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Culling badgers was never going to be popular – nor easily accomplished. So far, the pilot programmes have killed far fewer badgers than is required for the purposes of controlling the spread of bovine TB – and all at the utterly ludicrous cost of £2,200 per dead animal.

Still, it’s not all bad news. According to Farming Online, the spread of bovine TB is slowing down regardless:

“Defra’s monthly update on TB incidence rates, published on Wednesday, showed that the proportion of new outbreaks discovered through testing fell to around 3.25 percent in March, the lowest rate since 2004. This follows a similarly low rate in February of 3.5%.”

This, apparently, is the lowest figure for a decade. But if badgers are still sauntering around the countryside as if they owned the place, then how come we’re making progress against bovine TB? Weren’t we told that good ol’ brock is in fact a stripey-faced, walking bio-hazard – hence the Government’s exciting bag-a-badger campaign?

Fortunately, Defra’s been pulling on a few other levers – as farming minister George Eustice explains:

“Mr Eustice… said that the government’s zero tolerance policy on late surveillance tests (introduced in January this year), had been a success, and as a result Defra will also be consulting on extending the zero tolerance approach to cover TB tests in restricted herds.

“Under the approach, if a test is delayed by only one day farmers could have penalties applied to their CAP payment. Defra claims this has already helped achieve a 60 percent reduction in late TB surveillance tests since it came into force.

“From 1st October, partial de-restriction of TB-breakdown holdings will be disallowed. Under the new rules, any movement restrictions placed on a holding will apply to all cattle until all the animals have achieved officially TB free status.”

Well, this is quite remarkable. It turns out that we can successfully control the spread of bovine TB by controlling the movement of bovines – as opposed to taking pot-shots at passing badgers. Who knew?

However, one can hardly dispute the fact that badgers and other wild animal populations harbour the disease. So, as long as we also test for bovine TB in cattle and restrict the movement of at-risk herds, culling can’t hurt, can it?

Perhaps it can:

[last] week, research published in the journal PNAS suggested that even small-scale badger culling might increase rather than reduce the spread of bovine tuberculosis…

“The PNAS paper looked at the impact of changes in badger behaviour that result from culling-induced perturbation. It found surviving badgers are more likely to spread out into surrounding areas, and badgers from areas surrounding culling zones are more likely to move in to fill the ‘gaps’ created by culling. This increases the chances of contact between badgers from different social groups, and risks spreading infection more widely to previously uninfected badgers.”

Of course, if you wipe them all out, this wouldn’t be a problem. But as the pilots have shown, complete culling is very hard to achieve.

One might wonder why the Government is still determined to press ahead with such an unpopular, ineffective and potentially counter-productive policy. The answer, as always in these matters, is pressure from the farm lobby – which would never countenance a complex but correct plan of action, when there’s a simple but wrong solution to be had instead.

44 comments for: There’s good news on bovine TB – but the farm lobby won’t like it

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