Are badgers the only ones to blame for bovine TB?
by Bérangère MAILLET
Cattle farmers in England have to face yet another epidemic : bovine tuberculosis (TB). Badgers are blamed for spreading the disease; a massive cull is being discussed.
Cattle farmers In England have been hit by bovine TB since 1986. At first the infection was not widespread but it has now become rampant. Each year, more than 5,000 farms are affected and 20,000 cattle are slaughtered. Bovine TB costs vast amounts of money to farmers, taxpayers and the government. The Treasury has already spent ₤100 million in compensation, and it is estimated that the epidemic will cost the government another ₤2 billion over the next decade. Scientists highlight the danger of transmission to human beings if they eat raw or undercooked meat from an infected animal, or drink the milk of an infected cow. Moreover bovine TB can spread to other animals.
Badgers are commonly held responsible for spreading the illness. Therefore the government suggested a massive cull in the counties most affected, starting in July 2006. But badgers have been a protected species since the 1980's, and the proposed cull generated outrage among wildlife protection associations. 90% of public opinion is against badger culling, particularly as there is no clear-cut evidence of the efficiency of such a drastic measure, quite the opposite : "The study of the effect of culling in 30 sites in Western England shows that culling badgers caused a 19 per cent reduction in the incidence of cattle TB in the areas culled but led to a 29 per cent increase in surrounding areas." *
Green activists argue that in the United States after five years of bovine TB epidemics (spread by deer this time), the disease was stopped thanks to strict controls and tests on all cattle before they were transported. No American cattle have been infected this year. The British government is ready to re-install pre-movement testing of cattle shortly, but farmers would have to foot the bill. There might be yet another option: recently, a variety of the BCG vaccine used on humans to protect them from TB started being tested on badgers. But inoculating the beasts could prove tricky, particularly as the Government has untimely decided to lay off 60 skilled badger trappers by the end of February. Their skills could have come in handy.
So all in all, are the badgers the only ones to blame? British farmers might be tempted to side with the black and white mammals. They, rather than the government, are likely to be most hit and held responsible for this sorry state of bovine affairs.
* "Doubts Over Badger Cull To Protect Cattle," The Telegraph 15 December 2005.
"Badgers Cull To Beat TB Could Begin Next June," The Telegraph 17 December 2005.
"Badger off," The Economist 20 December 2005.
"Trappers Face Sack Before Badger Cull," The Telegraph 5 January 2006.