Image from BBC News

A friend of mine thought this would interest me when I last visited him, and I had him send me the links discussing badger culling in the UK to control the spread of bovine tuberculosis (Mycobacterium bovis).  In addition to having an economic impact,  bovine TB also carries a zoonotic concern. I thought I would learn more about the issue, and see what the literature says about the success of the program.

Badger culling has been a part of TB control in the United Kingdom since 1973. Despite this and other programs in place, incidence of TB has only increased during that time. In the thousands of biological and environmental risk factors that have been associated with TB infection risk, Badgers have been identified as an important reservoir and potential vectors for the disease.

The politics surrounding the issue are interesting, and provides a great case example of how public perception can be skewed for certain species. The regular players are all there: the economically invested (in this case, cattle farmers and associated industries), the scientific community, outspoken animal interest groups, a generalized public perception, and the federal government trying to cater to the majority of voters (or campaign contributors, depending on the official and your own opinion). Lets break down these players.

The Economically Invested

On this issue, everyone seems to be on board that bovine TB is a problem in the UK. The ones who really care though are cattle producers, meat and dairy processing companies, and the retail ends associated with those products. When oppositional parties want to discredit this group, we see them described as “big corporations” only concerned about the bottom line. These claims are many times true, as even the small farmer has to maintain a decent profit margin to provide for him or herself. This group tends to be less publicly oppositional, preferring to exercise their strength through advertizing, lobbying, and funding research that can help support their position. Within this issue, I wasn’t able to find any ads produced by organizations in the UK, however, I did find some farmer concerns over the issue. One was the difficulty in getting approved for a badger cull in your area, and the other was the fear of response from activist groups if they did choose to participate in the program. The position of the farm interest groups is that the spread of bovine TB is an animal welfare and economic concern, and that badger culling will be critical in suppression of the disease. Local wildlife can often aid transmission of disease; however, we have also seen blame placed incorrectly on wildlife in other situations.

Animal Interest Groups

There are many groups in the UK that advocate for Animal interests, and they’re pretty much unanimous in the opinion that culling badgers is not an effective or ethical way to combat bovine TB prevalence. However, they do have different techniques in approaching opposition. While many of them strictly condemn the practice and advertize to sway public opinion, one group (with the support of many others), Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, has been independently vaccinating wild badgers for bovine TB. At this time they haven’t investigated the effectiveness of the vaccine itself, but rather the economical viability of the process. Their results so far have shown that it would cost more than twice as much to vaccinate an entire hectare instead of culling. Typically these same groups in other controversial situations are very politically active.

The General Public

Generally the least informed and (arguably) the most powerful, the majority of public opinion represents the majority of voters and consumers. Regarding badger culling however, most of the general public has been shown in polls to oppose the practice. Agricultural controversies are often represented by government and industry actions that don’t necessarily mirror consumer or public preference, but instead are economically viable. Whether it’s often advocated for or not, above all else the majority of the public wants inexpensive food, and that benefit often outweighs other consumer preferences (though not always). An interesting examination of the public perception of badgers is discussed within this controversy, and this argument can also apply to other similar situations we have seen over the years. BBC explored the role of badgers in popular children’s stories, and related them to other species that receive special protection even if they are not endangered. An example from the states would be our attachment to wild horses as an icon of America, and some of the debates we’ve seen surrounding not only control of wild horses, but within discussions on using horses for food. Kevin Pierce from the article sums this feeling up well:

“It’s an image issue. A lot of farmers like badgers but we also want to control the disease. If your vector spreading TB was a rat, I’m sure that there’d be no problem for farmers in securing a license to take action.”

The Government

Tasked with the burden of trying to please everyone, the federal government often responds to the loudest collective voice along with their own advisers, analysts, and ethics. In this case, we do know that the government has moved forward with culling as they have in the past. Evaluating the motivation behind these decisions is an endless discussion, whether it’s a working system or corrupt is beyond the scope of this post. Feel free to express your opinions on the process in the comments below. The best I hope for is that while looking out for my interests, my officials attempt to remain objective, and speaking of objectivity…

The Scientific Community

I’ve left us for last. The example of objectivity and a lens of evidence to weigh a cost-benefit analysis of the issue not directed by personal interests, concepts of morality, or hidden goals. Or so we would hope. As a realistic scientist who has read a lot of peer-reviewed research, I know that we are never truly objective. All funding comes from somewhere, we interpret our own results, and while we try as hard as we can to be objective, there is no perfect experimental design immune to bias. However, as creator of this site, I obviously hold research in high esteem, so lets look at some of the literature regarding the effectiveness of badger culling in curbing the spread of bovine TB.

According to the sources I found, it appears that badger culling does have a positive effect on the rates of bovine tuberculosis, but strictly within the areas the culling occurs. There’s a beneficial cumulative effect after several years of a culling program (in the reduction of detrimental effects in surrounding areas), but it isn’t necessarily lasting, cost-effective, or repeatable in different situations. The consensus amongst several studies is that localized culling actually increases TB rates in the surrounding areas, due to the displacement of normally local badger populations, and additional factors that we don’t fully understand. Given these effects, there seems to be a general consensus in the literature I viewed that at best badger culling is not a cost effective way to reduce TB transmission, and at worst contributes to the spread of disease.

Culling programs always have fierce opposition from many sources, whether it be culling sea lions to protect Columbia river salmon, culling grey wolves to protect livestock, or culling tame geese that are causing damage to city parks. There are serious concerns from conservationists and animal activists about the effectiveness of such programs that can be well founded, and the controversy surrounding badger culling in the United Kingdom is a clear example  of why these decisions would be more effective if they are backed by empirical research and economic analysis before being presented as a moral dilemma.
Donnelly CA, Woodroffe R, Cox DR, Bourne J, Gettinby G, Le Fevre AM, McInerney JP, & Morrison WI (2003). Impact of localized badger culling on tuberculosis incidence in British cattle. Nature, 426 (6968), 834-7 PMID: 14634671
Donnelly CA, Wei G, Johnston WT, Cox DR, Woodroffe R, Bourne FJ, Cheeseman CL, Clifton-Hadley RS, Gettinby G, Gilks P, Jenkins HE, Le Fevre AM, McInerney JP, & Morrison WI (2007). Impacts of widespread badger culling on cattle tuberculosis: concluding analyses from a large-scale field trial. International journal of infectious diseases : IJID : official publication of the International Society for Infectious Diseases, 11 (4), 300-8 PMID: 17566777
Donnelly CA, Woodroffe R, Cox DR, Bourne FJ, Cheeseman CL, Clifton-Hadley RS, Wei G, Gettinby G, Gilks P, Jenkins H, Johnston WT, Le Fevre AM, McInerney JP, & Morrison WI (2006). Positive and negative effects of widespread badger culling on tuberculosis in cattle. Nature, 439 (7078), 843-6 PMID: 16357869