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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Foot in mouth

The view of the UK government's chief scientist that badgers should be killed to prevent the spread of TB among cattle has really put the cat amongst the pigeons, to coin a phrase. Sir David King believes that culling could be effective in areas that are contained, for example, by the sea or motorways. His report though follows a previous study that said culling badgers would be ineffective.

That previous report by the Independent Scientific Group (ISG) assessed the results of a nine-year experiment to discover whether killing badgers would stem the spread of disease. Its findings, published in June, said badgers did play a role in the spread of bTB. However, it warned that the culling would have to be so extensive it would be uneconomical. It found that although TB infection dropped in the immediate area of the cull, it increased on adjoining farms, in effect shifting rather than solving the problem.

There is also a view that in fact it is the cattle that give TB to the badgers and that a vicious circle is involved that is almost impossible to break. It is not just badgers who are involved in this circle, other wild animals such as deer can catch and spread bTB as well. I do not see anybody calling for a cull of wild deer. Perhaps that is because even those in favour of a slaughter pull back when confronted with the 'bambi' factor.

Despite the fog surrounding the issue my Parliamentary colleagues in Westminster are unfazed. Our Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Roger Williams, for example, fired off a statement straight away demanding an effective and humane cull in areas where there is a high incidence of bTB, ignoring the evidence that such an action would be ineffective because of the movement of badgers into the culling area so as to fill the void. But he went further by claiming that 'The Liberal Democrats have long supported the culling of badgers to protect cattle.' Er..no, we haven't.

The Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly manifesto in fact said that we would 'aim to eradicate TB in Wales by intensifying the testing programme. Consideration must be given to the immediate slaughter of all animals which are test reactors; and the testing of contiguous farms where TB is confirmed. We will ensure that wildlife on infected farms is subject to full scrutiny and investigation.' That falls well short of support for culling.

Important as it is to solve this problem we do need to proceed on the basis of evidence, assessing what is effective before jumping headlong into a judgement either way. I accept that MPs like Roger Williams have valid local concerns that they need to address and that bovine TB is very high on their list of priorities but it may be easier to take colleagues with them if they did not attribute policy positions to the party that we do not have and which are not supported by the facts.

Update: A useful contribution arrives by e-mail: Once the farmers have slaughtered all the badgers, then they'll have to slaughter all the deer.....

It's from the pro-badger people but what stands out is:

Five out of the six species of deer in Britain are affected by bTB, with infection detected in between one per cent and 15 per cent of sampled deer;

A scientific report, published on 9 July 2004, concluded that deer should be considered as a potential source of infection for cattle. It found that in fallow deer, when whole carcasses were examined, the estimated prevalence of infection could be as high as 16.22%;

There are between 1.25 and 2.6 million wild deer in Britain, compared to around 300,000 badgers

Deer are particularly vulnerable to bTB infection and exhibit symptoms which mean they can be highly infectious. They also frequently share the same pasture, feed and water troughs as cattle;
European scientists have suspected deer of transmitting bTB to cattle and even to badgers since 1938;

See: this
Good to see another example of united liberal thinking! lol
Roger Williams is 'playing to the gallery'. It would not be acceptable for any government to kill badgers without first demonstrating that such a cull would make a difference. I have long believed that the only way to do this is by culling in a large enough area which can, in effect, be 'fenced off' by the sea to a large extent. I have also believed that Pembrokeshire or the South West of England would be suitable areas. I got into some bother during the Assembly election when I said that I did not think Montgomeryshire was a suitable area for what would ineffect be a large scale trial.
Most of the evidence i have seen suggests that the killing of badgers would actually make things worse by encoraging greater mobility of badgers into newly badger free zones.

It seems like some people feel that doing something even if it is wrong is better than doing nothing.

Mick Bates's neighbour.
This is so unfair - the BBC were reporting this story over footage of cute baby badgers. If we were talking about a cull of rats it wouldn't even make the news.
This debate has been going on for a generation, to my knowledge. In all that time, there has been no serious research into controlling the disease pharmaceutically or biologically.

The latest recommendation echos Glyn Davies's about physical barriers.

There is one certainty - healthy badgers should not be culled to allow infected animals to move in to the territory.

- Frank Little
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