Bovine TB, badgers and me…

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If you are not a farmer but love wildlife it’s easy to be pro badgers and anti seeing the situation from any other perspective. But what if you are a wildlife loving farmer? Where do you stand on this controversial issue?

It’s going to be a stressful week for us here. We have our annual bovine tuberculosis (bTB) test and if they are all clear then almost our entire herd will be going to Exeter market on Friday to be sold so that we can go travelling next year. If we have a reactor – we can’t sell anything – we can’t go travelling! It is nerve wracking.

TB is rife down here in the South West and it’s a big problem for farmers as well as the tax payers. But what has it got to do with poor lovely badgers? Well unfortunately they spread it if they have it. Other animals carry it too, such as deer, but badgers come into close contact with cattle as they go into barns and eat the cows food, share water troughs and mark everywhere with their urine. That’s one of the ways it spreads though cattle to cattle is also a problem.

To understand the issues and why we need this stressful test we have to look at the history. Back in the 1930’s over 40% of the cattle population had bTB and bTB in humans was also a major problem with over 50,000 new cases every year. Luckily, thanks to milk pasteurisation bTB in humans is pretty rare these days and on the whole bTB doesn’t pose a significant risk to human health.

When people realised that badgers where spreading bTB they killed them… a lot! Lobbying from wildlife protection groups resulted in badgers receiving a protected status with legislation preventing the harming or killing of them. This was reinforced in 1992 with the Protection of Badgers Act. It’s been very successful and badger number are now thriving, as you can tell if you happen to drive along any road in the British countryside, there are dead ones everywhere! But of course farmers don’t like being told they can’t control the populations of wild animals on their farms which are spreading disease… indeed rats and mice absolutely must be controlled! Rabbits, pigeons and deer too!

I love badgers, they are beautiful, intriguing animals and I adore seeing them in the wild. I love the mythology that surrounds them and I love seeing their tracks and signs. However, I also love to see wild deer, foxes, hedgehogs, voles, moles, rabbits, birds and all the rest of our native British wildlife. I actively go out looking for it as a hobby, I read about it and watch programmes about it. I’ve also shot rabbits on our land and I’ve eaten plenty of rabbit, deer, pigeon and even squirrel, which has been shot – It’s a darn sight more natural and healthy then even the meat that we farm!

What I don’t understand is the ongoing need for badgers to be set above the rest of the wildlife in terms of legislation when their numbers are so strong now. Times have changed and reversing the extra protection isn’t going to result in farmers going out and gassing setts. Give them some credit… most farmers enjoy the wildlife on their farms. They do a fine job of controlling the populations of rabbits, deer and pigeons without making them extinct and there isn’t a farmer I’ve met yet who would go and kill a healthy population of badgers on their land – it would just open the set up for unhealthy ones to move in.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pro the cull either. I don’t think the science adds up and I think it’s a rather drastic and dramatic attempt at sorting a problem, which the Rethink Bovine TB campaign argues isn’t in fact a problem at all. It’s an interesting campaign which challenges both sides of the current arguments.

Vaccination isn’t as entirely straight forward as the anti-cull people would have you believe. If only the solution was that simple! Progress with vaccine is being made though and offers hope for the future. The issues around vaccination are easily explained with a quick google search and basic understanding of the current testing system but are far too tedious to explain here.

Like all farms we have badgers on ours, but the fact that our cattle are outdoors year round significantly reduces the chances of them coming into significant contact with badgers. If we housed our cattle in winter there would be far greater opportunity for infection if badgers came into the cattle house for food, water and shelter. We are small scale enough to avoid winter housing and we stock a hardy breed but most farms have to house their cattle over winter… That’s the reality.

So another option for the government would be to make grants available for better bio-security on farms. The reason badgers come into contact with cattle is due to badly designed yards and barns and with a relatively small grant farmers could put flaps on the bottom of gates, rollers at drinking troughs and a few other minor measures which prevent badgers from coming into contact with cattle. This excellent YouTube video about an experiment on three farms in Wales is pretty impressive viewing and shows yet another alternative to the current arguments of culling or vaccination.

I’d love to know how much the various wildlife protection organisations spend each year on campaigns to prevent the cull and attempts to back up bad science. Instead of denying that there is a problem with badgers and bTB why not embrace a relationship with farmers – help them with the bio-security on farms, make grants available, send volunteers to help farmers implement the anti badger measures – stop this “them and us” attitude which isn’t getting the badgers anywhere!

So… my view on bTB? None of the current options are ideal but farmers need to be empowered to manage bTB for themselves. Grants to increase bio-security and the ability to manage their own farms TB policy, the choice of vaccination or testing and the ability to manage the wildlife on their own farms. I would like to see a public display of confidence in farmers by the government on this matter. I would like wildlife protection groups to recognise that it’s on farmers land the badgers are living and befriend the farmers that can make the difference, work with us and help us instead of seeing farmers as the enemies.

But to be honest, right now, I just want my cattle to pass their test…

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