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Badgers - casualties of complexity?

Posted: Wednesday 7th September 2016 by EvanBowenJones

Image: Jon Hawkins/ Surrey Hills Photography

The natural world is a complicated place. We often don’t understand it enough to be able to get it to behave as we’d like. Unfortunately, our tendency is to ignore this and to try to simplify things in a way that leads to either inadequate solutions and/ or unintended consequences. So, here’s my attempt to summarise and unravel some of complex, issues and perceptions around the recent extension of the badger cull into south Herefordshire.

Bovine Tuberculosis (bTB) costs farmers untold grief. It's got to be dreadful knowing that all your hard-work and passion can be undermined at any moment, and that you can seemingly do nothing about it! It’s even worse that cattle are often slaughtered even though they don't have full-blown bTB. Reactor tests only show which cattle have come into contact with the disease. The current system means that we might actually be killing those cattle that have developed immunity, and there's no vaccine for cattle in the offing even though we know cattle-to-cattle transmission is the main cause of the disease! It’s an awful situation, compounded by the current economics that make dairy farming extremely challenging even without the constant specter of disease. It’s no wonder that many farmers see no option but to go with the cull. What, after all, are their alternatives?

Irrespective, the question remains as to why are we adding insult to injury by spending millions of pounds of public money on extending an unproven, indiscriminate badger cull. Culling might even result in more disease transmission as badger subjected to stress are more likely to develop full-blown TB, and many successfully escape the guns. Plus, there are plenty of other things to spend the money on. bTB itself isn't even a significant human health issue. The drivers for dealing with it come from EU milk export restrictions which the government could apply for an exemption from (a Brexit opportunity?). There are also plenty of gaps in our knowledge with regards the dynamics of the disease that aren’t being investigated e.g. the role of other wildlife reservoirs including deer.

Unfortunately, the government’s current approach of extending the cull ignores the complexity of the problem and stifles constructive debate on the best ways to deal with the wider issues around it. It also feeds a range of questionable and negative views on badgers: "their population is out of control "being a common sentiment from which stems: “why do we protect them“, and “they’re killing our other wildlife”. Badgers have been, and remain subject to, horrible persecution. But, the welfare issues are, in many ways, separate to the conservation rationale that demand their protection. The British badger population is globally important. We have an estimated 25% of the world’s badgers. Here they live communally in setts and therefore they exist at higher densities than, for example, southern Europe where they live solitarily in scrapes (because the ground is so much harder). It’s this soft earth that provides their main food – earthworms.

Badgers may well be increasing in numbers because of both legal protection and the fact that human-induced climate change is increasing the number of warm, moist nights that are good for foraging for worms. Does this mean there are ”too many of them”? People often attempt to justify this subjective assertion by suggesting that badgers are decimating other species. They see a hedgehog carcass, or a dug out bumblebee nest, and equate this to badgers causing national declines in hedgehogs and bumblebees. However, seeing one example of something doesn’t indicate a causal relationship across a population! Both hedgehogs and bumblebees are decreasing because of multiple, long-term human impacts on their habitat. Our wildlife is being squashed into, often poor quality, field margins. They therefore compete for food and other resources, and – on occasion – eat one another. This probably plays a part in some local declines of already pressured populations, but, this is difficult to judge on one’s own. How many active bumblebee nests do you spot if you walk around a field, and how many of those are parasitized; how many have been crushed under a tractor wheel? Even highly-modified agricultural environments are complex and local observations need to be weighed against aggregated data and national trends.

Badgers are our largest remaining native ‘carnivore’. Of course they impact other wild and domestic animals! But it’s simplistic and convenient to blame them for our own wider impacts. At best it’s lazy policy-making, and at worst it’s a cynical political diversion, to extend the cull without any real evidence as to whether it’s succeeding (this due to there being inadequate monitoring built into it against expert advice!). The government has made a poor decision. It now needs to do better for both farming and conservation by identifying a proper strategy for the dairy industry and investing in tackling the policy and veterinary issues behind the “bTB problem”. In the meantime, a protected species has become a convenient scapegoat. Badgers are casualties of complexity.
 

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