The badger cull circus is coming to town – well to Dorset anyway. This was the announcement, a not entirely unexpected one, which was dribbled out on the friday before the bank holiday weekend. A piece of news management? It depends whether you believe there are any press officers left in Defra, after the repeated heavy blows to the head that the department has faced over the last five years, leaving it in a semi-comatose state.
Badger ecology expert Prof Rosie Woodroffe described the decision as “jaw-dropping” as she pointed out that the Govt had decided (sorry is consulting on plans) to reduce the minimum cull area from 150km to 100km2, against the evidence gained from the only large-scale scientific experiment in culling badgers against bovine TB, the Krebs Trials (RBCT). They are also proposing to weaken other rules governing how the cull will operate, including the requirement that landowners covering 70% of land within a killing zone have to take part.
How many badgers are there in Dorset, and how many is too many? Natural England has estimated that 615 badgers need to be killed in the Dorset KZ (killing zone) which is apparently 223km2. Based on a survey of setts within one 36km2, Defra estimates there are between 879 and 1547 badgers in there ie 1213 +/- 334 badgers. Clearly with the large error on these figures if the cull removes 615 from 1547 it will not have met the 70% reduction the RBCT indicates is the minimum necessary to achieve a reduction in the bTB rate in cattle. Helpfully, Natural England have also provided a maximum kill number, to make sure we arent in contravention of the Berne Convention; this is 835. So if the population turns out to be 879 after all, then 44 badgers will be left after the kill – in an area of 22000ha.
I have spoken to many people in Dorset about the badger cull this year – it’s quite a hot topic. What’s clear to me is that, in general, the landowning fraternity do not like badgers. They blame them for spreading TB and of course if you’re in beef or dairy that’s a huge issue (regardless of the science) . But I think in the main there’s a gut feeling that there are now too many badgers around in the countryside and they need to be kept under control. I don’t think more than a handful of landowners want badgers extirpated from Dorset, just want the numbers reduced.The reasons for this are practical – badgers do a lot of digging and this can be near to buildings, undermining roads and tracks etc. They also do some damage to crops, especially maize. As the area of maize increases inexorably across Dorset, the amount that is trampled and eaten by badgers also increases.
Badgers love maize – it’s an easy source of high energy food for them. So it’s no surprise to read on farming forums how much farmers want rid of badgers because of the damage done to maize crops, nothing to do with bovine TB. One Somerset farmer said, on the topic of badgers eating maize and what can be done about it:
“make sure you are in the cull zone….we normally loose (sic) 2 to 3 acres they find the most ripe plants….that was last year since the cull we don’t get any trouble.”
There is already evidence to show that badgers are enticed to forage around farm buildings to seek out maize feedstuffs, thus putting them in direct contact with cattle and increasing the risk of catching or passing on bTB. There are also suggestions that a maize diet may be directly affecting the badger immune system making it more vulnerable to catching bovine TB. I haven’t seen any firm scientific evidence that this is the case – but it seems like something worth investigating.
Perhaps there are too many badgers in the heavily engineered industrial shop floor we call modern farmland, in the same way that a poorly protected grain store can produce rat populations of biblical proportions. But if that is the case, it is a problem created by intensive farming techniques our farming industry is so wedded to. It is also a searing indictment on our hypocritical attitudes towards wildlife and nature more generally: we as a nation think of ourselves as animal lovers and that we care about nature, while complicitly supporting the intensive industrial processes which create these unpalatable “problems”. Problems such as a burgeoning population of badgers.