What to do about badgers (Meles meles) and the bovine tuberculosis (TB) they carry has been a fraught issue in the United Kingdom in recent years, with different groups of scientists at loggerheads over the scientific basis for killing the animals to control cattle infections. England is moving ahead with a pilot of ‘controlled shooting’, but the Welsh abandonment of a cull in favour of vaccination will heat up the simmering debate over the merits of the strategy.
John Griffiths, the Welsh environment minister, said yesterday that a scientific review of the evidence had led him to abandon culling plans in favour of vaccination of badgers. “At present I am not satisfied that a cull of badgers would be necessary to bring about a substantial reduction in cases of TB in cattle,” he said.
Rosie Woodroffe, a biologist at the Institute of Zoology in London who has worked extensively on the problem of badgers and bovine TB, says that the Welsh move was “brave and wise”. Although there is no evidence that vaccinating badgers will significantly lower the number of bovine TB cases, there is evidence that it is protective to badgers, and it is “not a very big step” to think there would be benefits to cattle as well, she says.
Culling might lower bovine TB, but it also presents problems of increasing the movement of badgers, which can increase TB in other areas. It is also expensive and is unlikely to serve the ultimate goal of eradicating the disease, notes Woodroffe.
The Badger Trust — which took legal action against the Welsh government to prevent a cull and is pursing similar avenues in England — welcomed yesterday’s announcement. England should now reconsider its stance, said the charity.
However, the British Veterinary Association accused the Welsh government of abandoning science along with a cull. Carl Padgett, the association’s president, also notes the absence of evidence that vaccinating badgers will lead to lower bovine TB levels in cattle.
“This is clearly a political decision, rather than a scientific one,” he said in a statement.
Image: detail from photo by Peter Facey under creative commons via Wikimedia.