Vet Ethics: A badger brouhaha

The badger is one of those animals to have shuffled its way into the human imagination. My first exposure to badger folklore was when my father told me that a harassed badger could be uncommonly fierce, and that, like a wolverine or a Tasmanian Devil, he packed a punch beyond his diminutive size. This idea of a small British creature taking on large dogs, or even wolves and bears, appealed to a young boy’s imagination.

Around the same time, I read about Badger from Wind in the Willows. Badger was short-tempered, intimidating, and did not suffer fools gladly – the fool, of course, being Mr Toad. Bill Murray’s badger character from the recent Fantastic Mr Fox film fought – or “cussed” – with George Clooney’s Mr Fox. Badgers have also featured in stories by Richard Adams, Beatrix Potter, Lewis Carroll, and in an episode of The Simpsons.

Badgers have been eaten and used for their pelts in various parts of the world. Until the 1800s, they were subject to baiting in the UK. Things have somewhat changed. Now badgers in Britain (the European badger is called Meles Meles) have greater security in the form of the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, which prescribes criminal penalties for harming or killing the animals. Prior to that, they were gassed in their setts to prevent the spread of Bovine Tuberculosis (bTB).

As I write, badgers are once again in the news in the UK. Brian May has just led a demonstration in London against the Tory Government’s plan to cull some of them. May, from the rock group Queen, released a very Queen-esque snippet – a short song of protest called Badger, Badger, Badger. This old rocker is an eloquent spokesperson for the anti-cull side. He is joined by Bill Oddie, for many years an enthusiastic advocate for wild British creatures. Oddie is now looking as fiercely resolute as a wounded badger. Some other celebrities, plus the Badger Trust and the RSPCA, are similarly set against the cull.

The trigger to all this was the re-emergence of mycobacterium bovis or bovine TB, perhaps resulting from the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak which saw the introduction of new cattle. The bacterium can move into the badger population and from there back to cattle via badger excretions. Last year, farmers culled over 20,000 cattle that were infected. Not only is this bad for cattle, it also impacts substantially on farmers and the economy.

Although Wales has decided against killing badgers, England’s south-west (Somerset and Gloucestershire) is to undergo a pilot program from June 1. This highly controversial plan was authorised by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Its aim is to reduce the population of badgers by 70 per cent by giving legal exemptions to farmers to shoot several thousand animals over a six week period. This is to be repeated annually. The stated problem with vaccinating the livestock themselves is that they would then fail a tuberculin test, thereby excluding British cattle from the European Union and its market.

The arguments in this debate turn on three things: money, science, and animal welfare. The government says that vaccinating badgers against TB – which has been available for many years – is too costly. To do it, badgers need to be trapped in large numbers and injected. Furthermore, culling supporters claim, the injectable vaccination for badgers is not effective enough, and will not work in already infected animals. We will have to wait several years before an oral vaccine becomes available. Meanwhile, thousands of cattle will become infected and be culled.

The anti-culling camp has advanced several arguments. It claims that trap-and-vaccinate programs, especially when aided by volunteer groups, can be relatively cost effective. Moreover, some argue, the shooting program simply will not work. For instance, a series of government backed trials in the 1990s found that culling is unlikely to have more than a modest effect on TB in cattle. Killing badgers, the report said, may even make it worse by dispersing badger populations and spreading the infection. Many independent scientists have also criticised the cull. Furthermore, say critics of the government, a determined program of vaccinating badgers can reduce the incidence of TB in cattle over time. Cattle too should be vaccinated, others would contend, even though that imperils trade.

Another argument advanced against the shooting scheme concerns animal welfare. Opponents suggest that shooting is often inhumane, especially since wounded badgers will go into their burrows to die. Their young, in addition, will potentially succumb to starvation. The previous method of culling was to trap and kill by lethal injection. But shooting, say some, necessarily carries far greater welfare hazards.

Part of the difficulty of this debate is that there seems to be no solution yet that is (a) certain to work and (b) not greatly harmful to animals. It is reminiscent of problems here in Australia, like those we have with feral animals. At this stage at least, it is impossible to remove them and impossible to reduce the numbers of feral animals without causing great suffering. The great love that many people have for badgers in Britain has made that debate a particularly acute and heated controversy.

SIMON COGHLAN