First, let me declare my interest: I don’t particularly care about badgers. As British wildlife goes they’re cooler than most, I suppose, and on balance I’d rather they lived than died – not least because taking large predators out of an ecosystem can be disruptive, as George Monbiot will tell you – but I don’t have a moral problem with killing them if it’s the right thing to do. Same with foxes, while I’m on the subject.
Anyway. Having got that out of the way, the ongoing cull of badgers, intended to curb tuberculosis in cattle, is stupid; it has already been shown to be ineffective as a policy; and the Government is surely only doing it to shut farmers up, rather than out of any conviction that it will do any good.
Lord (John) Krebs, the president of the of the British Science Association and the former chairman of the British Food Standards Agency, ran a well-designed 10-year trial into whether badger culling. “The science is as clear-cut as it can be,” he told Radio 4’s The Life Scientific earlier this year, “and it shows that culling badgers is not a very effective way of reducing TB in cattle.”
In 1996, the Government set up a large field experiment, with several regions randomly assigned to one of three treatments: either leaving the badgers alone, culling them as much as possible, or culling them whenever there was a TB outbreak. It found that, if you spend huge amounts of money killing lots of badgers in an area, you will find a modest drop in TB outbreaks – at most 16 per cent. “It’s a lot of effort for a relatively modest gain,” said Lord Krebs. What’s more, that drop is not evenly distributed: right in the centre of the cull area, the reduction in TB is more impressive – up about 29 per cent – but on the edges of the area, it’s a very different story.
The problem is, badgers are territorial. If you kill a badger, and there’s another badger next door, that badger or its offspring will move into the dead badger’s area. And when you’re trying to reduce the spread of an infectious disease, the last thing you want is disease-carrying animals leaving their territories and moving into other ones. So while the farms in the centre of a culling area see a decent-sized drop, farms on the edge, with new badgers pouring in to fill the gaps left by the cull, will see an actual increase. Essentially, while the badger cull will reduce the TB problem slightly at great cost, it will mainly just move it around a bit.
But farmers want something done, and for some reason governments are traditionally scared of annoying farmers. So they’re killing badgers to placate them. As Lord Krebs says, this is about politics, not science.