Is killing badgers ever a black and white issue?
As a cull of these protected animals gets under way in England in a bid to curb the spread of bovine TB which costs farmers millions of pounds, we ask if such drastic action is really justified
No says Jennifer Fulton, CEO Ulster Wildlife
As the controversial culling of badgers to reduce the incidence of bovine TB in cattle gets under way in the face of angry opposition in England, it is good to see a more responsible and humane approach adopted in the devolved regions.
Scotland is a bTB-free region, achieving the status without badger culling. Wales has rolled out a badger vaccination programme and Northern Ireland is piloting a Test-Vaccinate-Remove (TVR) strategy.
England is pursuing a widespread and intensive culling effort in an attempt to eradicate the disease within bTB hotspots. Farmers will commit to culling at least 70% of the badgers on their land. These badgers can only be shot when outside of their sett and after dark; they will not be trapped.
This policy is unlikely to solve the problem of bTB in England in the longer term. More likely it will:
Widen the divide between urban and rural dwellers
Reinforce the need for ethical production standards by the supermarkets who will react to consumer preferences
Lead to an increase in bTB levels in surrounding areas as shown in the Krebs Trial, one of the most comprehensive culling trials to date.
Bovine TB is a complex and multi-faceted disease and as such there is no quick-fix solution. It costs the NI government between £25-30m annually and it is also a very real issue for the farming community.
Once bTB is identified, herd restrictions are imposed which negatively impact on livelihoods and can cause stress and hardship to the farming family. There is no doubt that the disease needs to be tackled. However, any control strategy needs to address all the risk factors including on farm biosecurity and cattle movements.
The badger is a protected species under the EU Berne Convention and evidence would suggest that only a relatively small percentage are infected by bTB and it is only in the latter stages of the disease that they become infectious. This is due to the fact that badgers can harbour the disease but don't actually excrete the bacteria that enable the disease to be transmitted from on animal to another.
TVR will look to trap and test badgers in areas with a high incidence of bTB. Badgers that test negative for bTB will be vaccinated and infected animals will be removed. It is anticipated that only a small percentage of badgers will be removed during this process. This approach aims to reduce the disease loading within both the cattle and the badger populations.
Yes says Harry Sinclair, Ulster Farmers' Union President
For over six decades Bovine TB has blighted the farming industry. In the last 15 years alone it has cost taxpayers over £317m and not to mention the burden and stress it has put on farmers.
TB is a horrible disease and it is heartbreaking to see any animal suffering from it. On top of having to watch his animals in distress, any farmer forced to close his herd because of TB will be under considerable pressure. If even just one animal tests positive, the whole herd is affected. Cattle cannot be moved or sold live. Essentially a farmer's livelihood is put on hold when TB is found in a herd.
Following the fodder crisis earlier this year, herd restrictions for those farmers closed with TB have caused even more difficulties than normal.
For those farmers who rely on selling animals to markets, TB herd restrictions can cause significant issues with overstocking and the UFU has been pushing for 'Approved Finishing Units' to be established.
This would allow for affected cattle to be moved safely and help take some of the pressure off those herds closed with TB.
In Northern Ireland, significant progress has been made to tackle cattle-to-cattle transmission of TB, although much of the burden has fallen on farmers. But TB in wildlife remains a contentious issue, and one that must be addressed.
The annual testing for TB is a huge burden on farmers. It has been estimated that 70% of the overall administrative cost associated with testing is carried by the farmer.
It is incredibly frustrating when you go to all this effort and then the disease remains in wildlife population. It is a vicious cycle. A herd goes down with TB, the cattle are slaughtered, the farm restocks and eventually goes down again with TB because the disease remained on the farm in wildlife.
The Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister has pushed ahead with a two-part research programme that will involve surveying, testing, vaccinating and releasing healthy badgers, and removing those infected.
This is a step in the right direction. But we don't want to see the research stage dragging on for ages. If the programme is delivering results, it should be rolled out as quickly as possible.
It is in everyone's interests that we remove this dreadful disease from both cattle and wildlife populations and I am convinced that if the right action is taken then this can be achieved.