Badgers can feel love and pain too. Image: piX dust / Flickr
TUBERCULOSIS in cattle could be eliminated within 20 to 25 years in Britain if England adopted the tactics used in Scotland and Wales – which don’t involve badger culling, new research shows.
Reducing badger numbers in Somerset, Gloucestershire and now Dorset is “making very little difference” to the spread of the disease, whereas methods used by the Scottish and Welsh authorities are successfully reducing it, scientists found.
The key to eradicating bovine tuberculosis is more frequent testing of cattle, according to the experts from Queen Mary University of London.
The researchers, who compared approaches used in England with those north and west of the borders, found that infections were falling and more herds were free of TB in Scotland and Wales than in England. This could mean those countries were likely to eradicate the disease, the scientists concluded.
But the same was not true in areas where the Westminster Government is relying on culling badgers to try to minimise infection.
Secrets of Scotland and Wales
The findings were released days after a fresh cull began in Dorset, which follows culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire. Farmers blame badgers for spreading bovine tuberculosis, forcing them to have infected cattle put down and, therefore, harming their business.
One of the researchers, Professor Matthew Evans, who specialises in ecological forecasting, said: “Killing badgers makes very little difference to the spread of the disease.
“The most important thing is to test the cattle more often, because then you detect infected animals in herds.”
Cattle going undetected in herds, infecting others, are by far the most common reason why herds suffer repeated TB breakdowns, not badgers
— Professor Alastair Macmillan
In Wales, where farmers have been testing their cattle every six months for signs of the disease, the incidence is lower, Prof Evans said. In cattle housed together, disease can spread more rapidly than those permanently outdoors, evidence suggests.
Scotland has long had very low levels of bovine TB, and there is believed to be no evidence of it being spread among badgers. The Scottish Government’s measures to control infection include tissue sampling of cows at farm visits, risk assessment and stricter tracing of cattle.
“All our evidence suggests testing cattle more often is the way forward,” the professor added. “We think that eliminating TB from the cattle herd is potentially possible within 20 to 25 years.”
Protesters against the cull plan to launch legal action to try to halt it. Brian May, the Queen guitarist and most high-profile campaigner against the cull, said he hopes a judicial review will be lodged within days.
Dr Aristides Moustakas, another researcher at Queen Mary University of London, said: “It is clear that the Welsh policy of frequent testing up to every six months and the Scottish policy of risk-based surveillance are producing reductions in the both the incidence and prevalence of TB in cattle.”
Badgers: 2,450 killed
Professor Evans added: “Testing cattle frequently is the most effective way of reducing bovine TB. Farmers and policymakers should not ignore this evidence, which is based on the Government’s data.”
Professor Alastair Macmillan, of Humane Society UK, said frequent cattle testing was particularly important as the sensitivity of diagnostic tests is not very high, so cattle incubating TB are not detected and can remain in the herd to infect others. “These cattle are by far the most common reason why cattle herds suffer repeated TB breakdowns, not badgers,” he said.
Professor Macmillan, a former government adviser on animal health, added: “The Government must heed this evidence, and stop wasting time and resources on killing badgers to no effect. All efforts must instead be focused on far more frequent cattle testing and strict cattle movement control. How much more research and scientific evidence does this Government need before it listens to the rational facts?”
Analysis of government spending on the cull and pilot culls since 2012 shows that each badger killed has cost between £6,775 and £6,850.
At least 2,450 animals have been killed in the past two years. A further £12 million is expected to be spend targeting badgers this year in the three counties involved.
Brian May, the Queen guitarist and most high-profile campaigner against culling, led a protest in Westminster yesterday with a hearse and floral tributes to the animals killed.
Main image: Gwydion M Williams/Flickr