Badger the scapegoat as TB still baffles - Veterinary Practice
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Badger the scapegoat as TB still baffles

DAVID J. COFFEY has been following the bovine TB-badger saga for nearly 40 years: has anything changed?

IT is now over four decades, nearly half a century, that attempts to eradicate tuberculosis (TB) from the national herd have proved a vexatious problem and in all that time the badger has been the scapegoat.

It demonstrates with inescapable clarity the incompetence of the leaders of the State Veterinary Service and, perhaps more significantly, the inability of the cherished scientific acumen, of which our species is so proud, to solve simple problems.

Is the arrogant belief in our cerebral capacity misplaced? We live in a world controlled not by humanity but by nature. We forget that at our peril.

Thus, I commence this article by quoting from the introduction to The Fate of the Badger by Richard Meyer, published in 1986: “We have, in our juvenile emergence from some primaeval soup, travelled far from the shores of a natural state, and penetrated the deep hinterland of the mind. Our image is in love with itself. And we have allocated ourselves alone a soul and a spirit. But are we a part of the creation or the creator?

“Man has fabricated a world of illusion and self-deception for so long that he now truly believes he has dominion. The world exists for him; its precious treasures are his to squander; its land his to appropriate; its wild inhabitants his to manipulate, control, exploit and, if the whim takes him, destroy.”

The story of our inability to solve the embarrassingly high incidence of TB in the national herd should act as a poignant indicator of the danger of relying on science and scientists to guide our species to some adaptive idyll. As we plunge, or think we may be plunging, perhaps are plunging, or some scientists believe we could be plunging, some scientists are convinced we are plunging – if indeed it is not simply a natural cycle – into climatic catastrophe, the limits of our understanding should be manifest.

The persistence of an unacceptable level of TB in some areas of the country began to cause concern in the late 1960s. The problem was addressed by the Richards’ Report, published in 1972. It stated: Tuberculosis in cattle is usually contracted from other infected cattle and the environment they have contaminated.”

This was surely a reasonable, indeed pertinent, assumption. Close association in conditions of high population density are well-known to predispose TB in humans and intensive management to which cattle are subjected provides, at the very least, high population density.

It was, however, the introduction of a joker in the form of a badger’s cadaver, which a post mortem showed to have TB, that precipitated an unseemly lust for badger blood within the farming community.

Designated the culprit, this unproven myth has bedevilled a rational and reasonable approach ever since.

If West Country badgers contracted TB from cattle in the first place, as the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) decreed, how did they resist infection when the disease was prevalent throughout the rest of the country? If they did develop the disease, how did we manage to eradicate it in most cattle so effectively?

These pertinent questions remain unexplained. Statistically inadequate investigations into the prevalence of TB in other wildlife, which would have embarrassed an innumerate three-year old, were promulgated as clarifying the role of the badger. Ludicrously inept experiments at the Central Veterinary Laboratory (CVL) attempted, and failed, to demonstrate badger to cattle infection.

After 30 years of experimentation, under intense political pressure, at the CVL its recently retired director, Dr Tony Little, the Ministry’s senior veterinary research scientist, speaking at a BVA press conference in 2001 made the staggering observation that he “guessed”, yes guessed, that badgers would be found 75% responsible for the problem.

This observation reflects a “guess” arrived at much earlier from contemplation of circumstantial evidence by Lord Zuckerman, zoologist, president of the Zoological Society of London and chief scientific adviser to the government, an expert in monkey behaviour.

It would be far too boring and completely unproductive to detail the various and vacuous stages in this saga of scientific ineptitude. We have experienced Zuckerman reports, Krebs sort of experiments which proved rather less than anything. We have pumped cyanide gas costing millions of pounds into badger setts until Lord Zuckerman’s friend, the then minister Peter Walker, found an experiment in the bowels of Whitehall showing it to be cruel to badgers and had it stopped.

It is disingenuous, probably treasonous, to suggest a political motive for that act of suppression. Diligent testing of cattle has shown in some studies that it results in a decline in the number of reactors but the unproven myth of the badger endures.

This farcical situation persists after close on half a century of “scientific” investigation. The Independent Scientific Group (ISG) recently published its report on badger culling as a means of controlling TB in cattle. This concluded that culling badgers would be most likely to make matters worse.

It also concluded that diligent testing of cattle – the way we eradicated, or almost eradicated, or got close to eradicating TB in the national herd – is the most effective way of solving the problem.

Then up popped another chief scientific adviser to the government, Sir David King, an expert in the behaviour of atoms on the surface of metals, who to the amazement of the ISG and after only a brief examination of the facts, reversed its conclusions. Not surprisingly, Sir David’s report was deemed “unbalanced and inexpert” and precipitated palpable fury among members of the ISG.

A farmer, fuming against badgers, on the Radio 4 programme Farming Today earlier this year suggested using farmers to achieve the badger cull he considered essential. He rejected gassing as an option. He suggested that the badgers be trapped and then shot by co-operating farming folk. Was he crackers?

More recently on the same programme, the chief veterinary officer for Wales, Christianne Glossop, promoting an initiative by the National Assembly for Wales during which badgers were to be culled as part of an eradication plan, was asked when and how the cull was to be undertaken?

She replied that it would take six months to work out the plan. Asked what methods would be used and what would be the cost she replied, “I don’t know.” Asked where the cull was to be undertaken, she replied, “Don’t know. Haven’t done the work.” Asked who would perform the cull, she replied, “Farmers maybe.” She went on to say that it would be essential to establish the aetiology and the epidemiology of the condition first.

Six months to work out the plan? Scientists, naturalists and the State Veterinary Service have spent nearly 50 years struggling with the objectives she anticipates will occupy just six months.

The essential elements for the eradication of TB in cattle to be effective were a reliable test for the disease, complete control of the animals under test and slaughter of those reacting positively. In the case of badgers, those elements have been, and still are, unattainable.

Couple that with different aetiological and pathological presentations, which are thought by some to be of considerable importance, and the wool begins to cloud our vision. We appear to have lost sight of the established principle that if two species sharing an environment have the same disease and it is controlled or eliminated in one of the species, the incidence will fall in the other!

On Farming Today on 15th May, the presenter, Anna Hill, interviewed a Devon farmer whose Guernsey herd had just been devastated by the SVS. Skin tests for TB had identified one reactor. The new blood test, concurrently undertaken, identified 89 reactors. The 89 were slaughtered.

If these statements are true, the skin test being that inaccurate, is it surprising that TB remains rampant in the national herd? Has science and, more important, scientists, let us down again? Perhaps the 1972 Richards’ Report was right, it is infected cattle living in conditions of intensive husbandry that act as a reservoir of infection and the badger is simply a victim of modern agricultural practice.

In view of the confusion associated with this problem, it is depressing to observe members of our profession involved with the cattle industry supporting the vendetta against badgers. Are they really wise to condone the dubious policy of badger culling, thereby pandering to the wishes of some of their clients, rather than maintaining intellectual integrity and a healthy scientific scepticism?

Whatever may be the truth about the involvement of badgers in our bothersome inability to reduce the incidence of TB in the national herd, one can only be dismayed that half a century of investigation by an army of scientists and technicians of various denominations and millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money have failed to produce a definitive answer to a relatively simple problem.

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