Are Badgers Really England's TB Problem?

Are Badgers Really England's TB Problem?
Photo by Vincent van Zalinge / Unsplash

Throughout this blog post, I will be unearthing facts and opinions presented within the media and organisations to understand if badgers are the sole culprit of spreading bTB, and is culling them going to solve this forty-year-old problem?

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Post updated 4th June 2024 to add 2023 an article by The Guardian explaining that 17 new licences to continue culling badgers

What are Badgers?

There are many types of badgers worldwide, however, the British badger (Meles Meles) is one of the most commonly known within their species. Badgers are part of the mustelid family, which is a broad category covering minks, polecats, martens, wolverines, and skunks. Badgers can be easily recognised because of their black and white-striped face, grey fur and short furry tail. It makes the badger look like no other UK mammal. Badgers typically weigh 10–12 kg, with a body length of about 90 cm, making them the most prominent land predator in the UK. Badgers are found across the UK, with the highest numbers in southern England. The ideal badger habitat is a mixture of woodland and open country.

white and black animal on brown soil
Photo by Vincent van Zalinge / Unsplash

How Many Badgers Are There In The UK?

Data on the number of badgers varies, a 2017 academic paper estimated there are approximately 485,000 badgers (95% confidence intervals 391,000–581,000) in England and Wales which appears to have been cited numerous times. This broken down to 424,000 in England and 61,000 in Wales. The Scottish Wildlife Trust estimated in 2018 that the population of badgers in the UK is over 350,000 with 10% of that population living in Scotland. This equates to 35,000 badgers living in Scotland.

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How Many Badgers Have Been Culled?

The Badger Trust, whose vision is to '…promote and enhance the welfare, conservation, and protection of badgers, their setts, and their habitats' estimates that 280,000 badgers will be killed, between 48% and 72% of the estimated UK badger population by 2025.

What is bTB?

Bovine tuberculosis (bTB) is an infectious disease affecting domesticated animals and certain wildlife populations, causing a general state of illness, pneumonia, weight loss, and eventual death. In the UK, the main concern of bTB is reported to be the effect on farmers who rear cattle. While bTB can pass from animals to humans, the risk of infection is very low for the vast majority of the population. Despite this, bTB is one of the UK's most difficult animal health issues, with control measures costing the livestock industry and government millions of pounds a year. Therefore, successive governments have tried to find solutions to this problem. Unfortunately, the culling of badgers is one method that has been ongoing for several years.

Badger Cull History

According to BBC's Discover Wildlife, the topic of culling badgers dates back to 1971 when a dead badger was found riddled with bTB. An article produced in 2014 by The Guardian showed a timeline of the politics surrounding the cull. Despite badgers and their setts being protected under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 as amended by the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011, culls have still been discussed. The Guardian reported that on the 17th September 2012 that the first badger cull licences had been issued in England. The government hoped that it would be the first of many licences and that the death of an estimated 100,000 badgers would help curb the scourge of TB in cattle, which led to 26,000 cows being slaughtered in 2011. Shortly after the announcement, Queen guitarist Brian May launched a petition online with the backing of over 100,000 public votes to end the cull. The Badger Trust also challenged the legality of licences on cost and public safety grounds, in the latest blow to the cull. Days later, MPs voted to abandon the controversial badger cull in England. Since then, MP's such as Conservatives David Cameron said that culling badgers is the right thing to do to avoid “appalling consequences” for farmers, cattle, and badgers.

black and white animal on brown grass during daytime
Photo by Hans Veth / Unsplash

Why is The Badger Cull Controversial?

The Badger Trust claims that the total number of badgers which have been culled between 2013 and 2020 is 143,241, an estimated 25%-37% of the estimated UK badger population. The charity projects this number will rise to 280,000 badgers, 48%-72% of the estimated UK badger population by 2025 (see 'UK Government aims to cull between 70% and 90% of all badgers in each cull area' within the linked URL).

Data released in April 2023 reported on the number of badger deaths up to 2022, which was 210, 555, a rise of 33,627 year-on-year. In April 2024, the charity revealed the cumulative deaths for 2023 which pushed the number up by 19,570, meaning the new total is 230,125 deaths.

A 2014 report presented to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Owen Paterson stated that between 7.4% and 22.8% of badgers that were shot at were still alive after 5 minutes and therefore were at risk of experiencing marked pain (section 10.6.2). The same document (section 6.3.1) also puts forward the notion that 'in order for any badger cull to be effective, the population needs to be reduced to, and held at, a size at least 70% lower than the pre-cull size.'

The Badger Trust states that of the 102,349 badgers killed under cull licences 2013-2019, just over 900 were subject to postmortems and tests for bovine TB. Of this number, less than 5% were found to have bovine TB to a degree where they posed a risk of infecting other badgers or possibly cattle (see section 'The majority of culled badgers have been bTB free'). This could be reinforced by the fact that little evidence has been found to link the expansion of the bTB epidemic in cattle in England to widespread badger infection, based on a 2021 Nature study.

The Guardian (2016) reported on a research where GPS collars small enough to be worn by badgers were used to investigate the proximity of badgers and cattle. The researchers tracked more than 400 cattle when they were in the territories of 100 badgers, with the total number of tracked days coming to more than 8,000. Prof Rosie Woodroffe, at the Zoological Society of London, who led the new research, said that “we detected nothing [in way of interactions],”. Their data shows once in 65,000 observations did a badger get within 10 metres of a cow, and they preferred to be 50m away. It is thought that badgers need to be within 1.5m of a cow to directly transmit TB. “It looks most likely that the badgers are avoiding the cattle,” Prof Rosie Woodroffe said, although close contact has been seen on rare occasion in the past.

The Independent wrote that the official policy has been that culls aimed to reduce badger numbers by 70% within in each cull area and across most of southwest England. However, The Independent understands that ministers are preparing to allow that target to be raised to 100 per cent in “exceptional” circumstances, subject to a consultation.

Pro Badger Cull Movement

A study published in Nature, cited by The Countryside Alliance (who support the cull) says that cattle movements may have made a greater contribution to transmission of bovine TB at the time of the RBCT (Randomised Badger Culling Trail). Furthermore, the same study says that restocking of cattle farms after the Foot and Mouth disease outbreak in 2001 was a contributory factor, which the Scottish Badger Organisation also mentions (see How Does The United Kingdom Manage bTB Section 'England' for more) and compulsory pre-movement TB testing of cattle did not start until 2006. Higher numbers of infected cattle per TB incident and fewer controls on transfer of TB by livestock movements would have reduced the relative effect of transmission from badgers. Additionally, the study says that the most thorough study in England of the effect of badger culling on TB in cattle was the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) conducted between 1998 and 2005. Incidence of confirmed TB in cattle herds was overall c. 29% (95% CI 21–36%) lower in areas with widespread systematic culling than in non-intervention areas. However, the option of localised culling close to recent TB outbreaks in cattle was found to be ineffective or even counter-productive, and was discontinued before the end of the trial. Finally, the Nature article ends by saying 'similar effects may be achieved or maintained by other measures, such as badger vaccination, fertility control in badgers and biosecurity, although there is more evidence on the effect of culling than other options (See sources 5, 7, 14, 16 & 23). More information on alternatives to killing badgers in the 'Is There An Alternative To The Cull?' further down the article.

However, new plans put forward by Rishi Sunak's government discuss plans to introduce controversial targeted culling, also known as “epidemiological culling” or “epi-culling”. This will affect the populations of badgers by reducing the numbers to almost zero in some areas where cattle are deemed to be at high risk of contracting bovine TB (bTB).

a small animal in the dirt
Photo by Vincent van Zalinge / Unsplash

How Does The United Kingdom Manage bTB?

Scotland

The Scottish Badger Organisation reported that they achieved TB-free (OTF — Officially Tuberculosis Free) status in 2009. The article says that the herd incidence is very low (0.2%) and stable and is largely driven by sporadic introductions of infected cattle into Scotland. Furthermore, the organisation says that Scotland uses a high sensitivity test (the interferon-gamma test) to ensure that the disease is eliminated by quickly removing cattle before it can spread. The IFNG test detects 90% of infected cattle. In Scotland, 57% of herds are exempt from routine bTB testing. Others are tested every four years and at shorter intervals if risk is suggested.

Wales

Wales currently has no plans for a cull, and has not conducted one since the Labour Party ended the general cull in 2012. The Guardian reports that since the decision to hault the cull, badgers have been killed in small numbers under individual licences if they are shown to be diseased. The Welsh government has focused on vaccination for badgers and enhanced biosecurity measures for cattle. This has been found to reduce bTB levels effectively without culling. Furthermore, the Scottish Badger Organisation says that all herds are tested at least annually in Wales. They explain that in bovine TB risk areas there is 6-monthly testing, where the high sensitivity interferon-gamma test is used, and cattle movement controls and farm biosecurity have been tightened. By 2016 these cattle-centred measures had achieved significant progress, with new bovine TB incidents at a ten-year low and 95% of cattle herds bovine TB free in Wales.

England

In England, the approach to tackling bTB is different from Wales and Scotland. The Scottish Badger Organisation also explains the procedures that take place in this region. The organisation says that bovine TB has become persistent in cattle herds, mainly in the south-west. This is where The Guardian reported the majority of the targeted culls would take place. According to The Scottish Badger's several factors have made bTB a rising issue in southern England. They cite the fact that routine testing for bTB broke down following the outbreak of foot and mouth disease (FMD) in cattle in 2001. Furthermore, the routinely used skin reactor test leaves a quarter to a fifth of infected cattle in the herds undetected, to spread the infection to other cattle over a long period. Some farmers were deliberately keeping infected cattle in the herds and sending healthy cattle for slaughter as substitutes – an action called ear-tag swapping. When this last practice was discovered, the government tightened up cattle-based measures – which included improved biosecurity, pre- and post-movement testing of cattle, backup use of the interferon-gamma test and surveillance of abattoir procedures. There is evidence since then of a slowing down in the incidence and prevalence rates in the high-risk area’s.

white and black badger close-up photography
Photo by Vincent van Zalinge / Unsplash

Politics and Opinions

Politics

A PDF produced by The Ethical Consumer 'Inside the Cull Zones' cites Patrick Barkham, author of Badgerlands who wrote an opinion piece in The Guardian (2015). He argues that “There's only one reason for this badger cull – votes”. He explained that: “the government is culling because some farmers would like to remove the badger’s status as a legally protected animal. Furthermore, David Cameron knew that repealing wildlife laws is unpopular and tricky. Therefore, a government-led badger cull is the next best symbolic gesture to persuade resentful rural communities that the increasingly metropolitan Tory party still feels their pain.”

More recent news reported by The Guardian in October (2023) that Labour vowed to end the badger cull in England if elected. Daniel Zeichner, the shadow farming minister, said: “I’ve spent a long time looking at this. The 2018 Godfrey review, the last piece of work done by the government, found that badger culling is not the answer. We’re going to make England bovine TB free by 2038, but with a range of measures that do not include culling.” Furthermore, the same headline reported that Ruth Jones, the shadow nature minister, said her experience as a member of parliament in Wales had shown that the badger cull could be brought to an end with a vaccination scheme.

In early March, The Independent and BBC News separately reported that a Conservative MP called for all wild animals to be culled. The newspapers reported that Richard Drax (South Dorset) dismissed calls by animal rights activists and conservation groups to end the badger cull and instead suggested more animals, such as deer and foxes, should also be culled.

In March, The Guardian reported that it is that believed ministers wish to create a point of difference with the Labour Party, which has said it would stop the cull, in an attempt to retain seats in rural areas. Furthermore, The Guardian reported that recent polling by the Country Land and Business Association shows the majority of Conservative MPs in the most rural areas are at risk of losing their seats to Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the upcoming general election.

In June (2024) leaked documents seen by The Guardian show that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has issued 17 new licences to continue culling badgers. This ignores the advice of Dr Peter Brotherton, who is the government's adviser for the natural environment in England. Defra officials explained they were pushing ahead with the cull because farmers, who have been affected by bTB the most, would lose confidence in the government if it was ended abruptly.

The former Defra secretary George Eustice promised to phase out the cull by 2025 however the Conservatives U-turned on the idea last year calling it an “artificial deadline” and vowing to “keep culling”.

The Badger Trust in response explains the decision made “seems to point to a politically based decision rather than a scientific one, contradicting the principles of evidence-based decision-making.”


Public Opinion

Apart from the methodology, the concept of killing badgers is highly debated. Public figures such as Sir David Attenborough condemned the UK government for “ignoring” scientific evidence in 2013. Last year, Queen guitarist, Sir Brian May, was vocal about animal rights and has led calls for an end to badger culling. Recently, Tom Langton (an ecological consultant and badger expert) was cited in The Guardian saying that: “Sunak now wants all the badgers dead.” He said the consultation launched by the government on Thursday included “chilling plans to kill 100% of badgers in bovine TB affected areas, an increase on the limit previously imposed since culling started in 2013”.

As well as public figures disapproval of the culling, data asked through YouGov (a global public opinion and data company) collected people's opinions on the procedure. YouGov reported in 2014 on data they had collected in the previous years. The company said there had been a slight increase in support for the badger cull, from 31% in 2012 to 35% in 2013 and 36% in 2014, however opposition remains steady, now standing at 42%. The article goes on to say that the cull has become increasingly favourable among Conservatives, with support now at 57% – up from 50% last year and 46% in 2012. However, newer data commissioned by The Badger Trust, and conducted on YouGov suggests public opinions on the legislation have changed. The Badger Trust reported that 15% of English adults support the badger cull, whilst 53% oppose and 31% don’t know; meaning more than three times as many oppose the badger cull than support it. Furthermore, the same article also asked the public on the awareness of the cull. The Badger Trust says that 61% of the public were aware of the cull and 32% were not aware. Only 6% thought they knew a lot about the cull.


Organisations Thoughts

The Ethical Consumer (2015) said the pilot badger culls in England are considered highly controversial for several reasons including their effectiveness, cost, impacts on local communities, animal rights concerns and politicised nature.

The Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust said scientific evidence demonstrates that culling is likely to be ineffective in fighting the disease and, worse still, risks making the problem even worse. We believe the emphasis of all our efforts should be to find a long-term solution, and we are calling for the Government to end its policy of culling these important, iconic and legally protected animals.

The Badger Trust says that since 2013, badger culling has been part of a series of government measures to tackle bTB eradication in cattle in England. Epidemiological and statistical evaluation of badger culling and trends in bTB transmission, however, has shown that badger culling is frequently neither scientifically supported nor an effective method of controlling bTB in cattle.

Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust wrote that Wildlife Trusts believe that the government’s strategy is flawed because bTB is primarily a cattle problem, not a wildlife one [1] and makes no sense at a time when a review of the government strategy which drives the culls – the bovine TB eradication strategy – is still underway [2]. Only 1 in 20 cases of bTB herd infections are transmitted directly from badgers [1]; thus, culling badgers is not the answer and it is also counterproductive. Culling disrupts badgers’ social structure, causing them to move around more frequently and over longer distances – which can result in increased bTB transmission. 

Born Free 'opposes the UK government’s policy of badger culling as part of its efforts to control bovine TB in cattle because it is unscientific, inhumane, ineffective, and unnecessary.'

The National Trust said 'we recognise that badgers have a role in transmitting this disease and acknowledge the current, but limited, scientific evidence that badger culling may help address TB in cattle. However, the culling of badgers is not taking place on National Trust land.

a badger standing in a field of tall grass
Photo by Andrei Lazar / Unsplash

Is There An Alternative To The Cull?

Vaccinations against bTB is an alternative to culling badgers with two ways of conducting it, either vaccinating the cows or the badgers. Both ways could be an effective way to reduce the risk of infection and avoid the unnecessary suffering and culling of animals. However, other methods have been considered by experts.

Vaccinating Cows

Vaccinating cows could be argued to be easier than people searching for badger sets (burrows in the ground) and putting traps to isolate a badger for vaccinations. Farmers could be encouraged to vaccinate cows on their farms against bTB. Vaccinating animals is widespread apart from the organic sector. Potentially, with enough roll out, could there be a herd immunity? However, European Union legislations denies this approach. A 2012 letter states that 'vaccination against bTB is explicitly forbidden in the EU legislation on disease control (Council Directive 78/52/EEC) and implicitly also in intra-Union trade legislation, as vaccination is incompatible with the provisions for testing and herd qualification (Council Directive 64/432/EEC).' While the United Kingdom could overrule this decision, it would impact trade the UK has with European countries.

Vaccinating Badgers

Professor of Zoonotic and Emerging Disease, University of Nottingham, put forward a range of techniques as part of an article published in The Conversation (December 2018). Malcolm Bennett explained that a Badger vaccination programme would involve the trapping of badgers requires first trapping badgers, and then injecting a BCG vaccine, as is used in humans. Malcolm says this is undertaken by trained and licensed volunteers in England, thereby reducing the cost. Malcolm wrote that oral vaccines would be easier to use, but are not yet licensed. He cites data where trials have demonstrated that vaccination reduces both the number of badgers infected and the degree of disease in badgers with only partial protection. However, unlike for culling, there have been no large-scale trials of the effect that vaccinating badgers has on TB in cattle. Malcolm Bennett cites a recent study in Ireland that found vaccination reduced transmission enough that TB should die out among the badgers if reinfection from cattle is prevented.

Biosecurity

Malcolm Bennett also discusses biosecurity measures to keep cattle and badgers apart, using physical barriers around farm buildings. Such examples are badger-proof gates and electric fences – an approach known as “biosecurity” – is relatively simple but can be expensive. However, how the disease is transmitted in open environments, through slurry and soil movement or on contaminated farm vehicles, people and wildlife, is less well understood.

Birth Control

Another method to culling badgers is through the use of immunocontraception. Malcolm Bennett says this involves vaccinating badgers against their own reproductive hormones so they can’t get pregnant. However, this process could be time-consuming as it reduces the future birth rate rather than increasing the death rate, contraception will also take longer to reduce badger populations than culling.

Final Words

For over a decade, the badger has been my favourite animal, and on many of my personal accounts, such as my public Matrix server, my name, and logo reflect my love for this animal. Despite my unwavering admiration for the slightly odorous badger, which belongs to the mustelid family, is it justifiable to slaughter over 210,000 badgers based on inconclusive research and for political gain?

If you wish to vote against the current plans put forward by the government, the Badger Trust has a petition ongoing petition to haul the plans.