Badgers in the Brexit week

Which is the right status quo to keep?

Last week Theresa May sent a letter to the EU commission triggering the article 50 procedure which in two years time, will see the UK leaving the EU. In the same week the UK Parliament, once again, debated the issue of the current badger culling programme aimed to tackle the Bovine TB epidemic. This was also the week that many scientists also debated the same issue during the Bovine TB Symposium held on the 28th March 2017 at the Imperial College in London, organised by the Save Me Trust.

Two status quo to challenge. Should the UK leave the EU? Should the current badger culling stop? If you were to  ask me, I know very well what answer I would give to both questions, but it is easy for me to answer them both because I am a scientist who has paid attention to what other scientists have said about the badger cull. I am also one of these EU immigrants that came to work and live in the UK several decades ago, thanks to the Maastricht Treaty that opened the doors for me to come, doors that may be shut in two years time by the gesture Theresa May initiated last week with the historical letter.

But this is not really about me, and neither is about Brexit, so let’s talk badgers instead.

Since the badger cull began in England in 2012 many experts have had a say about whether this is a good idea, and most of them agree that it is not. Unfortunately on this issue governments have decided to create policies that are not always based on what the most reputable scientists say, and often are based on only what their own non-independent experts have suggested. Well, last week, I had the chance to listen to all of them, face-to-face, as many were present at last week’s symposium to give talks. The independent and the dependent, the pro-cull and the anti-cull, the science-based and the policy-based.

It was quite impressive how the Save Me Trust managed to get them all under the same roof, and all returned home unscathed and possibly still sane. I do wish some, especially the UK Government scientists however, had returned home having been’converted’ to the anti-cull cause after hearing the convincing arguments from other scientists - some of them from other countries who have  never adopted a badger cull policy or, if they did, are now considering replacing it for a badger vaccination policy (as in the case of Republic of Ireland). But this status quo has not changed yet.

The Government Scientists still use the same flawed arguments, most independent experts think the badger cull should stop, but the UK Government is determined to carry on with it, and expand it even more. Unfortunately, despite the efforts from our side of the debate to get everyone in the same room to see if finally common sense can prevail, it does not appear to have made much of a difference.

Here is the list of the impressive array of experts, with their many letters after their names to show their eminence, who participated in the symposium:

Dr Brian May CBE PhD ARCS FRAS; Professor Lord Krebs Kt FRS FMed Sci; Professor Ian Boyd BSc PhD DSc FSB FSRE, DEFRA; Prof James Wood, University of Cambridge;  Prof Christianne Glossop, Welsh Government;  Dr. Rowland Kao, University of Glasgow; Dr Cath Rees, University of Nottingham;   Richard Sibley BVSc Hon FRCVS, West Ridge Veterinary Practice; Prof Christl Donnelly, Imperial College, London; Prof Tim Coulson, University of Oxford; Dr Lucy Brunton BSc (hons) PhD, APHA;  James O'Keeffe, DAFM;  Dr Graham Smith, APHA;  Prof Liz Wellington, University of Warwick;  Prof Glyn Hewinson, APHA;  Dr Freya Smith, APHA; Prof Eamonn Gormley, University College Dublin; Dr Fraser Menzies, DAERA;  Professor Rosie Woodroffe, Institute of Zoology; Dr Gareth Enticott, Cardiff University; Nigel Gibbens UK’s Chief Veterinary Officer; Prof Sheila Bird (formerly, Medical Research Council);  Prof John Bourne (formely, Institute of Animal Health and Chairman Gov. Independent Scientific Group for control of cattle ISG); Prof Neil Ferguson, Imperial College; and the farmer Ian McGrath.   

Dr Brian May during his speech in the Badger Cull symposium 2017

Combined they covered a great range of subjects including  testing, cattle vaccination, badger vaccination, modelling, effectiveness of the cull, risk-base cattle trading, biosecurity, badger cattle interactions, estimating badger populations, and approached to combatting the disease in devolved nations and other countries (Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and New Zealand). Such a wealth of expertise and knowledge that all seems to be insufficient in changing the UK Government’s misguided culling policy.

Am I surprised? Of course not. How can science change the course of a policy that, despite what the Government claims, has become fundamentally un-scientific?

But scientists were not the only ones talking about badgers this week. Parliamentarians also discussed the issue in a Westminster Hall debate triggered by an e-petition that reached over 100,000 signatures. And most MPs, as they did before in previous debates, again showed opposition to the Government’s policy. 

There was something new this time, though. Some of them mentioned the recent outbreak of Canine TB found in the Kimblewick Hunt’s hounds, who have been infected with the bacteria that causes Btb in cattle. It is not yet known if they got it from eating infected cattle (hunts traditionally feed their hounds fallen stock from the farmers whose land they have permission to hunt) or from being in a field where infected cattle recently grazed. This is what Paul Flynn MP said during the debate:

“We now have another worry: the Kimblewick hunt. That must be taken into account, but there does not seem to be a great deal of enthusiasm from the Government to take it up. The Kimblewick hunt is an amalgamation of three hunts. It hunts in Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hampshire, Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire. Campaigners discovered that the hunt's hounds are infected with bovine TB. There have long been complaints, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) pointed out, about poor farm hygiene and hunts feeding disease-ridden "fallen cattle" carcasses to foxhounds. The fact that 25 of that hunt's foxhounds had to be put down because they were infected with bovine TB and a further 120 are undergoing testing is a cause for serious worry, and I have asked the Government what they will do about it.

“The infection of foxhounds was not seen as a threat in the past, but few animals are free to cover and infect more territory than hounds undertaking trail hunting or chasing foxes, so this is a really serious new risk. The news has been kept quiet since December. The hunt itself suspended hunting but is apparently carrying on using visiting packs. The problem could be widespread. There are reports that some farmers have belatedly tried to protect their cattle by banning hunts from their land. Farmers local to the hunt's kennels are refusing to let it hunt on their land. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central said, it is suggested that the hounds were fed raw, TB-infected meat, even though that contravenes meat hygiene rules and bovine TB controls. Do the Government believe that that is happening or there is a risk of it happening? We are all familiar with the close association that there has long been between hunts and the farming industry, and the way that hunts were used to dispose of fallen cattle. The danger seems to be substantial.

“I believe that there is sufficient evidence for a new investigation into the prevalence of bovine TB among foxhounds and a case for suspending hunting until that has been proved to be a risk or otherwise. Let us put that to the test. I have recently put down many questions and had unsatisfactory answers to all of them. We now have a chance to answer the concern of the great majority of the public who do not believe that culling is an effective way of controlling bovine TB and believe it is inhumane and cruel. That is the view that the petitioners have expressed.”

Would all this talk about infected hounds change the status quo? Would it stop hunting temporary? Would it bring new light to the badger cull debate and help to remove the unjustified blame badgers receive for what essentially is a disease caused by the cattle industry?

When the status quo is wrong (and only if it is wrong, I dare say), we definitively need to change it.

We need to keep trying.

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