Britain’s badgers – is a vaccine enough to stop the cull? – Another case of too little too late.
If you have read any of my previous blogs (if not I encourage you to do so!!) you will be aware that I grew up in the heart of the English Lake District. Well known for its beautiful views and incredible wildlife, the Lake District has been a wonderful place to grow up. However, living in an area with so much wildlife, humans and animals inevitably collide. In my younger years I remember quite clearly seeing road kill and being quite effected by it. It seemed to me that one animal, the badger; I only got to see when it was dead at the side of the road. As I got older I began to understand the issue a little more and even came across rumours that the mysterious badger is not always killed accidently.
Tuberculosis is a global killer usually infecting the lungs and an estimated third of the human population is thought to be infected. In Britain badgers are commonly blamed for transmitting bovine tuberculosis to cattle. To a farmer, any single animal lost to tuberculosis puts pressure on the farmer’s finances and of course reduces the public’s confidence in the British meat market. If a population of badgers become infected, it could only be a matter of time before cattle become infected. My research has found speculation that in extreme cases this leads to farmers not slowing down when they see a badger, but in fact speeding up, and killing these animals to protect their livelihood.
After all the years of seeing badgers at the side of the road it is clear to me that this can’t continue. So what is the solution? There are two options available: cull or vaccine. The first option has been at the fore front of the badger debate for some time. Badgers are protected in the UK, but this proposal would see that ban lifted and permit landowners and farmers to freely shoot any badgers they see. The cull has been debated in government for many years and is always met with strong opposition. The problem with culling is it is neither humane nor particularly effective. The badger is a popular part of Britain’s ecosystem and no one wants to be out on a walk, or driving down a country lane and see people shooting badgers. Secondly, for the cull to be effective every single badger needs to be shot, to stop the disease spreading (regardless of if the badger is infected or not). Furthermore, if even one infected badger from a sett survives, it could move to another previously uninfected region, causing even more devastation. To me this does not seem fair, and regardless of the effect the badgers may have on the farming industry, it feels a little immoral.
Vaccination seems like a much more humane option as opposed to a potential extermination. With culling trials set to start as early as 2012, it is a race against time to prove curing is the answer. On face value it might be difficult to understand why culling is ever preferred to curing, but the badger’s mysteriousness is in this case its downfall. It is one thing to find a badger sett, it is another to then catch and vaccinate all the badgers in that sett. It is certainly cheaper to just shoot every badger, if your morals will allow it. Figures released from Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) state that it costs £2,250 a year to vaccinate a square kilometre, but just £200 per square kilometre a year to kill. Bovine tuberculosis already costs the UK £100 million per year, so the ‘nicer’ more humane vaccination may not be an option financially.
Is there any hope for the badger then? For the vaccine to work I believe there are three things that need to change. Firstly the farmers need to be onboard with the scheme and change their attitude towards badgers. This means no longer killing the badgers, but instead working with the government officials, volunteers and badger experts to find a humane solution to the problem. Another stumbling block for the vaccination option is the price. It is hard to imagine the government choosing to vaccinate the badgers, when it costs 10 times the amount it does to kill them (especially in the current economical climate). It would be much cheaper to use an oral vaccine but that is not expected to be ready for trials until 2015, which may well be too little too late. Under current proposals it would seem that there is little hope for the badger’s future existence. I would like to think that culling will be a last resort, only used when all other possible methods have been trialled. However I fear that the cost to the tax payer and the farming industry in the UK may sign the death warrant for this species.