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The shaky science of badger culling, redux

box of badgers.jpgBadger culling is back on the agenda in the UK as the country attempts to control bovine tuberculosis, despite evidence that killing the stripy beasts does little to prevent spread of the disease.

Jim Paice, the agriculture minister, today announced plans to permit farmers in England to cull badgers, something farming groups have long pleaded for.

In a statement Paice claimed that “the science is clear: there is no doubt that badgers are a significant reservoir for the disease and without taking action to control the disease in them, it will continue to spread”.

But one leading expert has already come out against the plans. Rosie Woodroffe, a former member of the previous government’s now defunct Independent Scientific Group (ISG) on this issue, told Nature, “The science is pretty clear, but I think it’s not in the direction the minister claims.”

She says there is slightly more evidence now from the government-funded Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) that culling is beneficial than there was when the ISG came out strongly against it as an option in 2007. But that comes with the “massive caveat” that culling in the RBCT was done by highly trained people in a very coordinated fashion with, for example, all culling in an area done on the same night.

“That’s really different from what the government is proposing,” says Woodroffe, a disease ecologist at the Institute of Zoology in London.

Under the new proposals – which have gone out for consultation – groups of farmers that can muster an area of at least 150 square kilometres with ‘high and persistent’ levels of TB can apply to cull and/or vaccinate badgers in their area. They will be asked to explain “how they intend to minimise the negative effect in the surrounding area identified by the Randomised Bader Culling Trial”, which should elicit some interesting answers.

Culling badgers can encourage them to move around and further spread TB if efforts are not coordinated and done to a high standard. The difficulties of coordination and the possibility that farmers could drop out in the face of scale of the culling task mean that a patchy system could arise, leading to worse bovine TB, warns Woodroffe.

Today’s announcement has been welcomed by the National Farmers Union. But farmers may also not be entirely happy with being asked to shoulder the financial burden of culling and vaccinating. The government’s own analysis indicates that the costs to farmers in the cull area will be greater than the financial benefits they gain from avoiding bovine TB.

Image: a box of badgers, photo by janetmck via Flickr under creative commons.

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    Stephen said:

    Once again, animals and being made the victims and the scapegoats. If farming practices were more humane, you would have healthier animals and less disease.

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