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Are badgers being scapegoated?

4 April, 2013 - 09:15 -- John Burton

Many years ago I sat on what was then the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food’s Advisory Panel on Badgers and Tuberculosis. On several occasions I asked if more research should be carried out on other species known to carry tuberculosis (TB). (And at that time it was nothing like as big a problem as it is now.) But very little research was carried out, and even then the badger was the preferred scapegoat.

I was therefore intrigued to find the following comment on the internet from Dr Dan Forman CBiol, MIBiol, EurProBiol, of the Conservation Ecology Research Team, Department of Pure and Applied Ecology, Institute of Environmental Sustainability, Swansea University:

These are the facts!!! Latest data on domestic and companion animals from VLA [Veterinary Laboratories Agency], the BIG question here is why they do not consider the species they have identified [with] high prevalence of TB as problems?

Basic summary of 2009 data thus far:

Deer = 36% positive (includes farmed, wild and park deer)

Cat = 25% positive

Dog = 27% positive

Pig = 19% positive

Alpaca = 56% positive

Sheep = 44% positive

This makes worrying reading, seeing how much more abundant in the countryside are feral and farm cats, and deer, than badgers. Apparently there is a higher occurrence (live cultural positives) of TB in cats and alpaca than in badgers and these occurrences cannot be disputed.

There is a page on the DEFRA website dealing with this – on its archive site, that is - but the period of the data ends 31 March 2011.

Meanwhile I have found another document on the DEFRA website that refers in passing to other mammals that are known to carry TB (p3). The report states: ‘While bTB does occur in wildlife species other than badgers in the UK they are not considered a significant source of infection to cattle or other livestock although this aspect of the epidemic is kept under review.’

Despite this sweeping statement, the same document refers to a project to ‘provide surveillance for TB in mammalian species other than cattle (such as farmed and wild deer, cats, dogs, camelids, goats, sheep and pigs)’ (Item (10), p9).

As ever, I am not disputing that badgers carry bovine TB. They do, but killing them will not make farms free of TB. And very few scientists believe it will. Government policy is politically motivated, not evidence based, and politicians would do well to check the data before driving through policies that have little or no grounding in science (let alone common sense).

Comments

Submitted by Vivek Menon on

I have said before that India has no badgers, plenty of TB ie don't link only badgers to TB

I will add..badgers are your largest carnivore, tigers are ours. This decision is just as serious as culling tigers in one whole region of India as they kill cattle.

solve the problem by getting to its root, don't kill the messenger.

Submitted by Jane on

Why, when faced with this evidence, has there been such reluctance by recent governments to make a major investment in developing vaccines? While the debate goes on and on, the problem escalates. It is a disgraceful indictment on government and scientific advisers alike.

Submitted by james wood on

John - the figures that you quote and the way that you quote them are out of date and misleading. These figures only represent the few investigations where TB was suspected and do not represent the proportion of each species that is infected. There are several million of some of these species in Britain which were never investigated as the disease was not suspected in them.

Also, annual figures from 1997 to 2012 are now available on
http://www.defra.gov.uk/statistics/foodfarm/landuselivestock/cattletb/national/
under other statistics at the bottom

Submitted by Jessica Aidley on

I have had a look at the DEFRA pages and figures mentioned by James Wood and it seems extraordinary that DEFRA is not looking at large numbers of wild deer and wild boar. Since farmed wild boar are so susceptible to bovine TB and 37% of all deer tested tested positive, it seems very odd that random samples from many herds of deer are not taken to ensure that they aren't responsible for disseminating the disease to fresh herds. They move far more freely and easily over fences and hedges and through fields than badgers do, and also over wider areas. I see that they have looked at 300 cats in the period 2009 to 2012 inclusive, but that is a relatively small number considering that most farms have cats living on them, and nearly a quarter of the cats tested tested positive for bovine TB; I understand that tom cats have a larger home territory than badgers. I cannot find on the tables how many badgers were tested in the same period or what percentage of them tested positive?
Looking at, and analysing, all the figures on the table at http://www.defra.gov.uk/statistics/foodfarm/landuselivestock/cattletb/national/ makes the proposal that badgers are being made scape-goats a very reasonable one. Incidentally it seems most unscientific not to have given the percentages in the tables in the usual way they are published in papers..

Submitted by john on

Another commentator on my twitter account has pointed out that Badgers only need to be vaccinated once. If this is the case, then surely vaccinating them when trapped, instead of shooting makes more sense. But haven't had time to check this, so anyone in cyberspace have references etc?

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