Badgers are among the most iconic of the UK’s wild mammals, but their future is under threat from official plans to slaughter them en masse in a misguided attempt to control tuberculosis in cattle.
Measuring up to a meter long, weighing in at 7-14 kg, and with a distinctive black and white striped face, the European badger (Meles meles) is a striking and distinctive denizen of the British countryside.
Largely nocturnal by nature, badgers are social animals, and typically live in clans of six to eight individuals, although up to 35 have been recorded in large setts. It is estimated that the UK is home to around 40,000 clans, comprising a total of 300,000 badgers. They are most common in the south and west and inhabit predominantly rural areas, although urban badgers are an increasingly common sight, particularly along the south coast and in some southern towns and cities.
Badgers are protected under EU and UK legislation, specifically by the Protection of Badgers Act 1992.
Bovine tuberculosis (bTB) is a serious chronic infectious disease of cattle caused by the bacterium Mycobacterum bovis. It has been a problem for British cattle farmers since the 1930s, and spiralled out of control in the latter part of the 20th century. Associated statutory cattle testing, compensation to farmers and government-led surveillance and research currently cost UK taxpayers around £100 million each year.
Direct transmission between cattle is the most common way for the disease to be spread, although a number of wild animal species are also at risk from it. Badgers seem to be particularly susceptible. In the worst bTB-affected areas in southwest England and west Wales, up to one in seven badgers may be infected.
Since the first bTB-positive badger was officially discovered in the 1970s, debate has raged over whether badgers are a significant source of the disease for cattle. Various, largely uncoordinated badger slaughter programmes were undertaken during the following decades, but the problem of bTB in cattle continued.
1998: In order to try and evaluate the role of badgers in the spread of bTB, the Ministry of Agriculture commissioned the largest field trial ever undertaken to investigate an infectious disease of wildlife, the so-called ‘Randomised Badger Culling Trial’ (RBCT), in 1998. The trial, which was interrupted by the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001, lasted for 10 years and cost taxpayers approximately £50 million.
2007: In its final report in 2007, the Independent Scientific Group (ISG) charged with evaluating the results of the RBCT concluded that ‘badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain’, and in subsequent peer-reviewed scientific publications, members of the ISG found that ‘reductions in cattle TB incidence achieved by repeated badger culling were not sustained in the long term after culling ended’. The ISG identified weaknesses in cattle TB testing, and the movement of cattle, as being the major factors contributing to the spread of bTB.
In response to these findings, the Labour government of the time announced that it had no plans to reintroduce badger slaughter.
2008, 2010: Stricter controls on cattle movement and testing were introduced in 2008 and have resulted in significant reductions in the numbers of cattle culled and herds under movement restriction, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ own figures. This improvement has taken place without a single badger being slaughtered. Welsh Assembly plans for the mass slaughter of badgers in west Wales were halted on legal grounds following an appeal by the Badger Trust in July 2010.
2010: However, the incoming UK Coalition government set out to re-examine the issue, publishing plans for landowner-led mass slaughter of badgers in high-risk areas of England, which it put out for public consultation in late 2010. The Welsh Assembly published similar proposals for an ‘Intensive Action Area’ in west Wales, and also launched a public consultation.
Completed in December 2010, the results of the Welsh consultation were not widely publicised, although the vast majority of respondents expressed their opposition to badger slaughter. At the time of this writing in July 2011, the results of the consultation in England, also completed in December 2010, have not been disclosed.
2011: In spite of the consultation results, the Welsh Assembly passed legislation in March 2011 to allow the mass slaughter of badgers in the Intensive Action Area, although following the elections of April 2011, the incoming government has indicated that the decision will be subject to a review process.
If these proposals go ahead, it could mean the slaughter of tens of thousands of badgers, most of which will not be infected with bTB, and represent no risk to anything. The methods of slaughter proposed include the shooting of free-running badgers, which could result in unclean kills and injuries, with severe consequences for animal welfare.
2012: In January, the Westminster government announced pilot zones for the slaughter of badgers in parts of England.
HSI/UK submitted a formal complaint to the Bern Convention and held an event at the House of Commons in February.
There was good news from Wales in March, when John Griffiths, Welsh Assembly Minister for Environment and Economic Development, announced that plans to kill badgers, proposed by the previous government, had been scrapped in favour of a five-year vaccination scheme.
In October, the government announced a postponement of the culls, confirming they would go ahead in both pilot areas in 2013.
2013: In March, Natural England issued authorisation to two companies, one each in Somerset and Gloucestershire, to undertake a six-week programme of badger culling to commence from 1 June onwards.
The cull in Somerset began in late August. The cull company applied for a three-week extension and this was granted, allowing the killing to continue until 1 November. In total 940 badgers were killed.
In Gloucestershire, shooting began in early September. An extension, of 8 weeks, was granted by Natural England on 23 October but that was later revoked, three weeks before it was due to end, on 30 November. In total 921 badgers were killed.
Members of the Independent Expert Panel analysed data from the first six weeks of the culling in order to consider the effectiveness (ability to kill 70 per cent of badgers in the cull zone); the humaneness (suffering of individual badgers shot during the cull); and the safety of so-called “controlled” shooting (the killing of free roaming badgers at night).
2014: In February we revealed that reports from Natural England’s own observers detailed badger suffering and breaches of biosecurity measures during the culls.
In April, the Independent Expert Panel released its report, revealing that the culls had failed on both effectiveness and humaneness.
At the same time, the Secretary of State announced that although culling would not be rolled out to additional areas of England, the two pilot culls, in Gloucestershire and Somerset, would be allowed to continue.
2015: An licence was issued for an additional cull zone, in Dorset. Culling started in that county in September 2015.
2016: In February, the government announced it was considering 29 new applications for badger culling licences, covering nine counties of England: Cheshire, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Somerset, Wiltshire and Worcestershire.
If permission is granted, this could result in the deaths of tens of thousands of healthy badgers.
Opposition to plans for killing badgers
HSI opposes the mass slaughter of badgers as a control measure for bTB, on the grounds that such action compromises the welfare and conservation of badgers, which are a protected species, and is not supported as an effective method by the available scientific evidence or public opinion.
HSI recognizes that bTB causes suffering to both cattle and farmers, and imposes a large economic burden on the taxpayer. It urges the government to explore all humane means of controlling the disease; in particular, the introduction of further controls on the testing and movement of cattle, investigation and elimination of illegal practices designed to avoid cattle controls, and further research into the efficacy of vaccination programmes for both cattle and badgers.