The problem of containing, and then eradicating, Bovine Tb continues to polarise opinion. The Government and the National Farmers’ Union have decided that it is important to reduce the number of badgers because they believe that the disease can pass between them and cattle.
This is despite overwhelming scientific evidence which indicates that culling badgers will have, at best, an insignificant impact on the problem, and, at worst, increase its spread.
On the other side of the argument are conservationists, scientists involved in previous work on the issue and animal rights groups. Farmers, whose livelihoods are at stake, surprisingly fall into both camps.
The tragedy is that the pilot shooting trials in Gloucestershire and Somerset seem designed to fail. Marksmen are licenced to entice badgers to bait placed near to setts so that they can shoot them. The purpose is to test the effectiveness, safety and humaneness of this way of reducing badger populations, not to test the effects of this on the incidence of the disease. The objective is to reduce local badger populations by 70 per cent, but as no proper surveys have been done nobody knows how many badgers 70 per cent of any local populations is.
In Somerset about 2,000 badgers need to be killed. The trial is to last 42 days, and after ten days it was reported that less than 100 badgers had been culled.
There is considerable risk that some badgers will be wounded rather than killed outright, and will suffer.
Meanwhile more sustainable and hopefully more effective actions are being both promoted and practised. The Wildlife Trusts in particular are vaccinating badgers on their nature reserves. Locally the Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire Trusts are doing this, using trained volunteers.
If one third of uninfected adult badgers in a sett are vaccinated it significantly reduces the likelihood of new cubs being infected.
Whether this proves to be part of the answer or not is open to conjecture. Common sense, however, indicates that a potential solution which, if successful, enables livestock and wild animals to co-exist without harming each other, has more chance of success than an uncertain, possibly cruel and at best only partial solution.
* Peter Shirley is a nature conservationist with interests from neighbourhood to global ecological issues