Stop the mass slaughter of badgers in Devon

Many people may not be aware that while we are enjoying the summer sunshine and school holidays Devon farmers and landowners are busy preparing to start culling thousands more badgers. This is the second year of culling in Devon. This year, the numbers will be much higher than the 2,871 killed last year, as four more large areas are likely to be granted a licence. In short, around half of Devon will be within a cull area potentially wiping out badgers from many parts.

One would think that in order to justify such a large-scale slaughter of our native wildlife, the government would have overwhelming scientific evidence to prove beyond doubt that this was the only possible course of action. Astonishingly, all the government is basing the policy on is the advice of its own Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO) and the NFU.

This can be illustrated in the recent outbreak of bovine TB in cattle in Cumbria which some experts are attributing to the 400-500 cattle movements every month into the area rather than a hypothetical risk from badgers that are known to live in stable social groups and do not travel great distances.

Cattle to cattle transmission is accepted by most scientists within the field of animal disease control to be the most likely route of outbreaks, especially when you consider the current cattle TB skin test are only 50-80% reliable. This potentially leaves up to half the infected animals undetected within a herd to continue to spread the disease. This was pointed out by the CVO who explained residual TB infection can remain in around 21% of herds that have been classified as Officially TB Free. This explains why farmers buying cattle from ‘clean’ herds blame badgers if they then go down with TB.

There are many ways cattle can become infected, none of which have been investigated but could pose a far greater risk than the theoretical one from badgers, for instance, cattle slurry and manure contaminated by the M. bovis organism can contaminate the farm and spreading slurry can generate aerosols carrying the disease to pasture and even neighbouring farms – the organism can live for up to six months once deposited.

TB can also be spread during the many agricultural shows we see at this time of year where there are large number of farm animals, all potential carriers of the disease, as are vehicles, farm machinery, boots and clothing. This concern was raised by the CVO when last year he contacted agricultural show organisers to say there had been ‘a number of significant and costly TB outbreaks where attendance at agricultural shows has been the most likely cause of TB transmission.’

Transmission by hunts is a very real possibility especially since the discovery of TB infection in the Kimblewick hunt, near Aylesbury this year. It was possibly caused by the hounds being fed infected meat from ‘fallen’ stock. It could be coincidental that in the first four months of this year, there have been 55 new herd breakdowns within the hunts range, doubling last year’s infection rate.

All of these risks need to be fully investigated before such a huge loss of life, immense suffering and distress to one of our most iconic, native mammals is sanctioned. Many mammals can carry and pass on TB particularly deer whose range is far greater than that of the badger.

There is no doubt farmers dealing with a TB outbreak are genuinely suffering and we can all sympathise with them and the effect it can have on their families and livelihoods but continuing with this mass slaughter when there is no evidence to back it up must be challenged if we want prevent badgers from disappearing from our countryside.