Hats off to the Badgers

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My love for the badgers came from sympathy towards to the protagonist of John Clare’s poem, Badger. Our little friend is targeted by drunkards and townsfolk whom torment and attack him, and eventually kill him. I suggest you read it; unless you are a GCSE English student and you should have read it already, you lazy git!

And I have acted opposite a badger in Wind in the Willows as Mole. Well, not a real badger. A human pretending to be a badger, and he did a bloody good job! That badger helped me out when those pesky weasels were picking on me.

As you may or may not know, our lovely badger friends are being persecuted by the most unlikely of antagonists: The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Or Defra, for short. Not exactly SPECTRE from James Bond with David Heath as a Blofeld figure. Defra have authorised their minions, the farmers to cull badgers in Gloucestershire and Somerset to prevent the spread of bovine TB to cows.

It appears to be simple black and white: cull the badgers, stop the spread. But no, dear reader! That is certainly not the case. Independent scientists who did not come from the £50m study which suggested the cull have pointed out “badger culling has positive and negative effects on bovine TB and is difficult, costly and controversial.”.

Professor Sir Robert Watson, former science adviser to Defra, plainly said: “Culling won’t solve the problem nationally.”

Over 70% of the badger population in the areas affected by the cull will be killed – even the healthy ones. This is like going to the vets with your cat or dog for a routine check-up and the vet says, “I am sorry, Mr McLaughlin, but we are going to have to put him down.” Why?! “Because he’s a dog.” My cat once had a cold, so do we blame him for the spread of influenza?

BBC News, in a Question and Answer session on their website, noted that it is not clear how big a role badgers play in the spread of bovine TB since the cows can also pass the disease on to other members of the herd. What do we do now? Kill the cows? Oh look! A small child coughed! Off with his head!

This may seem rather emotive and hyperbolic, but I cannot understand the government’s decision to authorise the cull. An editorial in The Guardian read: “Once again a British government has chosen to seek the best possible scientific advice and then ignore it.” It is like David Heath paying a visit to his GP with the advice: don’t worry, it is just a common cold; a couple of days and you will be fine. And he reports back: “Yep, definitely cancer, chaps.”

Shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh responded: “Ministers should listen to the scientists and can this cull which is bad for farmers, bad for taxpayers and bad for wildlife.” Whilst the Daily Mail accuses the government of making a decision based on politics rather than science, with Professor Watson adding the decision for the cull may have been due to ‘economics’.

Bad Science writer, Ben Goldacre added:

“You’d have thought this culling should do some good, or at least no harm. In fact, the ‘reactive’ culling was stopped after a few years when the rates of cattle TB infections in these areas turned out to be higher than the areas with no culling, by about 20%.”

It has been predicted that the cull may do more harm than good. The perturbation effect, argues Goldacre, could be a result of the badger cull. Badgers live in groups defined by territorial boundaries. If you kill some of those badgers, the groups are disrupted and the animals move away spreading the infections more widely.

The badger cull is supposed to be a scientific trial. But the trial which inspired it (the Krebs trial) differs from this version. The Krebs trial trapped badgers in cages before they were killed, while the main method for this trial is free shooting. This is very un-scientific. Even I, with B in GCSE Science, knows that any deviation from the methods in the original trial will affect the expected result thus rendering it…well…inaccurate. Plus Lord Krebs, who is one of the most respected scientific advisers for the government, believes it will be very hard to see how Defra are going to collect the crucial data to assess whether it’s worth going ahead with free shooting.

So what do we do instead of the cull to prevent bovine TB spread in cows? Lord Krebs suggests “the vaccination and biosecurity route” instead of the “crazy scheme that may deliver very small advantage, may deliver none.” Biosecurity – stopping badgers from getting into farm buildings – costs £4000. Whereas it would cost farms £27,000 for culling. According to BBC News, each pilot cull will cost about £100,000 a year and policing costs of £500,000 per cull. Which is the most financially sound option?

Ben Goldacre suggests that “the right thing to do next is a new trial, this time in the real world, with no magic”. Such is the way of science. At secondary school, I was taught to perform an experiment over and over again to receive the best results. Goldacre argues that in the case of the badger cull, the missing ingredient from Defra is “will”.

RSPCA chief executive Gavin Grant calls for boycott over farmers’ milk who are involved in the cull. He said, “Those who care will not want to visit areas or buy milk from farms soaked in badgers’ blood.” This is effectively consumers voting with their feet.

I think there is better way to end this article than quoting the end of The Guardian editorial on the badger cull:

“At the end of the exercise, England’s dairy farmers will still be no better off, and the wild landscape will be a great deal poorer. Crazy seems too mild an epithet.”

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