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Monday, February 25, 2008

Slaughter of innocents?

I've just read a rather distressing article. It seems the National Farmers' Union (NFU) is once more calling for a badger cull, to halt the spread of bovine tuberculosis. Don't get me wrong - I have some sympathy for the farmers. They've had a tough time in recent years, with outbreaks of foot and mouth disease and bluetongue disease, not to mention the poor prices they've been paid by large supermarkets for produce such as milk. But many conservationists believe that badgers are not responsible for as large a percentage of bovine tuberculosis outbreaks as previously believed. They would prefer to see money set aside for a large-scale cull, to be used for other measures to prevent the spread of the disease.

The Badger Trust, for instance, insists that only a minority of bovine tuberculosis cases can be attributed to badgers. They say the majority can be attributed to poor farming practices, such as failure to test herds for bovine TB before moving them from pasture to pasture, and/or mixing them in with other herds. Disease can also be spread by national cattle movements. The Badger Trust would like to see stricter regulations relating to cattle testing, a more effective test for TB, as well as efficient tracking of cattle movements. They cite some interesting evidence in support of these demands.

In the Republic of Ireland, where badger culling has virtually eradicated the whole badger population, bovine TB cases have risen by 13% in the last year. Yet, in Northern Ireland, where no culling takes place, bovine TB cases have consistently fallen since 2002, effectively halving the number of cases which now occur. Instead of culling, the Department for Agriculture Northern Ireland has clamped down hard on farms where TB tests are overdue, as well as implementing an efficient IT system for tracking cattle movements.

The Badgers Trust also insists that money used for a cull could be better used helping farmers to secure their outbuildings against badger intrusion. Over 90% of farm storage buildings have been deemed accessible to badgers searching for food. Badgers will happily eat grain and cattle food, thereby providing a direct source of contamination. A simple electric fence would be effective in keeping badgers out. Such measures would provide a long term solution for farmers, reducing their losses to bovine TB, and would also spare the lives of thousands of badgers.

Although the European badger isn't as cute and cuddly as it looks, and is pretty fierce when cornered, it's an important part of our native eco-system. Many gardeners welcome them, as they help to control garden pests. Far too many of these creatures are dying in the UK as it is, thanks to heavy traffic on our roads. Sadly, the only badgers I've ever seen, have been roadkill, the most recent being just two weeks ago.

Although I understand why cattle farmers feel so desperate regarding bovine TB, I have a little less sympathy for the group of farmers currently demanding a badger cull, namely llama and camel farmers. It seems that llamas and camels can also succumb to the disease.

I appreciate these farmers have spent a small fortune building up their herds. But surely common sense must prevail here? The badger is a wild creature native to the British Isles. Llamas and camels are only here because people brought them here. I don't see why a valuable and protected British species should face decimation, maybe even eradication, to spare non-native species. Maybe I don't know enough about this whole issue to be making such a statment. But my gut instinct says we should place our native eco-system before the financial well-being of people making a living from raising exotic, non-native livestock.

I hope some solution to this issue can be found which doesn't leave cattle farmers out of pocket, and also, avoids a badger cull. For far too long, the UK's farmers have been neglected by the government. Instead of spending huge sums of money on culling badgers, maybe the government ought to spend more on researching a cheap and effective vaccine that can be administered to cattle. Current trials of a vaccination usually involve capturing badgers and vaccinating them. Surely, a vaccine for cattle would make more sense? And maybe some kind of financial aid could be given to farmers to help pay for large scale vaccination of herds.

There has to be some way of helping the farmers without killing badgers. However, a humane solution which is also fair to farmers, can only be found if there is a decent financial input from the government and/or the EU. The badger is just too precious to lose. But this is also how farmers feel about their livestock. Somewhere, somehow, a balance must be struck which protects both the badger and the farmer's livelihood. Otherwise, either the badger or the farmer will become an endangered species in the UK.


The Pig's Lip said...

I have zero sympathy for meat farmers. I have no time for people who make money from using animals as products rather than sentient beings.Farmers, imo, are already over subsidised through tax payers money. I was glad to see on Countryfile a few weeks ago that the general public are now waking up to how much money these people milk (pardon the pun) from the public's pocket.

Anonymous said...

Yhere were no badgers on Inishfree but there were TB positive animals. A neighbouring island was blamed but results were, I understand, inconclusive. Tests were always late and herd mixing normal.
As for the government spending money on health issues, human or bovine... surely you know there is a war on ?