Queen’s Brian May leads Britain’s badger defenders


27 October 2013 by Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY

Britain is divided over a recent badger cull Badgers can carry cattle disease Government is extending a pilot population-control program

LONDON — Britain, a nation of animal lovers, is coming down hard on shy creatures that threaten to spread a disease fatal to cattle.

But the furry black-and-white badger has powerful friends committed to its welfare, making it the center of a tussle in the English countryside between farmers and animal activists.

Tuberculosis in cattle, or bovine TB, is on the rise across England and the badger, a carrier of the disease, has found itself on the sharp end of a pilot government culling program that is dividing town, country — and even rock star.

“As I get older it is hard to keep my energy levels up, but having spent a lot of my time campaigning for animals, it is something I could never withdraw from now I know what goes on,” Brian May said in the British news media last week.

The Queen guitarist says he has received death threats as a result of his work on behalf of badgers.

Such is the intensity of May’s feelings over the fate of these creatures that dwell together in large underground habitats that he was forced recently to apologize to leaders of the Jewish community after comparing the government’s initiative to genocide.

In early October, May went on a badger-saving patrol, writing on Twitter, “I’m in the War Zone of the Badger Cull in Somerset.” He said a farmer told him, “The cull is a waste of time, and everybody down here knows it.”

The British government disagrees. “

The decision to cull badgers … is undoubtedly emotive,” wrote Ian Boyd, chief scientific adviser, and Nigel Gibbens, chief veterinary officer, both from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, or Defra. “But it has not been taken lightly. The furor over culling badgers is distracting from the real problem.”

According to Defra, the problem is that incidents of the disease have risen 380% since 1996. In 2012, 28,000 cattle were slaughtered because of bovine TB.

The deeply rural counties of Gloucestershire and Somerset, in particular, are “TB hot spot areas,” Defra says. It is here, in the face of widespread protests, that the government has focused its program aimed at doing away with several thousand of the short-legged omnivores.

Tempers have been flaring over whether Defra’s way of tackling the problem is the right one, pitting activists against farmers.

“Badgers have a bad connotation, but that doesn’t mean they deserve to die,” Vadi Patel, 43, of North London said Saturday.

The British Wildlife Center estimates that there are about 300,000 adult badgers in Britain and that about 50,000 are killed each year on the roads alone while 10,000 are killed annually as a result of illegal baiting. Badgers are a protected species in Britain.

The badger’s role in transmitting bovine TB to cattle is disputed. Groups such as the Badger Trust say the real answer to the problem is to vaccinate cattle.

Badger Trust Chairman David Williams says the “culls will do little to solve a problem caused by decades of cattle mismanagement” and “killing badgers is at best a sideshow.”

Many farmers side with the government.

“We need to use everything we possibly can in order to control it (bovine TB), and that includes controlling wildlife,” Gloucestershire dairy farmer Rob Harrison says. “It’s not a farmers against badgers thing. It’s that TB is a massive problem, and it hasn’t been controlled properly.”

Owen Paterson, secretary of state for Defra, says the government is looking at a “comprehensive package of measures” to defeat the problem. One contentious option Defra says is being discussed is tossing gas fumigation cartridges in badger holes. It is currently illegal to gas badgers in Britain.

“It can never be acceptable to kill thousands of wild animals for the benefit of a business,” says Jay Tiernan, 43, spokesperson for the Bristol-based Stop the Cull campaign. “We will continue to go out night and day to locate shooters and cage traps and then neutralize them.”

Contributing: Stephanie Haven