The U.K.’s Unjustifiable Plan to Kill Thousands of Its Beloved Badgers

Even an architect of the cull now says it will fail to stop the spread of disease to cattle.
(Photo: Russell Cheyne/Reuters)
Jul 9, 2014· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

The controversial plan to kill thousands of Britain’s badgers—some of which carry the bacterium that causes bovine tuberculosis—has now been called an “epic failure” by one of the men who helped design it.

Meanwhile, two new scientific reports also discredit the cull. A study published July 2 in the journal Nature argues that the best way to control bovine tuberculosis is by killing infected cattle, not the badger, the U.K.’s largest predator and a protected species. Another study, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that culling badgers has an unintended side effect: If surviving badgers lose family members, they expand their range and carry the TB bacterium to new regions.

The cull outraged animal rights groups, who rallied the public around the black-and-white critter, a staple of children’s storybooks.

“The government’s policy is not science-led,” said Robbie Marsland, U.K. director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, noting that reports from the government’s own independent expert panel called the cull “inhumane.”

Marsland also said recent studies show vaccinating young badgers can reduce the threat of TB infection. Funding for vaccinations “is not being made available in a single area that the government considers to be at high risk of bovine TB, which again is not a science-led approach,” he said. “We want the best solution to bovine TB, but until the government listens to the science, we are not going to get it.”

The badger killings have become “an embarrassment,” said David Bowles, head of public affairs for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “It is ludicrous that the culls are continuing when there is such strong public feeling against them. Members of Parliament resoundingly voted against the cull, and there is strong scientific evidence they are ineffective and inhumane too.”

Farmers, however, continue to support the badger killings. Bovine TB, which decades ago killed 1,500 Britons a year, still costs the country’s cattle farmers millions of dollars a year. More than 32,000 infected cattle were slaughtered last year, down from nearly 38,000 the year before. Farming Minister George Eustice said the Nature paper’s recommendation to kill infected cattle could “finish off” the U.K.’s beef and dairy industries.

David Macdonald, chair of the Science Advisory Committee of Natural England, the government body that manages the cull, called it an “epic failure,” saying it has failed to meet its goals.

He pointed out that two pilot projects killed nearly 1,900 badgers in Somerset and Gloucestershire, but that number was dramatically lower than the goal of shooting 70 percent of the badgers in each region.

“Even after extensions they killed only 65 percent and 39 percent, the latter of which in Gloucestershire approximates the worst possible outcome,” Macdonald wrote in a report for the People’s Trust for Endangered Species.

“It is hard to see how continuing this approach could be justified,” he wrote, conceding that although badgers do carry the bacterium that causes bovine TB, there is little evidence of its actual transmission to cattle.

Despite the failure and the public outcry—which includes plans for “bloody protests” in the coming weeks—Natural England and the U.K.’s Department of Agriculture are going ahead with plans to expand the cull. They plan to kill up to 12,000 more badgers over the next two years and are soliciting bids from contractors willing to take on the grisly task.