Badgers have important place – in a well-balanced countryside
I was very glad to see Minette Batters' article (WMN September 7) which questioned the strategies of wildlife organisations and their dithering over ecological imbalance and the obvious effects of a growing badger population. As someone who has both dairy farmed and worked in animal health, I have suffered and experienced the effects and growth of bovine tuberculosis (bTB), and like many others have no wish to see the demise of 'Brock' the badger.
Culling anything is a difficult concept to accept, not least when applied to an animal which has played great part in both our imagination and our environment. The aim of the current culling is not to destroy the badger as a species, but to create a healthy population which will contribute to a balanced ecological environment. We must remember that badgers are not endangered. They were protected initially in the 1970s because of 'badger baiting', not because there was concern over numbers or their future survival.
Over the last 30 years there have been selected programmes which have succeeded in radically reducing bTB. This involved culling infected areas in rings, and enabling healthy setts to re-occupy cleared areas (Clean Ring Cycle). This would have continued in the 1990s, but for government reports which sought principally to save money and seek a very much needed vaccine.
Because of political indecision – even prevarication – around 2008-9, there has been a continual sharp rise in the level of infection of bTB in both badgers and cows. From 2000 to 2008 the incidence of bTB in cattle rose from a few cattle a year to over ten thousand in Devon alone. I worked in a Defra team which exercised a policy which was no more than a shoring up exercise, and consequently witnessed the rise of bTB in cattle week-by-week. I also witnessed the raw end of TB in the abattoir, where the real consequences of dithering on policy were evident. "Why worry," a desperate farmer commented, "about a hundred dead black and white cattle, when you have saved one infected black and white badger…"
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For those of you who are squeamish and feel for the plight of the badger, consider the 180 plus cattle going through a Devon slaughter house each week as victims of bTB. Consider further what happens in the advanced stages of TB, when the cow slowly suffocates (as does the badger) and dies. The infection of bTB is a vicious, unforgiving interaction between the two species and it must be halted.
This culling programme may succeed or even fail. If it fails it is not because the reasons for culling are not genuine or proven, but because the preparation for it has been stifled by past political expedience and cost-cutting exercises. We must believe in and support farming and the production of food as something which is vital for the sustainability of our country and believe that disease in any form should be eradicated.
I believe that the sadness – perhaps even the crime – is that this culling could have been avoided. At a time when it was obvious the rise in bTB was dramatic and costly, when senior vets in the animal health offices were ignored and when there was a need for courage and foresight – sadly lacking in the government of the day, no measures were taken to stem it. If the testing of badgers had continued we would be in a very different place today.
Minette Batters challenged wildlife trusts last week, to comment about the status quo in our countryside – where some have admitted that the badger population has "exploded" at the expense of other species such as the hedgehog and the Bumble-bee. Just as with past government expedience, we seem to be experiencing a similar silence or deafness on policy within these groups. Is it, I wonder, a case of intimidation? That perhaps individuals remain silent and will not comment because they feel they lack 'authority' and organisations fear the consequences of losing loyalty and membership? If it is, then it is a sad state when common sense will not prevail, for surely these organisations have a duty to look at the overall.
The badger is part of our environment and a joy to see. I like many others have gone out at night to watch them. But badgers, like any other species must be healthy contextually and considered in a similar light as other species. This sad culling business is not just about a cow versus a badger operation, but harmony. It is about seeking a healthy, balanced countryside and the sustainability of our many valued species including, not only Brock the badger… but the busy bumble-bee and bumbling Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, the hedgehog.