB outbreaks, and the Government presented an apparent solution - elect us, we'll kill the badgers, and it will all be okay. Farmers were completely deceived for political gain. Here's the science:
📸 Ric Hopkins
The Science is black & white
The biggest piece of scientific literature on the effectiveness of culling was something called the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT). This study was monstrous, covering 30 areas over a 9 year period, and it was very clear about the effects of culling:
'After careful consideration of all the RBCT and other data presented in this report, including an economic assessment, we conclude that badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain'.
Authors also go on to say that culling could make things worse through something called 'perturbation'. This is basically when btB infected badgers run away from culling areas, spreading the disease further. The report talks repeatedly about the need to replace culling with a non-lethal alternative, referring to specifically to badger vaccinations. Despite these clear statements, in a move that absolutely baffles me, politicians continue to select tiny sections of this report and use it to try support culls 🤯.
Other science tells us that for the few badgers that do have bTB, they rarely come into contact with cows. A study in 1989 found that badgers avoid cattle in both artificial and natural conditions, keeping up to 10-15m away and running quickly away from approaching cows. More recent evidence suggests the same. In 2015 researchers from Trinity College Dublin closely tracked badgers for 4 years via GPS, with Dr Nicola Marples stating the results showed 'badgers clearly avoided fields if cattle were present - if it's a field they like, they'll return when the cows are not there'. So not many badgers have bTB, and those that do seem to avoid cows - I mean, who wouldn't run from this?!
Culls are also very expensive, costing ~£6,000 per badger killed. In fact, from 2013-2017 over £16 million was spent on badger culls, with an additional £4 million spent on policing the culls in 2017. Well, maybe they're so expensive because they take such good care in exterminating badgers to the highest possible ethical standards? Nope! The government hired Professor Ranald Munro and a group of independent experts to asses the ethics of the cull. Professor Munro deemed the culls as inhumane and reported that up to 24% of badgers took >5 minutes to die, stating to the BBC:
"The numbers are huge, they really are. If you look at the likelihood of not dying within five minutes of being shot, you are looking at 3,000 badgers having suffered immense pain at a minimum. It could be as high as 9,000. There is a huge issue of suffering in these badgers."
📸 Ric Hopkins
So to recap, not only does culling have no scientific backing for its effectiveness, but it can spread bTB to more areas, it costs the taxpayer tens of millions, and it's completely unethical. Isn't there a better way?! Well, it turns out there's already a solution out there that protects farmers, cows, badgers, and taxpayers pockets.
The best policy for controlling bTB is a multi-faceted approach that incorporates many methods, including strict cattle movement and biosecurity controls. Authors of the RBCT say that: 'In contrast with the situation regarding badger culling, our data and modelling suggest that substantial reductions in cattle TB incidence could be achieved by improving cattle-based control measures.'
The idea of improved cattle control measures was also backed by a more recent report that summed up the evidence of the culls from 2013-2017. This report criticises both ministers and farmers, finding that cows have more chance of getting bTB from each other than from badgers, and places an emphasis on the need for improved cattle movement restrictions and biosecurity measures.
📸 DEFRA field workers spray boots with disinfectant after vaccinating badgers - Neil Aldridge
When these strict cattle movement and biosecurity controls are operated through an adaptive evidence-based approach, alongside tight bTB testing systems (using accurate gamma interferon blood tests not inaccurate skin tests), cattle herd depopulation where bTB is found, vaccinating reservoir species like badgers, and robust communication with all those involved, it will be a win for both badgers and people. And other countries know it!
📸 DEFRA field worker prepares bTB vaccine for badger - Neil Aldridge
After adopting this multi-pronged approach, Wales saw a 45% drop in bTB over just 5 years, and as of 2016 boasted 94% bTB free cattle. Across the EU cattle-based measures are known to be key in eradicating the disease - it was the policies of countries like Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece which are all cull and bTB free!
📸 Yusuf Akhtar
Let's compare this with England's culling strategy. New government data obtained under the freedom of information act shows that from 2017-2018 bTB incidence in the Gloucestershire culling zone increased by 130% from 10 to 23 cows. This graph taken from a government report shows btB prevalence in Wiltshire buffer area, and like many areas, showed decreases prior to culling and increases after. Whilst a few areas show very slight decreases in bTB, increasing bTB prevalence is the norm, and such figures are even more baffling when that considering cull zones have been given free veterinary assistance and biosecurity advice, and that many areas had falling bTB rates prior to the culls.
Culling is simply failing, and to repeat this strategy and expect different results would be as smart as my good friend Hei Hei.
Conserving the European badger involves tangoing with politics and economics, and in this deadly dance, an icon of the British countryside is being led to the same fate as the UK's wolves and bears. With only the ghosts of these species in our ecosystems, we have not only drained our landscapes of the excitement and wonder that draws so many people to the natural world, but have lost the key ecosystem services and financial benefits that they bring. The UK has the lowest number of carnivores in Europe - we're doing miserably in terms of wildlife conservation. But together we can change that and that's where I believe there's hope.
By standing together earlier this year, the people of the UK showed politicians how much they care about the environment, leading the UK parliament to be the first in the world to declare an “environment and climate emergency”. Across the country people are using the power of social media to form resistance groups to this ridiculous badger culling 'strategy', and they're getting quite the following: there's broad groups like Stop the Cull (~100,000 followers) and Vets and Vet Nurses Against the Badger Cull (3,200 followers) to area specific anti-cull groups in Somerset (>7,300 followers), Cheshire (~6,500 followers), Avon (2,300 followers), Wiltshire (2,600 followers), and Cornwall (3,000 followers). These groups peacefully protest, organise walks around the cull zones to protect badgers, and even (sometimes illegally) take matters into their own hands by destroying traps and releasing badgers - here's a badger release by Avon Against the Cull:
How you can help!
With badgers at the forefront, it's time to stand up for our wildlife and lead our government to real change. Let's apply a holistic, scientifically rigorous, ethical, long-term approach to solving the bTB crisis - one which does not involve culling badgers. Let's get together and protect our farmers, our environment, our wildlife, and our economy. So join, support, and get involved with a regional stop the cull group via Facebook, tweet @michaelgove to stop the cull, sign this petition to show how much you care, and share this article to help spread the word! Let's save our badgers! If not you, who?