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Badger culls, farmer political appeasement, and limited scientific evidence

A regular Economist columnist by the name of Bagehot has likened the recent phone hacking, police corruption, and politician involvement in tabloid journalism to a big earthquake (July 16, 2011:38). “Long after their immediate terrors have passed” writes Bagehot “it takes survivors to trust, fully, in the solidity of the ground. Earthquakes can bring instant transparency to murky societies, exposing the greedy who put up shoddy buildings of the officials bribed to look the other way”.

On Tuesday this week, the world was treated to live TV coverage of various Parliamentary Select Committees interviewing police commissioners and media executives. It was all very tedious, all denied knowing anything, and everyone but the guy with the shaving cream was polite in their questions. Constituents of Tom Watson MP should elect him for life, he has my vote for the best questions.

But meanwhile, and perhaps planned to coincide as nobody was looking, another session was taking place. This was to give approval of a rather controversial culling programmes for badgers.

Let me explain. Cattle in some parts of the UK become regularly infected with bovine tuberculosis, and infected herds have to be destroyed, farmers compensated. In other parts of the UK, herds are largely free of tuberculosis. While some blame the farmers for practices that promote the spread of TB to their cattle, the farmers blame badgers. They are, according to farmers and now the UK Government, insidious wildlife hosts for tuberculosis.

It is clear that badgers are infected with TB. But it is not so clear that the badgers are maintenance hosts for the disease. No clear scientific evidence has been presented that the outbreak of TB on a particular farm can be blamed on the resident badgers. This would not be difficult to prove, as sensitive genetic tests are available to determine whether the strain in badgers is equivalent to the strain in the infected cattle. Such tests have not been done. Instead, epidemiological “models” have been used.

The next problem is that there is widespread disagreement over the effectiveness of a cull given the assumption that badgers are involved in the first place. But the Government has gone ahead to decide that badgers can be shot by farmers in an ad-hoc program to appease them. Previous badger culls resulted in a 16% decline in TB incidence, meaning that 84% of the problem remained as attributable to other causes, and there was not agreement that the decline in incidence was directly attributable to the cull.

Instead of caving in to farming interests, the UK Government needs to put science first. Minister Richard Benyon recently pushed for more rigorous and transparent measures to be put in place for evaluation of scientific information by the International Whaling Commission. Minister Spellman, pushing for the badger cull, needs belatedly to do the same. Badgers are a protected species in the UK, and the animals deserve a much more careful evaluation of their true contribution to cattle TB before open season was declared on them. We need to know, and be able to appraise, the quality of scientific evidence that has been used to promote the cull. Political appeasement of farmers might result in votes, but does not carefully address the issue of the survival of the limited number of wildlife species in the UK. The badger decision is a shoddy building that can still collapse in an earthquake of more informed opinion. LionAid will in always push for decisions to be based on carefully evaluated scientific evidence, whether this pertains to whales, badgers or lions.





Posted by Pieter Kat at 13:25

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