Grigory Ryzhakov – Russian Writer

Badger: Killing, Culling, Curing. Britain, Choose Your Side!

Badger, photo by Killianwoods (Template:University Observer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

To cull or not to cull?

If you live outside the United Kingdom you many not know this , but the question above has been tearing the nation apart for the last several months if not years.

Culling is a process of taking animals out of a breeding stock. In the case of British badgers, culling means killing off 70% of the British badger population or in numbers – over 180 thousand animals.

Why the cull is suggested in the first place? Why badgers?

Badgers are carriers of a mycobacterium, which causes tuberculosis in cattle. The infected badgers suffer badly from it too, dying slowly and producing large amounts of the infectious bacteria through excrement, which can infect the livestock.

Every year thousands of the infected calves have to be slaughtered in the UK. Last year the number was 26 000. It costs the economy over a hundred million pounds annually.

So, it’s either sick badgers or sick calves.

Earlier this year the government decided to go with the culling, but the infrastructure wasn’t ready, or maybe there were other reasons, it was decided to delay the whole thing until next year.

So now the debate over culling is escalating once again. Of recent events, the majority of members of Parliament (147 to 28) voted against the cull plan.

Why there are so many opponents of the culling plan?

  • The field experiments gave controversial results on the efficiency of culling, there’s no evidence that the current plan will stop the spread of bovine tuberculosis at all;
  • According of green activists only 1% of British badgers are active carriers of the pathogenic mycobacteria, though the spread of infection in the badger population hasn’t been conducted thoroughly, because
  • the current diagnostic tests fail to detect the pathogens reliably.  Apparently, 20% of the cattle herds in the UK are still harbouring tuberculosis and are not under any restrictions.

What are the alternatives of culling? I say research, research, research. There’s still time before summer and rushed, poorly researched decisions may lead to bad consequences.

What about agricultural research and microbiologists, you may ask. Have they come up with a vaccine or something else?

The suggested cattle vaccines are banned for use under EU law, so there’s a need for a safer vaccine. There are now badger vaccines available but presumably not very useful, since there are simply too many badgers to vaccinate. But then I think, if you can kill a badger, then you can definitely vaccinate one.

I’ve looked at the  recent list of DEFRA grants funding the cattle TB research and didn’t see anything on bacteriophages, which are viruses infecting bacteria. This paper from the sixties is about all I could find about bovine TB and its phage, who kills it. Maybe it can be used to treat the sick animals? Bacteriophage therapy is not new, I think it’d be reasonable to fund some research in this direction.

Maybe there’s a simpler solution. A farmer claims that both the  bovine and badger TB can be stopped by simply feeding  animals with a special mix (rich in trace elements like selenium) to ensure their immune system can cope with pathogens. I wonder if there’s a further development on this.

I hope I gave you a flavour of the problem here. It’s still such a mess with no clear answers on whether the cull will be an effective measure against the current rise of cattle TB.

I’m a bit worried that the whole issue will be buried in the news pile. Do you have any info, which I’ve overlooked? Do you support the culling plan? Let’s keep the dialogue on.


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