Act now to end the suffering for badgers
It is time the impact of TB in an expanding badger population was recognised says Cornish farmer and regional TB representative for the National Beef Association Bill Harper.
Just because these sick animals are publicity shy doesn't mean they are not suffering. Yet for badgers, it seems, their suffering goes largely unnoticed.
Much publicity has been given lately to targeting badger setts only harbouring infected badgers. Commonsense indicates this is the right way forward. Yet practically it is impossible. There is no current feasible or scientific means to do so and it is against EU legislation to both interfere with a badger sett and leave dead badgers underground.
There are issues over how to tell whether a sett harbours infected badgers – it is impossible to know the level of infection without testing faeces and urine samples. Disturbing a sett only disorganises its population, resulting in infected badgers moving away into uninfected areas and unwittingly spreading the disease.
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There will be no improvement until bovine TB is eradicated from within the wildlife population. England is the only country with this disease that chooses not to do so.
Only when all sides of the debate understand this and work towards that objective will there be a change in the status quo. In the meantime, more cattle will be slaughtered needlessly while an increasing badger population – which is protected and hence an ideal environment for spreading a highly infectious disease – will suffer even more.
Unlike other species, badgers suffer for many years while infected with TB. When very sick, their kidneys are heavily infected with TB bacilli. As a result, vast quantities of infected urine lies on grazed pasture and other cattle feeds.
When the disease is at this level the only recourse is to drop the population to a level where there is no competition for territory.
Boundary disputes are often resolved through heavy fighting – another key precursor to disease transmission, as infected badgers pass on the TB bacteria through bite wounds.
Research has shown not all infected badgers have lesions indicative of TB. This means they carry the disease, but lesions have yet to form. In fact, over a ten-year period 80 per cent of infected badgers in Gloucestershire and Cornwall failed to show lesions of disease. So badgers acquire dormant infection reactivated in later life.
An overcrowded population and damp environment are two prime stressful situations to trigger off the disease.
It is therefore obvious these are the animals which must be stopped in their tracks if this disease is to be controlled.
Vaccinating the badger population is not the answer. The vaccine does not cure infected badgers and hence will do little to control the disease. Remember, these are wild animals and very difficult to catch.
Many badgers go unvaccinated so those already infected will still spread the disease to unvaccinated stock. To date, this procedure has cost an unfeasible £660 per badger in Wales (the UK population is estimated officially to stand at 900,000).
Perhaps the public is unaware farmers have very stringent regulations to comply with to minimise cattle-to-cattle transmissions. Statistics show a majority of cattle TB reactors are found at the end of the grazing season before cattle are housed for winter.
If cattle-to-cattle transmission was the main vector for this disease's spread, farmers would notice a significant increase in reactors when testing before turnout in spring.
The EU has made it abundantly clear there will be no vaccination programme before 2023. What is so frustrating is that there is a solution to this problem. The pilot badger cull areas have been carefully chosen because they are the most highly infected in the country. Let Defra carry out its cull here unhindered. Yes, a population of uninfected badgers will be sacrificed. But this fact will in no way equate to the 29,000 cattle condemned each year because they have tested positive for the disease.
In these hotspot areas, a quarter of farms are under restriction because their cattle have failed TB tests.
The two trial areas have excellent natural boundaries due to the sea, large rivers and motorways and so will ensure the population remains contained. Removing infected stock will significantly contribute to stopping this disease spreading out of the West Country at a rate of ten miles a year.
A second method of controlling this disease must be implemented to stop it spreading in other areas where the badger population is not so heavily infected and sett testing and infected-sett removal are realistic solutions.
Using the same measures as you would to control a fire this fight can be won. You must control the seat of the fire, as well as take measures to prevent it spreading. Only then will you put it out and secure the future of both our cattle and our wildlife.