Spreading the White Plague

The governments of both the UK and Wales could almost be trying to turn bovine TB into a pandemic.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 16th November 2010.

It’s one of those issues, like mad cow disease, which begins at the distant margins of public life, then explodes into the centre ground of politics. Anyone can see it coming – except, perhaps, the government.

Tuberculosis in cattle is spreading rapidly: moving east and north from the south-west of England and south Wales. Isolated outbreaks are sparking up all over the country – in some cases hundreds of miles from the reservoirs of the disease(1). The white plague wrecks the lives of farmers. It cost the government £63m last year alone in England(2), £120m since 2000 in Wales(3). Contact with badgers is one of the means by which cattle catch the disease.

The governments of both countries believe they can help arrest TB by killing badgers. The Welsh government will do it by sending in its own contractors(4); the Westminster government will do it by licensing farmers to kill badgers on their own land and at their own expense(5). Their consultations on the killing both end next month.

There is only one rigorous scientific trial of badger culling(6). This is the work carried out by the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, led by Professor John Bourne(7). It took nine years and cost us £49 million(8), and it is now being comprehensively ignored. Both administrations claim to be basing their culls on the outcome of this trial. Both are doing anything but.

You don’t have to read far to discover this. Professor Bourne attached a covering letter to his report, in the vain hope that this would prevent anyone from misrepresenting his findings. Here is what it says. “Badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain. Indeed, some policies under consideration are likely to make matters worse rather than better.”(9) The main source of infection, it continued, is transmission not from badgers to cattle, but from cattle to cattle. “The rising incidence of disease can be reversed, and geographical spread contained, by the rigid application of cattle-based control measures alone.”(10)

At an electrifying meeting in London Zoo last week, Professor Bourne and one of the other scientists who conducted the trial, Dr Rosie Woodroffe, attacked the misuse of their work by both governments(11). Badger culling, they pointed out, reduces the number of cattle herds with TB inside the kill zone, but temporarily raises it outside the zone. It breaks up the badgers’ social structures, pushing them out of their territories, which means that they spread the disease to healthy populations, and to cattle. Even when carried out rigorously, culling does very little to help. But the Westminster government has chosen the worst of all possible options: licensing farmers to kill badgers. This, Bourne’s report points out, “would entail a substantial risk of increasing the incidence of cattle TB and spreading the disease”(12).

While the badgers in the scientific trials were trapped in cages before they were shot, the government, to reduce their costs, will allow farmers to shoot badgers as they roam around freely. There has been no trial to test this kind of culling(13), but the models suggest that it will kill a smaller proportion of badgers than the trapping and shooting method(14). This means that it’s unlikely to control the disease even within the kill zone.

Worse still, the government appears to have understated the costs. Dr Woodroffe estimates that the government’s projections would be accurate only if skilled marksmen were paid £3.23 an hour – just over half the minimum wage(15). Stuffed so far down the appendices of the consultation document that it takes major surgery to locate it (Appendix F, par.6.3 if you’re interested) is an admission that, even on the government’s optimistic figures, the killing will cost farmers more than it’s likely to save them in disease costs(16). When they discover that the price is higher than they thought, the kill rate lower and the trouble they get from animal rights activists more than they can bear, they’re likely to give up. This would create the worst of all conditions – spreading infected badgers far and wide while doing nothing to control the disease even in the killing fields.

As Bourne points out, the two governments are ignoring not only the science but also the history of bovine TB control. In the 1960s, the disease was almost eliminated through rigorous testing of cattle herds and strict quarantine. It was when these measures were relaxed, at the behest of the industry, that the disease began to spread. Tests with a low sensitivity, which were designed to detect TB in a herd, are now misused to clear individual animals(17). The quarantine period has shrunk from one year to 120 days. (The safe period, Bourne says, should be two years, as the successful Australian programme shows). The infections springing up far from the hot zone are caused not by badgers but by cattle movements(18).

As for the badgers, they should continue to be trapped in cages, but vaccinated and then released, as this prevents their social structures from being disrupted. By 2015 an oral vaccine for badgers could be ready to roll, which will be far cheaper than the current options(19). The best means of controlling the disease is to bring in more rigorous tests and longer quarantine periods now, and wait for the oral vaccines to arrive. Instead the two governments have chosen to launch a programme whose best possible outcome is to make “no meaningful contribution”, at high risk and great expense.

So why commission £49m of research then shred it? Because the National Farmers’ Union wants to see blood(20), and it is neither prepared to wait nor to accept measures as tough as Bourne proposes. Up and down the country it is whipping up farmers to demand that badgers are killed. Yesterday I spoke to a tenant farmer who had just attended an NFU meeting which unanimously supported the cull. A question revealed that not one of the farmers in the room had read the consultation document: they simply accepted the NFU’s word that the killing had to happen.

Under this government, the NFU rules. According to the small farmers I know, it tends to be dominated by the biggest and most arrogant landowners – rather like the Tory party. Last week the government quietly abandoned its commitment to stop the de-beaking of chickens and to stop game birds from being kept in cages(21). The badgers are just another lump of meat to be thrown to the beast. The cull might help to destroy the industry these bloody-minded dolts claim to defend. But they don’t seem to care, just as long as something is done other than imposing rigorous controls on their business. Killing wildlife will do just fine.



1. Figure 1, page 9 of the DEFRA consultation document (see below) tells half the story, but misses out the north of England and Scotland. The maps which Bob Watson, DEFRA’s chief scientist, showed at the ZSL meeting last Tuesday included these areas, and showed even more distant outbreaks.

2. DEFRA, September 2010. Bovine Tuberculosis: The Government’s approach to tackling the disease and consultation on a badger control policy. Para 23, page 10. http://www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/consult/tb-control-measures/100915-tb-control-measures-condoc.pdf

3. Welsh Assembly Government, 20th September 2010. Consultation Document: Bovine TB Eradication Programme. Page 4. http://wales.gov.uk/docs/drah/consultation/100921badgercontroliaaen.pdf

4. Welsh Assembly Government, 20th September 2010. As above.

5. DEFRA, September 2010, as above.

6. The DEFRA consultation document says ” The RBCT is the only one of these that was conducted as a rigorous scientific trial”. Para 68, p25.

7. John Bourne et al, June 2007. Bovine TB: The Scientific Evidence. Final Report of the
Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB.

8. DEFRA, September 2010, as above, para 58, p22.

9. Letter to David Miliband from John Bourne, 18 June 2007. Page 5 of the ISG report. http://www.defra.gov.uk/foodfarm/farmanimal/diseases/atoz/tb/isg/report/final_report.pdf

10. As above.

11. Debate at ZSL, 9th November 2010. Is the Coalition Government’s Proposal for a ‘Science-Led Programme of Badger Control’ an Effective Way to Reduce Tuberculosis in Cattle?

12. John Bourne et al, June 2007. Para 10.36, p.170, as above.

13. The DEFRA consultation document states:
“Shooting free-ranging wildlife is a technique already widely used by the rural and pest-control communities. It is commonly used to kill foxes (at night) and deer (day time), but it has not been used in any trial or field test on badgers. A report by the Game Conservancy Trust concluded that “sighting frequency of badgers was sufficient to be an efficient form of badger control”.” (The Game Conservancy Trust. 2006. Shooting as a potential tool in badger population control. Report to Defra. http://www.defra.gov.uk/foodfarm/farmanimal/diseases/atoz/tb/documents/badger-gct0806.pdf.)
Para 99, p34.

14. John Bourne tells me that “a simple model constructed by The Game Conservancy Trust suggests that shooting would remove badgers at a rate lower than that achieved by cage trapping in the RBCT. This suggests that the substantial reductions in badger density achieved in the RBCT would be harder to achieve by shooting. This is important because lesser reductions in badger density would be expected to prompt the detrimental effects of perturbation without delivering the beneficial effects of low badger density, generating overall increases in cattle TB.” (The Game Conservancy Trust. 2006. Shooting as a potential tool in badger population control. Report to Defra. http://www.defra.gov.uk/foodfarm/farmanimal/diseases/atoz/tb/documents/badger-gct0806.pdf)
John Bourne, pers comm.

15. Dr Woodroffe has not yet published this figure, but she explains it as follows:

“The Game Conservancy Trust report12 uses data from ecological studies to estimate the time that might be taken to cull badgers by shooting. The sole example given in the report concerns data from Woodchester Park in Gloucestershire13, where badger densities are very high14. The Game Conservancy Trust estimated that it would take 397 hours, or 50 eight-hour nights, to cull all the badgers in a 2.42km2 area of Woodchester Park12. Using the same data and assumptions, it would take about 50 hours (7 nights) to remove 80% of the badgers (roughly the removal rate achieved in the RBCT after accounting for breeding and immigration into the culled areas1,6) from an average-sized cattle holding (80ha), or 38 hours (5 nights) to achieve 70% removal (as recommended in the Defra proposals, which assume – optimistically – that the 70% reduction in badger density achieved by the RBCT was unaffected by either breeding or immigration). To achieve a 70% reduction in badger density in the first year (roughly 80% removal) by shooting alone, at a cost of £200/km2, would thus require the costs of labour, transport, equipment and ammunition not to exceed £3.23 per hour (£200 x 2.42km2 ÷ 150 hours). It seems very unlikely that costs would be so low. Although farmers might not value their own time at market rate (for example, in comparison with a national minimum wage of £5.80 per hour), the large amount of time required to achieve substantial reductions in badger density by free shooting would doubtless have serious impacts on farmers’ ability to fulfil their other duties and would thus be costly. Alternatively, if specialist contractors were to be employed to shoot badgers, costs would almost certainly exceed the Defra estimate. In this context, it is important to note that the feasibility study of shooting badgers commissioned by Defra concluded that “In view of the necessity for a centre-fire rifle and good quality telescopic sight, the requirement for a Fire-Arms Certificate, the specialist knowledge required for all use of centre-fire rifles, the extra knowledge required to adjust technique to badgers, the anti-social hours involved in night-shooting, and other specialist equipment required, shooting is a technique likely to be employed by professional operators rather than by landowners and farmers with other demands on their time”12.

The Game Conservancy Trust’s example of the time taken to cull badgers is based on data from an area with very high badger density (28 badgers/sq km13). More typical badger densities in TB-affected areas of Britain fall in the region 5-10 badgers/sq km15,16,17. Under such circumstances, encounter rates with badgers would be lower12, removal slower, and costs consequently higher.”

16. Farmers in a culling area would spend £0.73m on shooting badgers, and avoid £0.55 million by avoiding TB.

17. John Bourne, pers comm.

18. The ISG report says: “Movement of cattle from infected herds in the periods between routine herd tests has long been recognised as a cause of new herd breakdowns, and it is generally accepted that most of the sporadic herd breakdowns in relatively disease-free areas of the country result from movement of infected animals.” Para 3.16, p64.

19. DEFRA consultation document, Para 65, p24.

20. See, for example, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8436839.stm

21. http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/the-great-animal-rights-betrayal-2132827.html