The Politics of Culling Badgers

Science does not operate alone in its own universe. Regardless of how much scientists assert their work is objective, their research, as, indeed, is everything, is viewed subjectively in the ever present, including the world of politics and morality.

Take, for example, the coalition government’s commitment to culling badgers in response to the spread of TB among dairy cattle. This motion was put at a debate at the Zoological Society of London on Tuesday evening:

Is the coalition government’s proposal for a ‘science-led programme of badger control’ an effective way to reduce tuberculosis in cattle?

Before the presentations and again afterwards two separate votes of those present were held. The results? Majority voting to reject the motion on both occasions. A result, perhaps, not that surprising.

I attended this debate. I wanted to hear and consider the scientific arguments in favour of a cull. I did not expect to change my mind against the cull; however, I did expect to hear convincing evidence in support of it. This did not happen. Quite the reverse, in fact. I’m even more convinced the cull is political expediency hiding behind the fetish of scientific objectivity. Badgers are presented as the villains. Whereas they’re really the victims. The proposed badger cull is an excuse posing as a reason.

If the objective is to have TB-free cattle, then culling badgers is not the solution. Dairy cows contract TB from other sources, principally other cattle. This is why TB in cattle is spreading across south-west England and Wales to the rest of the country. Badgers generally don’t roam far from their dens. They live within a relatively small area. They certainly don’t make long journeys across the countryside. So, it’s more likely that the spread of TB-infected cattle is due to the movement of these animals, from farm to farm, from farms to auctions, and from farms to slaughterhouses.

Then, why cull badgers?

This is where the scientific rubber hits the political road. When the “objectivity” of scientific research collides with the “subjectivity” of political expediency.

I concede there may be a scientific case for showing dairy cows are susceptible to TB from badgers. This research may also show killing badgers will have some impact on TB in dairy cows. But I also conclude the scientific case for a cull is so weak and the proposed cull, with all its necessary and stringent measures to ensure its effectiveness, is so challenging to implement that it is fundamentally flawed public policy.

We must remember DEFRA and its previous incarnation, MAFF, and UK agribusiness does not have an outstanding track record in preventing farming practices from occurring that are injurious to human health. In recent times we’ve had such significant food scandals as salmonella in eggs as well as farming practices exposing human health unnecessarily to risk. How can we ever forget that the threat of BSE (“mad cow disease”) was caused by farmers who fed vegetarian animals with feed that includes the ground up remains of other animals?

Why, then, is TB in cattle such a problem?

EU law prohibits the sale of meat and dairy products from TB-infected dairy cows and beef cattle. This is why farmers are compensated at tax payers expense for the slaughter of TB-infected animals even though the animals’ ultimate fate is the killing floor. This is where the issue of vaccines, both for farmed animals and badgers, is key. Vaccines, we were told at the conference, are in development but they will not be ready for some time. Further, there are complications with their application.

So, again, why the cull?

The previous Labour government opposed the cull. The Welsh Assembly is moving forward with its own trial for a cull. Welcome to the politics of a badger cull. The current coalition government supports a cull. I suspect its rationale balances, on the one hand, recognition of a cull as being unpopular among the public while, on the other hand, wanting to placate its rural constituents. But the weak science and the cull’s unpopularity are making the government anxious. This is why, I believe, the coalition government wants to make farmers and landowners pay for the cull and responsible for its implementation. As the speakers made clear, any cull which is inefficiently implemented or only delivers moderate levels of success will most likely exacerbate the problem by facilitating the spread of TB among cattle and badgers. Any benefits to culling are modest. Therefore, the culls’ costs must be as little as possible, particularly given the economic climate. Accordingly, methods of culling need to be cheap. And the method of killing? Shooting trapped badgers in cages. Shooting free-range badgers is also under consideration; however, shooting free-range is not significantly less expensive than shooting trapped badgers. Both methods are expensive and time consuming to implement. Of course, they cause stress, suffering and pain to badgers.

In short, the government requires those who want a cull to pay for it and assume responsibility for its organisation. It will be an expensive, complex and challenging endeavour, including a four to five year time commitment. But if the transportation of cattle across the countryside is helping to spread TB among dairy cows, would it not make more sense to impose stringent conditions on their movement, including the quarantining of farms? Such measures would, no doubt, be very unpopular with farmers and landowners. Perhaps that’s why they’re not part of the debate.

Further, a small but vocal minority of rural residents are in apoplexy over the prospect of repealing the Hunting Act. Despite the ConDems pledge chances of the repeal taking place appear to be diminishing. But we cannot assume this is a forgone conclusion. The government, which appears to be unafraid of upsetting significant parts of the electorate, does not want to antagonise unnecessarily its loyal rural supporters. This, I believe, has a lot to do with why the government favours a culling policy; however, its unpopularity and weak scientific justification requires it to pass on the responsibility, cost and implementation to the farmers and landowners who want it. The ConDems want the appearance of supporting the cull but make it difficult, if not impossible, for it to occur. They have already upset those who want to protect badgers. They now run the risk of also antagonising the farmers and landowners who want a cull.

Of course, I have the view that the consumption of meat and dairy products are injurious to human health. I’m a vegan principally because I oppose violence toward animals. I see the health benefits of a non-animal diet as a bonus. Nonetheless, the vast majority of people eat meat, eggs and dairy food. The prospect of a badger cull is ever present.

But science is being used as a cover for the politics of a lose-lose situation. With the badgers and dairy cows with the most to lose. Their lives. What’s needed is a long term solution to address substantially the problem. Killing anything invariably means solves nothing. However much politicians want the science to prove otherwise.