“Good heavens, this business about badgers has been rumbling on for nearly 40 years!” declares Jack Reedy, spokesman for Britain’s Badger Trust, a charity devoted to “the conservation and welfare” of badgers. “It’s about time it was sorted.”
The “business” in question is Britain’s controversial badger cull proposed for next spring—an effort to control the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB), which has been on the rise over the past four decades. The disease is particularly serious in the southwest of England and Wales, where badgers are known to be carriers.
Last month, Elin Jones, Wales’s rural affairs minister, and Britain’s secretary of state for agriculture, Jim Paice, announced separately they would support proposals for major badger culls. In Wales, this would take the form of government run bio-security measures, including restricting the movement of cattle, in tandem with a supervised badger control program. In England, however, the proposal would simply license farmers to shoot the protected species at will.
It is widely accepted, both by scientists and farmers alike, that the sturdy, striped members of the weasel family are carriers of bovine TB, which last year accounted for the slaughter of roughly 30,000 cattle in the area and cost taxpayers more than $100 million in testing and compensation (transmission, it is believed, occurs when infected badger urine and fecal matter are left upon cattle pastures). It’s a crisis that National Farmers Union president Peter Kendall describes as “out of control,” and in danger of spreading to other species. “It’s important to be clear: this is not about eradicating badgers, it’s about disease control,” he said.
But the badger lobby in Britain is as stubborn and tenacious as, well, badgers themselves. They argue the government’s culling proposals are counterproductive and designed primarily to appease the farm lobby. It’s no secret Britain is a nation of animal lovers—and many have a particular soft spot for the long-snouted indigenous omnivores best known for their deadly locking jaws and talent for food hoarding. Among them is the Badger Trust, which survives on donations and acts as the umbrella group for 60 local pro-badger groups across the country, and has been around since the ’70s. It was formed partly in opposition to badger baiting, an ancient and illegal blood sport in which a succession of dogs are set upon a cornered badger, which fights to the death.
While the trust was successful in convincing the Court of Appeal to overturn the planned cull for all of Wales last summer, the recent announcements from the principality—which now wants to target areas with high bTB rates—and Westminster have made it clear that the badger crusaders are being forced into a corner yet again. The trust’s Reedy vehemently dismissed piecemeal culling (i.e., farmers being licensed to shoot badgers on their own properties) as ineffective and “a good way for farmers to administer self-inflicted wounds for years to come.” It’s a position echoed by Rosie Woodroffe, a disease ecologist at the Institute of Zoology in London, whose 2007 independent study on badger culling is widely regarded as the most exhaustive and conclusive in its field. “I think it is scientifically among the worst options they could have chosen,” she recently told the Guardian of the government’s decision to license farmers to cull.
Badgers are naturally territorial, so when one population is killed, neighbouring critters will automatically move into the unused burrows, feasting on the leftover food stores and, if the previous family was infected with bTB, contract and spread the disease. According to Woodroffe, the only effective method of eradicating bTB in the badger population would be a vaccination effort combined with a large-scale cull carried out in an organized, cohesive way. It’s a seriously expensive prospect—and one that Westminster seems to have rejected out of hand. The Welsh government, on the other hand, maintains it is proposing to do something more controlled, but Reedy is skeptical they will abide by the scientific recommendations—which would be both costly and time-consuming. “The research has shown us that not unless you get above 70 per cent of badgers culled in a 300-sq.-km area will it make a whit of difference,” he says.
To make matters even more complicated, other badger activists, including Queen guitarist Brian May, contend that there is insufficient evidence to link badgers to cattle infected with bTB in the first place. “The sudden outbreaks of bTB in areas of Britain hundreds of miles apart cannot possibly be blamed on badgers, which never travel more than three or four miles from their homes in their lifetimes,” he wrote in the Guardian, condemning the proposed cull as a “slaughter” of “ancient and innocent creatures.”
It’s a controversial debate that has the two sides as firmly entrenched as a couple of baited critters. And it shows no sign of resolving itself soon. “The science behind badger behaviour is intensely sophisticated. You’ve simply got to sit down with a wet towel around your head and sort it all out,” says Reedy. Yet he remains optimistic the British badger will continue to thrive despite the uphill battle ahead. “They’re very dogged individuals who will do what it takes to survive. You’ve heard the phrase, ‘Don’t badger me’? Well, that’s where it comes from.”