Once again a British government has chosen to seek the best possible scientific advice and then ignore it
The licensed killing of badgers in parts of Gloucestershire and Somerset could achieve a number of things. It could further advertise the unwelcome existence of bovine tuberculosis in British dairy herds. It could polarise opinion in the countryside and unite political opposition everywhere else. It could cost the farmers involved more than they could gain. It will almost certainly provoke active protest and put even more pressure on already hard-pressed police forces.
What it will almost certainly not do is limit bovine tuberculosis, even in the target zones of Gloucestershire and Somerset.
It might be helpful to list those things that are certain.
Human tuberculosis is a dangerous disease.
Bovine tuberculosis is a real problem for dairy farmers – who in any case have been paid too little for their milk and who have been going out of business for decades – and the disease lives on in the wild badger population. But by 1996, a policy of identification and slaughter had reduced the incidence of bovine TB in dairy herds in England and Wales to less than half a per cent, and the risk of direct transmission to humans has – with the pasteurisation of milk – long ago become negligible.
The last and most systematic examination of the link between badgers and bovine TB found that, indeed, there was transmission, and proposed a series of systematic, randomised controlled trials over a sustained period to see whether culling could provide an answer. In 2003, the government, farmers, public health officers and wildlife campaigners got the answer: shooting and gassing did not eliminate, and could possibly spread, the disease. That may be because badgers disturbed in one area could migrate, taking the infection with them. The answer, delivered by Lord Krebs and the distinguished statisticians and zoologists who examined the results, could hardly be clearer: killing will not solve the problem. Lord Krebs’s scientific credentials are not in doubt. He was trusted by successive British governments to head the Natural Environment Research Council, and to chair the Food Standards Agency. And he has just described the latest plan as a “crazy scheme”.
Brian May, guitarist for Queen, has condemned the policy, so has Sir David Attenborough, so of course has the Badger Trust. Once again, a British government has chosen to seek the best possible scientific advice and then ignore it, and to embark on a plan that almost everybody knows will not work; and in the course of doing so to slaughter not just a protected species, but one of the most charismatic mammals of the ancient British countryside. At the end of the exercise, England’s dairy farmers will still be no better off, and the wild landscape will be a great deal poorer. Crazy seems too mild an epithet.
THE GUARDIAN | 23 September 2012