Ali Schofield on a badger cull and a load of bull

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When Ben Fogle tweeted his opposition last week to fox hunting, one user called him a “typical townie”. When he responded that he had lived and worked in the countryside for 20 years they came back to suggest he was over emotional.

You get this a lot if you take a reasoned stance on wildlife issues. Take the badger cull, set to continue this autumn. It is often reported as a battle: wildlife lovers vs farmers, town vs country, sentimentalists vs gritty realists. But scientific evidence is against it. Not to mention, actually, a good number of cattle farmers and rural landowners like the National Trust.

The Randomised Badger Culling Trial famously concluded that badger culling could make “no meaningful contribution” to bovine TB control. The scientists themselves warned the then Defra minister David Miliband that it might even make it worse since disturbance of badgers’ social groups could lead to infected survivors spreading the disease further afield. Miliband listened and, despite pressure from the National Farmers Union, said there would be no badger cull under the Labour government. David Cameron didn’t listen and, with pressure from the NFU, promised a badger cull in his winning 2010 manifesto.

Actually, the vast majority of badgers killed during the RBCT were disease-free and only 1.65 per cent of those with bTB were suffering contagious, late-stage symptoms. Perhaps this inconvenient truth is why the government has made the bizarre decision not to bother testing dead badgers. Who wants to produce more data against the badger cull, eh?

Badgers are also not the only carriers of bTB; farm cats are more likely to spread the disease. But most likely to spread bovine TB (sorry if I insult your intelligence here by stating the bloody obvious) are the bovines themselves.

In a rush to re-stock cattle herds after the devastation of foot and mouth disease in 2001, hundreds of thousands of cattle were moved around the country with no bTB testing and the number of cattle culled for bTB increased by 300 per cent in 2002.

Wales has managed to almost halve bTB in cattle recently without any badger culling, instead tightening restrictions on cattle movement, improving biosecurity and vaccinating badgers. They’ve also implemented more rigorous TB testing for cows as, alarmingly, the basic skin test used in England misses half of infected cattle. Elsewhere in the UK, an outbreak on the Isle of Skye last month put Scotland’s enviable TB-free status at risk. Broadcaster Simon King tweeted “Killing badgers is a tragic distraction to tackling the problem of bTB in cattle. There are NO badgers on Skye.”

Here’s maybe the most bizarre bit of the whole badger cull debacle – there isn’t a bTB vaccine for cows. And the government has delayed plans to develop one on the grounds of cost, while cracking on with the increasingly expensive badger cull. If I was a farmer, I’d be livid.

It’s not the only issue in our countryside where science is being ignored at taxpayers and wildlife’s expense. In order to create the high numbers of red grouse expected at a driven grouse shoot, gamekeepers burn the heather to stimulate growth of young shoots for the grouse to feed on. A recent study concluded that this heather burning degrades peatland carbon stores, known as “the Amazon of the UK”, polluting rivers and contributing to climate change. Our water treatment bills rise because of it and rural communities like Hebden Bridge – below a grouse moor under investigation by the EU for its intensive moorland management – are flooded again and again.

Despite this, landowners receive government subsidies. An investigation by Friends of the Earth found 30 grouse shooting estates – owned by lords, dukes, barons and bankers alike – had claimed more than £4 million in income support in 2014.

The government can keep payrolling damaging rural practises. Twitter trolls can goad with “over emotional townie” arguments. But the cold hard scientific facts will keep proving them wrong.

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Interact: Responses to Ali Schofield on a badger cull and a load of bull

  • Ben Haworth
    20 Oct 2017 15:50
    Unusual to get such a clearly factual piece of writing re. wildlife concerns and badger culling in particular. Science appears to be taking a back seat with that idiot Trump in the USA and the sidelining of scientific evidence (to appease farming and land owning interests) in this country.
  • It is a Big Issue - Mark AveryMark Avery
    20 Oct 2017 13:31
    […] have given me change and the magazine I usually give them both back. But that’s why I missed these excellent words from Ali Schofield in mid-September (in a larger (very good) article mostly about […]
  • Kevin clarke
    04 Oct 2017 15:45
    I love it when people use conservation companies like natural England, National trust etc etc who are against some culling , killing of our wildlife when they have been doing or allowing the killing and culling of wildlife for years.
  • Stephen King
    26 Sep 2017 10:34
    An excellent, well written, well informed, well researched and eloquent piece. If only the government would take note of the increasing realisation by many people that what they are doing is inhumane, unethical, unscientific, ineffective and hugely costly to the taxpayer. This on-going slaughter is a disgrace in any fair and civilised society!!
  • Margaret
    21 Sep 2017 15:32
    Excellent, simple, factual and thoroughly damning article - thank you. And well said, Lynne Jones, in your summary comment - I couldn't agree more.
  • Clued-Up
    19 Sep 2017 12:55
    Brilliant article, thanks! You can add to the reasons against the badger cull the well-proven facts that cattle and badgers actively avoid each other. The main route for spreading TB is through coughs and sneezes. There has to be long, close contact (about 130 hours in humans) with a TB infectious individual. It's extremely rare for badgers and cattle to EVER get close enough for either of them to cough or sneeze on the other; if they do, the contact lasts no more than fleeting seconds ...
  • Lynne Jones
    18 Sep 2017 23:04
    What a brilliant article highlighting the failings of the government and proving the cull is to appease the farmers. It's also true that anyone showing compassion for the plight of our wildlife is dismissed as emotional nonsense and the arrogance of hunting communities that they believe they and they alone are guardians of our countryside . The harrowing images of these badgers being trapped at night left out in stormy weather no shelter just awaiting their fate is truly heartbreaking and so unnecessary .Vaccination must be the way forward for badgers and cattle why won't the government wake up to this. This is a free for all free shooting blood fest by people who have no soul.

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