Science News

Science News: Decision to drop badger cull ‘unscientific’

The news:
The decision to abandon a badger cull in Wales led to First Minister Carwyn Jones being accused of taking an ‘unscientific approach’, implying politics was the driving factor.

The background:
Bovine Tuberculosis (BovineTB) is a highly infectious disease that affects cattle and disrupts the farming industry. Infected cattle are slaughtered, which has cost the taxpayer £500million over the last 10 years.  As a zoonotic disease, it is believed that badgers roaming countrysides can carry BovineTB from infected farms to uninfected farms, spreading the disease.  Since BovineTB rose 7.5% in 2010 despite precautions such as limiting cattle movement, some argue that controlling the spread of TB in wildlife is the only way to tackle the problem.

The debate:
One proposed way to control the spread of BovineTB due to badgers is culling – the methodical shooting or other method of killing badgers.  The debate over culling is fierce though – with evidence suggesting a range of effects from culling, both beneficial and negative.

For example, the RCBT, investigated the effect of proactive culling (killing all badgers in an area) and reactive culling (killing badgers around an area following a TB outbreak), compared to no action at all.
Proactive culling reduced BovineTB within the cull area by 23.2%, but led to an increase of 24.5% in the areas around the cull area.  This is believed to be due to increased movement of badgers following a cull – some infected badgers are driven out of the area, whilst other badgers will explore the area once the current badgers are removed.  Reactive culling was found to increase BovineTB by about 27%, leading to a premature halt of this phase of the trial to minimise the damage.

The RCBT eventually concluded “badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the control of cattle TB in Britain”, supporting many who oppose badger culling.

However, a later study found that once culling had ended, the beneficial effects (ie reduction in TB incidence) increased, whilst the negative effects (increased incidence around the areas) decreased, supporting the scientific benefits of badger culling.

As well as the debate over the efficacy of culling, there is a legal debate too. Badgers are protected by law, though a licence may be obtained to “kill or take badgers, or interfere with their setts in order to prevent the spread of disease”. Many argue that the systematic killing of badgers in order to reduce the spread of TB is unethical and unlawful.

A vaccination, either for badgers or cattle, has also been suggested to help limit the spread of TB, though this is believed to be most beneficial when combined with culling.

How do you feel about culliing? Necessary or inhumane?

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