Badger scandal

August 16, 2020

A leaked government document reveals the scale of badger culling proposed for Derbyshire, undermining the country's most successful bTB vaccination programme.

Framing Nature – conservation and culture delves into questions that seem to tangle at the roots of our wildlife crisis, that concern the underlying values and attitudes that govern conservation success or failure. The badger illustrates better than any species one of those questions – why do we have such a low tolerance for problematic species?

Bovine tuberculosis is a potentially devastating disease found in badgers and cattle. When a cow tests positive, regardless of symptoms, the whole herd is slaughtered. In 70 years of compulsory herd slaughter the commercial and psychological burden on affected farmers has been harrowing. Cattle have commercially short lives, during which even infected animals are unlikely to present clinical symptoms. It is the impact of the test-and-slaughter policy rather than the disease itself that causes the greatest disruption to farm businesses.

But because it is the cattle that are continually moved about the landscape and the badgers that stay in their ancestral domain, badgers are described as a reservoir for the disease, thus by a simple choice of language defining them as the problem. The result has been described as the greatest destruction of a protected species on record. My essay on the badger was possibly the hardest thing I have had to research and write.

badger linocut by richard allen for framing nature by laurence rose
Framing Nature chapter heading by Richard Allen

Exactly a year ago I was in Derbyshire with a team from the Wildlife Trust. They were two years into the Derbyshire badger vaccination programme which has been funded for four years by a £300,000 government grant matched by £100,000 from the National Trust. Hanging over the biggest and most successful vaccination programme in the country was an imminent government decision that threatened to undermine all that they had achieved so far. In a bid to expand the cull still further, farmers had been invited to form local companies to undertake badger culling across wider swathes of England. Four Derbyshire farmers had formed such a company and applied for the county to be included in a list of ten new cull zones. If successful, they would have undermined the entire vaccination project, making it impossible to assess the efficacy of either the vaccination or the cull.  Vaccinated badgers risked being killed despite being no possible threat.

All this was coming to a head as I was finishing Framing Nature. I left it until the last minute to finish the badger chapter, and was able to report that the government had turned down the Derbyshire cull proposal. At the same time, the government appeared to announce that it was stepping up its efforts to establish a cattle vaccination programme so as to phase out badger culling. This apparent good news also made it into the book, just. In the section at the end of the book usually reserved for references and endnotes I allowed space for any final updates that may be squeezed in at the final proof-reading stage. Two weeks ago I was able to add:

Update August 2020: the new strategy purports to focus on the 94% of herds infected by other cattle, rather than the 6% infected by badgers. However the government has not kept its promise to pilot badger vaccination in areas in which culling licences have expired. Instead, it licensed another five years of culling on all the land that would have been eligible for a pilot. They also published proposals to facilitate culling around vaccinated land, especially in Derbyshire. I and thousands of others have contributed to legal challenges.

This week a leaked government document confirmed the target of between 2054 and 2785 badgers to be killed in Derbyshire this autumn and winter. To quote the final words of chapter 4: the killing will end when the politics dictates, not the science.

The full story of our troubled relationship with the badger is found in Framing Nature – conservation and culture, published 21 September and available to order now at a pre-publication discount, including free UK P&P.

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