Are badgers the primary cause of bovine TB in the UK?
The UK was once rich in biodiversity, from insects and amphibians to herbivores and omnivores, and once upon a time, home to a multitude of carnivores too. From wild bears to wolves and lynxes, our country had an impressive selection of predators roaming the land. Sadly, the UK is no longer home to such creatures, and many carnivores that remain are endangered.
The largest surviving terrestrial carnivores in the UK are badgers, but they too face a great threat. Just like the larger deceased predators, these smaller, yet equally wondrous creatures, face a threat that species across the globe struggle to cope with daily - living alongside humans.
Badgers have lived in our country since the ice age and are a keystone species; their presence helps keep other animals and insects in balance, and they provide a multitude of environmental benefits, from regenerating soil health through foraging to dispersing seeds and helping maintain healthy ecosystems.
Badgers are often tarnished with the misplaced presumption of being dirty, but the iconic badger opts to eat outside of their setts in order to keep their living space clean, and they even build their own latrines! They can also make great neighbours, such as lovable internet sensations Mr Lumpy & Friends.
UK badgers were given protected status in 1992 due to excessive poaching and badger baiting, but things took a detrimental turn once again for the species in 2013 when the government initiated a badger cull.
The government recently published its State of Nature Report, and the findings concluded with stark clarity: nature in the UK is suffering, with 1 in 6 species threatened with extinction. And those that aren’t, face severe struggles due to extreme habitat loss, climate change, and pollution. UK badgers face the additional threat of being legally persecuted by humans, as part of the ongoing badger cull.
In the past ten years, over 210,000 badgers have lost their lives since the UK badger cull began, which was proposed to reduce the spread of bovine tuberculosis in cows reared for human consumption.
Bovine TB has been documented as one of the biggest challenges that cattle farmers face, with over 330,000 cows having been culled due to the disease.
It is worth noting that the disease is curable with a 6- to 12-month course of antibiotics, although this is deemed financially unviable within the industry. Any cows that present symptoms of the disease are slaughtered, often with others within the herd, to prevent any potential spread.
The disease is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium Bovis, which badgers have been known to carry, however, data suggests that badgers are not the primary cause of bovine TB in cows. Current scientific evidence outlines that culling badgers is likely ineffective in fighting the disease, and could risk worsening the issue.
We sat down with Dominic Dyer, ex-CEO of The Badgers Trust and author of the critically acclaimed novel, Badgered to Death, to hear his thoughts on the cull, and potential solutions to protect both cows and badgers from further persecution.
V-Land UK (V-L): What are your thoughts on the UK badger cull?
Dominic Dyer (DD): I’ve fought the badger cull for over ten years. We said from the beginning that it wouldn’t be effective, as the major problem of bovine TB is cattle-to-cattle spread, so killing badgers, who are not primarily spreading the disease, isn’t the answer. Over 210,000 badgers have been killed since 2013, and the vast majority of those animals did not have TB.
The badgers are often killed by a controlled shooting method, which is extremely cruel, it can take them five minutes to die, wounded from blood loss and organ failure.
We haven’t seen any evidence to show that removing those large numbers of badgers is actually lowering bovine TB in and around the cull zones (which now go from Cornwall up to Cumbria).
Ultimately, the answer long term would be to vaccinate cattle from the disease rather than kill badgers, but this is something that the government has repeatedly delayed.
V-L: If badgers aren’t the primary cause of bovine TB, could the living conditions of cows be contributing towards the disease, and would alternative measures be more successful than the cull?
DD: Certainly - I wrote an article on this last year. We can learn a lot from Covid when it comes to bovine TB in cattle.
Ultimately, this disease is spread within animals in close proximity to each other, and in damp conditions, just as TB is spread between humans in similar conditions.
We have cows that are kept in large numbers, crammed into sheds for six months of the year, which spreads the disease, and they’re then moved around the country for fattening and cattle markets, and again are then spreading that disease.
We need to tackle how herds are housed and maintained, and implement a better testing system.
At the moment, we use a skin test based on 1930s technology that, in many cases, can miss cows that are infected. So even if a farmer is led to believe a herd is TB-free, there could be infected cows that then get moved elsewhere and further the spread of disease. This is a constant problem that we find.
New techniques are coming through which are based on scientific methods, but they aren’t being given to farmers as an easily accessible tool to use in tackling the disease, and they are expensive. So that definitely needs to be dealt with.
V-L: What are your thoughts on people lowering their consumption of beef and dairy products, to lower the number of cows within the system, as a realistic long-term solution to bovine TB?
DD: That’s a much bigger issue. Ultimately, intensive livestock farming is cruel, and unsustainable from an environmental perspective. We get a huge amount of slurry going into our rivers, we hear a lot about water companies and sewage in the media, but farm slurry is equally as bad, it’s a terrible problem and it’s getting worse.
And it’s very dirty from a disease prevention situation. We know that bovine TB spreads, and it’s another problem we face within the farming sector, such as avian flu within the food supply chain. The more we intensify the production of poultry or cattle, the more dangerous zoonotic diseases can spread from animals to humans.
TB was a major problem in the 1930s before we began pasteurising milk and putting safety procedures into slaughterhouses, a lot of people got very sick, and many people died. In time, we’ve reduced that problem massively within the human population, but we’re still taking it out on wildlife as a risk factor.
Yes, we do need to change our farming system, but that’s a big picture that needs to change not just in Britain, but around the world. But as ever in human nature, we probably won’t take action until we’ve got no alternative.
V-L: You clearly have a passion for wildlife which is great to see. What are the environmental benefits of badgers that often go unnoticed?
We get such a demonisation of these animals which leads to persecution, but they are our largest surviving carnivore and they’re amazing to see in the wild. Most of us only ever see them dead by the side of the road, so this programme is great viewing to gain an insight into badgers' lives.
They’re amazing diggers, they move the earth to dig their setts, to dig latrines and when they’re foraging for food, and as they do, they move the ecosystem which benefits woodland, grasslands, and other areas that they live in.
Just by existing they help keep in balance other predatory animals such as stotes, weasels, and rats, which otherwise would spread and feed on ground-nesting birds for example, so the badgers’ presence alone keeps British wildlife as we know it in balance.
We remove badgers at our peril; yet we are removing large numbers of them through the cull, in places where they’ve lived since the ice age. We don’t know what the long-term impact of that would be, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. But we do have hope.
We have hope too! And thankfully, there are many ways people can help, from getting involved with The Badger Trust, supporting a local HSA Group or simply allowing badgers to roam freely if you are lucky enough to have a sett close by. Perhaps in time, the beloved British badger will be a cherished national treasure once more.