End the badger cull – it won’t stop bovine TB

End the badger cull – it won’t stop bovine TB

Dr Brian Jones

Culling of badgers should not be even a part of the strategy to eliminate the scourge of bovine tuberculosis (bTB). Our government and the department responsible for farming and the environment, DEFRA, are very well aware of this and yet persist in following this futile policy.

Since the start of the badger cull in 2013, more than 70,000 badgers have been killed. In 2013, 32,791 cattle were slaughtered because of bTB; in 2017 it was 33,238. Badger culling has not worked.

Yet the government believes that by continuing to cull badgers, bTB will be eradicated by 2038. They now intend to extend the cull to areas of England that have a low incidence of bTB and to end restrictions on the maximum number of new badger control areas to be licenced each year. Badgers will likely become extinct in England if this travesty continues.

DEFRA knows that only a very small proportion of badgers are actually infected with Mycobacterium bovis, the organism that causes bTB, and that badgers and cattle rarely come into contact in ways that could transmit infection to cattle. Could it be that the government’s motivation is purely political and aimed at appeasing and conciliating powerful and influential farmers and landowners, who find it unprofitable to conform to the good farming practices which would limit the spread of the disease?

It is well established that control of cattle movement from high risk to low risk bTB zones is inadequately regulated or policed. If an animal is illegally transferred from a high-risk to a low-risk area, it could be carrying bTB in a latent form. Thereafter it can be sold on without further testing or hindrance.

The current method of identifying bTB-infected cattle is by skin testing, which is insensitive, inaccurate and cannot adequately determine whether an animal is actually infected. Many a farmer has tragically seen herds slaughtered because of reactors who at autopsy show no signs of infection, while false negative tests can clear the way for latently-infected animals to pass on the disease.

Improved testing protocols using modern molecular techniques must be employed universally in testing for bTB in cattle and in the countryside generally, for example to confirm the widely held understanding that M. bovis survives for long periods in soil and is spread by escape of contaminated slurry into the countryside to be further disseminated by exposed wild and domestic animals and human walkers.

Vaccination of cattle with better bTB formulations would end susceptibility to infection and save the enormous loss to farmers due to slaughtering of valuable animals. The government should have been investing in research into molecular vaccination techniques such as that described in the peer-reviewed article “Viral Booster Vaccines Improve Mycobacterium bovis BCG-Induced Protection against Bovine Tuberculosis” published in 2009. http://iai.asm.org/content/77/8/3364.full

Pertinent lessons for the cattle industry can be learnt from human TB, which is a disease of impoverished, poorly nourished and/or overly stressed populations. These factors suppress the cell-mediated immune response required to control intracellular infections. It is evident that poor nutrition and stress-inducing overcrowding, will result in lowered immunity in cattle, increased shedding of infectious microorganisms and increased susceptibility of the herd to M. bovis.

Better regulation and inspection of farms, better definition of farm animal welfare regulations and better enforcement of these regulations would improve the quality of life of the animals, yield and quality of farm produce, immune function and resistance to infection and decrease the spread of bTB.

DEFRA have made horrendous errors of judgement in attempting to defeat bTB through badger culling and have not reduced herd bTB breakdowns. They have turned a blind eye to the poor farming techniques that allow the spread of disease. Instead of implementing the most effective measures – developing and using accurate diagnostic methods, investing in research to develop effective bTB vaccines, fully regulating cattle movement and prioritising animal welfare – badgers have been demonised and persecuted in an attempt to appease an ill-informed farming and land-owning community.

There is very active opposition to these policies from animal welfare organisations and the better-informed general public, resulting in a societal schism that has required expensive policing and disquiet on the failure to bring to justice those who contravene animal welfare laws. Furthermore free-shooting of badgers can be a danger to the public when not practiced according to regulations and has been shown to be inhumane. The overall expense to the public purse has amounted to hundreds of millions of pounds. Vaccination costs £82 per badger, compare to £6,800 per culled animal. 19,274 badgers were killed in 2017, how much better to have spent that money on housing, health and education?