23rd Sep 2012 6:17pm | By Frankie Mullin
In what could be the biggest animal rights protest since the run-up to the fox hunting ban in 2004, diverse animal welfare groups from across the UK have united to oppose the culling of thousands of badgers.
At the launch of a campaign in London last week, Queen guitarist Brian May spoke out against the decision, calling the cull “scientifically, practically, and ethically indefensible”.
As he unveiled the first of a series of billboards, May said: “We won’t rest until every man, woman and child in Britain knows about the tragedy unfolding in their countryside.”
The badger cull is proving to be as nationally divisive as fox hunting.
For those from overseas, the passion triggered by the slaughtering of badgers may seem disproportionate, but England is a country with few remaining large wild mammals (wolves, bears, lynx and elk once roamed here) and many are fiercely protective of the species that remain.
“The badger is an iconic symbol of our British wildlife,” says May. “Badgers have been living in the British Isles since thousands of years before man arrived. Let’s not be the generation that stood by and watched them slaughtered.”
According to the government, the cull is necessary to curb tuberculosis in cattle. Despite the fact that human infection is rare, the disease resulted in the slaughter of 32,000 cows last year. The first licence for farmers to shoot badgers was issued last Monday and plans are for the cull to be rolled out across the UK. An estimated 130,000 badgers will be shot.
Opponents, including scientists and animal protection agencies such as the RSPCA (stopthecull.org) question whether killing badgers is actually an effective means of controlling bovine TB.
The cull is based on a nine-year trial which showed that if more than 70 per cent of badgers in an area were eradicated, bovine TB would be reduced by 16 per cent locally and three per cent nationally. It’s hardly a dramatic result, and Lord Krebs, the scientist who carried out the previous trial, has called the new cull “crazy”.
“The government is misleading desperate farmers for its own short-term political gain,” Joe Duckworth, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports said. “The cull won’t work. In 100 years, there will still be bovine TB.” He believes that there are other solutions.
“A cattle vaccine is near to being approved, and is currently being trialled in Wales, which has decided not to cull despite being faced with the same problem.
Strict animal husbandry, vaccination, restriction of movement and cleanliness would be effective,” he added.
Suggestions of alternative controls have been dismissed by those in favour of the cull. Phil Hudson, head of food and farming at the National Farmers Union, told TNT that the licensing of a TB vaccine for cattle was still some years away.
“The National Farmers Union supports badger and cattle vaccination, but there are real issues with these. Trials in South Africa show that the effectiveness of a cattle vaccine may be only 50-60 per cent,” he said.
Hudson also disputes the findings of Lord Krebs’ trial study. “We are seeking to cull much bigger areas than the 2005 trials,” he said. “We should be looking at a decline in TB of around a third of cases.”
Not only are animal rights groups unconvinced that the cull will work, however, they also fear it will not be carried out as professionally as the government might wish. English Nature said last week that it had “a low level of confidence” in the ability of farmers to coordinate the cull effectively.
The RSPCA’s West Hatch Wildlife Centre in Somerset, near one of the first cull areas, will be monitoring how it is carried out, with veterinary staff checking badger carcasses for evidence of poor shooting and the suffering of badgers as a result.
Hudson is adamant that this will not be the case. “The licensing process is extremely strict,” he said. “Individuals who carry out the cull will undergo special training.”