More than 10,000 badgers have been killed this autumn in a cull supposedly to combat the disease of bovine TB in cattle. This was the fourth year of culling badgers but, in truth, we have been slaughtering our largest wild carnivore for decades. We have to ask one question: why has this bloody killing gone on for so long?
I use the b-word more as an adjective than an intensifier, since the blood of the innocents continues to be spilt. Scientists dislike value judgments such as “innocent” and “guilty”. But even if the badger was “guilty” of spreading bovine TB to cattle, it would be an innocent victim of man’s arrogance and blind stupidity.
More than 30 years ago, while working for the World Wildlife Fund, I was asked to write a book about badgers and bovine TB. The Fate of the Badger was published in 1986. I never thought the controversy over controlling the bovine TB in cattle by killing a protected wild animal would become such a tortuous saga. Astonishingly, in the three decades since then, nothing much has changed.
Thirty years ago we aimed to fight the official slaughter of a protected species through government-led badger culls by science not emotion. Then we met politics.
For three years I was an adviser to the government – a depressing experience. I had a mole in the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (now Defra). He told me that the decision to cull badgers was taken at No 10. My staunchest ally at that time was the great Phil Drabble, the countryman and presenter of One Man and His Dog. He would phone me with a stream of unprintable invective against the department. Apart from being a TV celebrity, he wrote for The Field magazine and had a direct line of communication with our opponents. Where is his equivalent today?
Politicians rise because they are clever, but few are blessed with a scientific mind. The myth of badger culpability for bovine TB in cattle is rooted in poor science – and economics.
First, the science. This year, I wrote an updated edition of The Fate of the Badger. I concluded by remarking on the size of the Mycobacterium bovis bacillum – the cause of bovine TB. At 3-4 microns, many thousands could fit on this full stop. Even at 300,000 bacilli per millilitre, it has been estimated that a cow would need to drink three millilitres of badger urine to obtain an infective dose. Thus the size of a badger is irrelevant and many other scapegoats wait in the wings – deer, dogs, cats, pigs, sheep and alpacas all also carry bovine TB.
What is not irrelevant is the mode of transmission or locus of infection: is an animal suffering pulmonary (located in the lungs and caused by inhalation of the bacilli) or extra-pulmonary (elsewhere in the body) TB? Cows tend to get the former. It has been known since the 1980s that “kissing cows” – nuzzling each other over fences – are the principal route of transmission, so why this fixation on badgers? Extra-pulmonary TB occasionally affects badgers and is caused by bite wounds affecting the neck. It is much less infectious than pulmonary TB.
Second, the economics. The economic rationale for culling badgers is bound up with the question: who controls the countryside? Just 36,000 individuals own half of rural land in England and Wales. These big landowners are members of the Country Land and Business Association and the National Farmers Union (NFU). And Defra and the NFU are bosom buddies: next door neighbours in Smith Square, London.
Modern farming is a business and there is little space for sentiment in business. The NFU is inordinately powerful, yet most farmers are pretty ignorant about life beyond the farm gate. Most have no conception of epidemiology or biological processes yet, as a force, they are loud and intimidatory, even behind the collars and ties of the NFU.
But if farmers were better businessmen, they’d rumble the NFU propaganda they’ve been fed for so long and direct their ire at the politicians, not a defenceless, harmless wild animal that just happens to be big and noticeable.
The bloody killing continues because of politics. The badger cull is an intellectual heirloom. So much has been invested in a catastrophic fallacy borne of political expediency that there is no way for the government now to save face: no hiding place despite all its exit strategies.
Continuing to cull badgers to demonstrate their commitment to tackling bovine TB, ministers cannot – dare not – admit that original fatal error. As Albert Einstein remarked: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The trouble is, as Robin Day noted during the Falklands war, politicians are “here today, gone tomorrow”. Cows continue to die of bovine TB and innocent badgers continued to be killed because politicians are the ultimate short-term animal.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 19 Dec 2016.