Rural battle lines are drawn

The first licence for a pilot cull of badgers has been issued, in a step the Government hopes will pave the way for more widespread culling to tackle tuberculosis in cattle.

Badger in the wood by Darin SmithWILDLIFE DEBATE: As many as 3,000 badgers could be killed during the cull, which farmers say is necessary to tackle TB in cattle

A PANEL of judges recently gave the go-ahead for a trial badger cull in England in an effort to stop bovine tuberculosis (TB) spreading to cattle. Badgers will be shot in Gloucestershire and Somerset once full culling licences are issued by the Government’s environment advisory organisation Natural England.

But will it help eradicate the disease and stop cattle from being infected? Or is it an unnecessary exercise which will see the pointless destruction of one of the countryside’s most loved creatures? Here, The Northern Echo gives individuals on both sides of the debate a chance to air their views.

DAVID MAUGHAN, a County Durham cattle farmer and member of the National Farmers’ Union, said: “There is no doubt that the issue of how to control the inexorable spread of bovine TB – a terrible disease that resulted in the slaughter of more than 32,000 cattle in 2010 – is a very difficult one.

“In the North-East, I’m pleased to say, our badger population is healthy and TB-free and, while we have had the odd case of TB on farms in the region, our cattle population remains TB-free too.

“This means that farmers here are in an enviable position compared to other parts of the country, where the disease is now endemic.

“As a long standing member of the Government’s national TB eradication group I have seen the devastation caused in those areas and that reinforces the need to do everything possible to keep it at bay and protect both our cattle and our wildlife. Currently, the disease is only being tackled through measures designed to control it in cattle - compulsory slaughter, movement restrictions and so on.

"But it is clear after decades of battling it this way that the strategy is not working.

"We need to tackle it on all fronts and that means confronting the fact that wild badgers also carry and spread the disease.

"While some early studies suggested that a cull would have limited impact, the latest evidence from long-term studies indicates that a strategic, targeted cull in key areas where the disease is endemic will reduce the incidence of the disease in cattle. This is vital in the longterm campaign against the disease, with the availability of an oral vaccine for badgers some years off and an approved cattle vaccine three or four years away, plus another four or five years until it takes full effect.

"We simply cannot wait that long if we are to protect our local badgers and cattle.

"Farmers are doing everything possible to protect the region - going over and above legal requirements on pre and post-movement testing for example.

"The industry is getting desperate, but this is not about eradicating badgers, it is about eradicating TB.

"We need to tackle this terrible disease and protect parts of the country like ours, where, so far, it has not taken hold." For more information about the disease and an insight into what life is like trying to fight it, go to  tbfreeengland.co.uk

BOB ROBSON, chairman of Durham County Badger Group, said: “Badgers are an iconic animal and worthy of protection. Our group protects setts that are vulnerable and lobbies MPs and other decision-makers to improve the protection of badgers.

“We also advise councils on planning issues where developments may disrupt the badger population. Our purpose is to ensure its longterm safety and survival.

“We are fundamentally against a cull and see no hard scientific evidence that suggests a cull would be of any use.

“It may well make the situation worse. If this cull results in badgers – who are not carrying TB and who have successfully defended their territories against other badgers that may well be carriers – being wiped out, then the other badgers will move into their area, taking their place. The nature of the cull is such that you don’t know whether the badgers you are shooting are healthy or carriers of TB.

“Badgers are also not the only creature who carry this disease – deer are carriers. There are more chances of cattle picking it up from deer because they will graze in the same field.

“We are disappointed that the Government has not pursued an alternative to culling, for example, in Wales they are exploring vaccinating badgers to stop them catching TB.

“We recognise that the movement of cattle and the creation of TB-free herds is a major issue for some dairy farmers, but there is still evidence that unscrupulous cattle movements are not helping the situation.

“Ultimately our view is that a cull would not be efficient, is not scientific and is not cost effective because it will cost more to carry out the cull than cattle it will save. “It will also be impossible to assess or evaluate the results of the cull because it will be at least ten years before any marginal reduction in TB is calculable.” For more information about the group’s work, go to durhamcountybadgers.org.uk

Copy of an article published in the Norther Echo on 22nd September 2012