A growing number of farmers are now questioning the nature of the cull and its effectiveness. And some are blaming poor biosecurity and intensive farming for the spread of TB in the UK cattle herd. Andrew Wasley and Sarah Stirk report
To passers-by, the red-brown earthy mound rising up from the path would probably warrant little more than a cursory glance. It looks like part of the steep bank which flanks the footpath cutting through this quiet corner of the Gloucestershire countryside.
But the mound is actually a badger sett. Home to an unknown number of the stripy nocturnal creatures. Someone has crudely blocked most of the sett entrances with soil and stones. Spade marks are visible. So too are footprints. Tree branches and undergrowth have been chopped back. Tyre tracks from a quad bike – they’re too narrow for a land rover – cut through the vegetation.
Who blocked the sett, and why, remains unclear – police are investigating a number of allegations that badger setts in and around the village of Forthampton, near Tewksbury, have been illegally blocked in recent weeks.
But the badgers here – and across west Gloucestershire – are facing another threat: this area is one of the two pilot zones chosen for the UK’s controversial badger cull that will imminently see up to 5000 animals shot as part of an experiment into tackling the spread of bovine tuberculosis (TB) in English cattle herds.
Badgers are blamed for carrying (and thus spreading) the disease, and the trials are expected to pave the way for a much larger cull– up to 100,000 animals – in the next few years.
Bovine TB devastates affected farms – and those who live on and manage them – because current policy dictates that after a positive test, a farm must effectively be locked down, with infected cattle carted off to be destroyed, along with, in many cases, same herd animals who are later found to be clear of the disease. Any notion of normal business is suspended. The financial and emotional toll on farmers is huge.
Supporters of the cull – including the Coalition Government, the National Farmers Union (NFU) and other countryside groups – therefore say it will be a vital tool for trying to limit the spread of this disease and for enabling an assessment of whether badgers can be effectively culled through shooting.
But an investigation by The Ecologist has found that a growing number of farmers themselves – including those whose own farms have been blighted by TB – are now questioning the nature of the cull and its likely effectiveness.
Some believe that administering vaccinations, either to cattle or badgers, should be used instead of ‘free shooting’ with rifles, or ‘cage trapping and shooting’, the two fatal options allowed under the trials.
Others warn of a furious consumer backlash. They fear such widespread killing of wildlife could trigger a ‘PR disaster’ for an already beleaguered industry, particularly following the fallout from the recent horsemeat scandal, not to mention memories of the foot and mouth debacle – with its images of burning carcasses – still lingering in the public’s mind.
And such ‘dissident’ views, according to the farmers we spoke to, are far from uncommon, yet many within the industry fear they will become ostracised or even targeted if they find the courage to speak out.
Bovine TB is a disease caused by the Mycobacterium Bovis (M. Bovis) bacteria. It is highly infectious – and deadly – for cattle. Rates of the disease in the UK have steadily risen in recent decades. Cattle can catch TB from other infected cows, or from wildlife, including badgers.
Infected cattle often don’t show any symptoms initially, meaning that herds need to be tested regularly. The disease has led to over 190,000 cattle being slaughtered in the UK since 2008. Last year, more than 37,000 animals were killed, at an estimated cost of £100 million including compensation paid out to farmers.
Although humans can contract the bovine form of TB from infected animals directly – or by consuming products coming from them – the pasteurisation of milk and dairy products in the UK means the chances of contracting it from food are low.
‘A scar on farmers reputation’
‘I find it difficult that for me to farm I have to rape the countryside. It’s got to be wrong,’ says Dave Purser, sitting in the kitchen of his quintessential Cotswolds farmhouse.
The farmer, who, along with his wife Gill, runs a 48-hectare beef and sheep operation not far from Bourton-On-The-Water, is bitterly opposed to the badger cull and believes that instead of ‘blasting away at thousands of badgers with high powered rifles’, the government and farming bodies should urgently be looking towards a programme of cattle vaccine trials.
‘If you look at the [DEFRA] website we’re this far away from a cattle vaccine’ he says, ‘but there needs to be political will to make it happen.’
He’s referring to the fact that there is actually a TB cattle vaccination available – the BCG (Mycobacterium bovis Bacille Calmette-Guérin) jab – but EU legislation currently prohibits its usage, largely because it interferes with skin testing, the main diagnostic for identifying TB in cattle.
BCG-vaccinated cattle can test positive to this skin test, and thus cannot be declared TB-free for trading purposes. A so-called DIVA test, which can differentiate between infected and vaccinated animals, has been developed, but approval is expected to take up to 10 years.
Dave and Gill argue however that the UK government should be seeking a speedy derogation from the EU: ‘A cattle vaccine has to be trialled, this situation is going crazily out of control,’ says Dave. ‘For those with TB, ring-fence the herd, vaccinate, exclude export but maintain [the herds] integrity’.
The farmers, who are within a TB hotspot but outside of the initial trial zones, are also worried the cull will drive a further wedge between a sceptical public and an undeniably worn down industry.
‘My customers, consumers, have expressed concerns [about the cull]‘, says Dave. ‘If it goes ahead it’s another scar on the reputation of farmers, [with the] same reputational impact as with bankers [following the banking crisis]‘.
He acknowledges that some farmers favour a cull, but says many ‘know it’s not the answer… some understand that it’s a PR disaster. Some get it, some don’t.’
Similar concerns over the cull’s impact are held by Chris Dale (not his real name), based near Ross-on-Wye, on the northern edge of the Forest of Dean. The beef farmer says that the killing, from a public PR point of view, ‘could be the final straw, will they [farmers] keep dairying? They’ll get out of dairy and [go] into another sector.’
Chris believes many in the industry support the cull because ‘it’s the only thing on the table.’ But he also argues that ‘all farmers would vaccinate tomorrow if they could.’ He says: ‘They’re vaccinating for every other [livestock] disease and where TB testing involves [such an] upheaval,making it very stressful – with vaccination, one single vaccination each year [is all it would involve].’
Chris’s own cattle herd was hit by TB several years ago, and he was forced to endure his animals being carted off to be destroyed: ‘You lose money every time… you can’t believe the human cost of this,’ he says.
‘Bad for the countryside’
James Price (not his real name), an organic beef farmer, has also been through a positive TB test on his 100-acre farm in Devon. He saw a number of pedigree cattle shipped off in early 2012, an experience he describes as ‘devastating and stressful, [with] many sleepless nights.’
‘I lost half my herd, eleven in total, with four cows in calf when they were killed,’ he says. ‘But some didn’t have TB.’ This farmer says that a post mortem revealed that some of the animals had been incorrectly diagnosed as TB positive.
‘Twenty per cent of tests, on average, are incorrect… I’ve lost thousands of pounds, and the organic status is not compensated for,’ he says. The government’s compensation package following a positive TB test controversially makes no distinction between conventional or organic cattle, something several farmers complained to The Ecologist about.
‘There could be £30-40,000 lost, and it’s stressful loading your animals for slaughter, [especially] when they’ve not got TB,’ says James. “I’ve had enough – but my father did this for 70 years.’
He believes the impending badger culls will prove fruitless and wants to see a cattle vaccine trialled: ‘It’s not going to work, [around here] there’s thirty to forty per cent more badgers than was estimated… high powered rifles in the dark? Why not vaccinate?’
The farmer, who was a slaughter-man during the foot and mouth crisis, admits that in his area most farmers are in favour of the cull, and that his opposition to the killing has led to tensions: ‘I’ve got a lot of stick at markets,’ he says. ‘But the cull’s not right, for the countryside, for badgers, for cattle.’
‘Badger friendly’ milk
The main anti-cull lobby, made up of animal welfare and wildlife groups including the RSPCA, Care for the Wild and Network For Animals, argue the cull will have little impact on halting TB, could actually spread the disease by dispersing infected animals, and risks an ‘animal welfare disaster’. They want the government to vaccinate badgers – as is currently being trialled in Wales – or to lobby the EU to green light the use of the BCG cattle vaccine.
The opponents accuse the Government and farming lobby of ignoring the evidence from the biggest ever research project into cattle TB, the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT), commissioned by the previous Labour administration, which concluded that ‘badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain’.
Many believe the decision by the Coalition Government to green light the cull is bound up with the last election, where promises to introduce badger culling were made in an attempt to secure votes from the strategically important farming and countryside community.
Although initially focussed on galvanising public opinion with the ‘cruelty factor’, campaigners have recently evolved their strategy by tapping into consumer concerns – heightening the worry for those that believe the cull could damage the reputation of farming, and farmers.
The RSPCA first stoked the consumer fire last autumn when it called for ‘badger friendly’ labelling to be introduced to milk and dairy products able to demonstrate ingredients were not sourced from farms involved in badger culling. The idea was loosely based on the principles behind ‘dolphin friendly’ tuna, where manufacturers promote fish products not linked to the capture of dolphins in nets.
Pressure group Care for the Wild followed by releasing the results of a survey it claims shows that only three leading supermarkets – Marks & Spencer, Asda and Waitrose – will guarantee to sell milk that doesn’t originate from dairy farms inside the trial cull zones in Gloucestershire and Somerset.
‘Customers should be given choice – a choice to buy cage-free eggs, a choice to buy free range pork, and a choice to buy badger-friendly milk. I think when they are given that choice, many will take it”, Philip Mansbridge, the group’s CEO, says.
The outfit has also turned its attention to organic certification body the Soil Association after it refused to instruct its members not to take part in the badger cull. Campaigners want the association to speak out against the issue, saying most organic consumers wouldn’t support badger killing, but it maintains culling is a decision for individual farmers themselves.
Freedom Food, the assurance scheme run by the RSPCA, last year threatened to drop farmers who take part in the cull – a threat that has been repeated now the trials are imminent.
Despite the growing pressure, major food companies and supermarkets have been careful – so far – not to openly criticise the culling, for fear of antagonising their milk suppliers. Those that have stated they will not sell milk from inside the cull zones have been keen to clarify this is down to the nature of their supply chains, rather than a policy decision to drop milk from farms involved.
And although more than 250,000 people have now signed a petition launched by Brian May, the rock star and animal welfare activist, calling for the cull to be halted, the NFU has hit back by stating the majority of the British public don’t think the cull is ‘a big issue’.
The union cites a recent YouGov survey which revealed that although 34 per cent of people oppose a badger cull, the remaining 66 per cent either support (29 per cent), don’t know (22 per cent) or have little strong feelings either way (15 per cent).
Nestling on the picturesque South Downs, not far from the East Sussex town of Polegate, Stephen Carr’s sprawling 800-hectare beef, sheep and arable farm lies within a localised TB hotspot. The farmer, who’s been farming in this region for more than thirty years, has seen ‘scores’ of his cattle taken away for slaughter following positive TB tests.
He’s blunt about what this has meant. ‘I had [TB] testing here every sixty days for 1300 cattle for a five year period. [This involved] the cattle gathered from the hills, brought to the yards; it’s debilitating and there’s no reward, only a huge amount of work and effort which cuts into other operations. The cost and disruption [was huge].’
Describing the situation as like ‘being in the headlock of the disease’, Stephen eventually had to take the decision to cut the herd size back from 1300 to 300.
The farmer, who farms both conventionally and organically, agrees that some of his peers are ‘anxious about the image of the industry’, but says his concern about the trial lies with the so-called ‘perturbation effect’, where badgers (which could be carrying TB) are disrupted by a cull, flee onto neighbouring land and in doing so potentially infect more cattle.
Perturbation was flagged during the RBCT which found evidence that during widespread badger culling over areas of 100km2, TB rates in adjoining areas increased.
‘Will free shooting [the main culling method expected to be adopted] achieve culling that avoids perturbation?’ asks Stephen. ‘If it does, then it’s a credible policy, if it doesn’t, and there’s injuries [to badgers], plus the animals are dispersed… then that’s the dodgy thing about this trial’.
‘This cull needs to the pass the perturbation test or it won’t be credible,’ he says.
Those behind the cull have acknowledged the perturbation risk, but say the two initial trials have been designed to run in areas where natural boundaries – major roads, rivers and other ‘natural barriers’ – and other measures will limit its impact.
But a former DEFRA advisor and head of wildlife diseases at the Central Science Laboratory, Dr Chris Cheeseman, dismisses these claims. ‘They say there are so-called “hard boundaries” around the cull areas. The only hard boundary to badger movement is the sea. Roads are no barrier to badger movement – an estimated 50,000 badgers a year are killed on roads. Badgers will readily cross wide rivers and even tidal estuaries.’
Stephen Carr, driving us to see his organic beef herd in the lush Sussex countryside, says that despite his reservations over the looming cull, he is sceptical about those demanding the use of the BCG cattle vaccine. ‘This is not an option anyway since it’s not a British government decision [to allow farmers to use it],’ he says.
He also questions whether campaigners pointing to what’s happening in Wales as an alternative to culling realise that this is only an experiment in its own right, not a proven science. ‘It’s a practical trial in Wales, and not a cure for [already infected] badgers, no one is pretending it will cure badgers.’
In March 2012, the Welsh Assembly Government announced it was abandoning a badger cull in favour of a five-year vaccination project instead. Trials in north Pembrokeshire have seen some 1400 badgers vaccinated to date, but the u-turn has been opposed by farming unions who say the long term effectiveness of the vaccine remains unclear.
They claim the cost will be prohibitive, particularly because, at present, only an injectable vaccine can be administered, requiring animals to be trapped then jabbed – a lengthy process that then needs to be repeated annually. They also reiterate it doesn’t deal with those badgers already infected – believed to be up to 40% of the badger population in some hotspots.
Some farmers argue that more could be done to prevent the spread of TB at the farm level. Steve Jones, a dairy specialist based in the Forest of Dean, says that, instead of killing badgers, the solution to combating the disease is ‘a combination of stringent testing, controlled movements, vaccinations, quarantine and biosecurity.’
‘Biosecurity should be an integral part of any farm management system,’ he says. ‘In this country we have such lax biosecurity. It’s not expensive and it’s the best thing a farmer can do to keep his herd healthy. To clean the cows drinking water, for example. The water can pass infection from cow to cow and from cow to badger. I’ve seen it so many times. It’s just basic biosecurity.’
‘We learned so much about this from foot and mouth. We need to do the same with bovine TB,’ he says. ‘It’s a bacteria and without [these measures] it doesn’t matter how many badgers we cull. Unfortunately farmers are being given the wrong information and are being told that the cull will solve everything. This isn’t true.’
This farmer, who has worked in the industry for 35 years, is critical too of the high number of cattle movements made as stock are repeatedly bought and sold. “We have a bovine merry-go-round in this country. There are 13 million movements of cattle a year, they’re moving them around all the time. This movement also needs to be controlled,’ he says.
The movement of cattle in the rush to restock the national herd following the foot and mouth disaster of 2001 is widely blamed for a spike in TB cases recorded in the aftermath of the epidemic. Most TB testing was abandoned during the crisis, and DEFRA, under pressure to get the sector back on its feet, allowed untested cattle to be moved around freely.
In 2011, a major EU study revealed serious failures in how UK farmers were limiting the spread of TB between herds. The report highlighted weaknesses in cleaning processes on farms, at markets, slaughterhouses and in vehicles, as well as missed targets on the removal of infected cattle from farms, and on follow up testing.
The report was critical of those dealing with the disease. ‘There is a fragmented system of controls, involving a number of responsible bodies. This combined with a lack of co-ordination (particularly with Local Authorities) makes it difficult to ensure that basic practices to prevent infection/spread of disease (such as effective cleaning and disinfection of vehicles and markets) are carried out in a satisfactory way,’ it concluded.
An investigation by the campaigning group Viva! had already earlier highlighted poor biosecurity procedures and practices at a number of Welsh markets. At one location, investigators claimed that no biosecurity measures were in place at all whilst animals were unloaded despite it being classified as a TB ‘Red’ market where TB infected animals can be traded for slaughter under certain conditions.
Campaigners seized on the evidence, along with the EU findings, saying it further undermined the case for a badger cull, although a crackdown on cattle movements and TB testing procedures was announced by the government earlier this year, partly in response to these claims.
In addition to poor biosecurity, Steve Jones argues – controversially – that the TB problem is being exacerbated by the gradual intensification of the dairy industry.
‘The industry is being indelibly drawn, by a lack of sustainable milk prices, towards intensification’, he says. ‘This means that we’re losing small family farms which were the bedrock of the industry, and being pressured by supermarkets to reach high targets at low costs.’
‘The industry is under pressure and impoverished and this makes it hard for individuals to care for such big herds properly. To get by farmers have had to almost double herd sizes from 70 cows in the 1980’s to 140 today. When one man is caring for such huge herds they lose the ability to do it properly and this leads to all kinds of problems and disease including bovine TB.
John Wilson, a hill farmer based in Northumbria, agrees. ‘My observation is that TB is often in regions where you’ve got intensification, cows being intensively raised and more cows on the ground,’ he says. ‘They’re milked harder and harder, becoming more stressed [and] thus more vulnerable to disease.’
But the farmer, who now focuses on sheep but who used to raise cattle over 80 acres, doesn’t believe the blame lies with those running farms: ‘Farmers are under pressure because of the need for cheap milk from supermarkets. Farmers are forced to intensify, it’s market forces, farmers are being squeezed.’
He believes more research into the spread of TB is needed, and looking at ways for the sector to be ‘detensified’.
There have been very few studies examining whether instances of TB can be tracked back to the adoption of intensive farming practices, but those making the links argue it is largely axiomatic.
Robin Maynard, a leading campaigner for sustainable agriculture, says: ‘TB in humans is linked to poor diet, poor housing, people crammed together, which sounds similar to life for many cows… Cows have been turned into skeletons that hold a bag…. you could describe some dairy farms as cow slums.’
Chris Cheeseman adds: ‘Badgers are a distraction from the need for farmers to put their own house in order’.
Not all farmers are convinced that intensification is a major factor however. One tells The Ecologist that the evidence shows that TB shows no respect for the organic status of herds, even with their higher welfare practices. ‘This challenges the claim that intensification of farming is to blame.’
‘You’ve got to look at the practicalities of cross contamination,’ the farmer says. You’ve got a highly intensive unit, with cows [housed in] a concrete building; you’ve got an organic farm where cows are out all year. Which is more likely to suffer an outbreak? Where you’ve got badger latrines [in the fields] there’s cross contamination.’
Back in Gloucestershire, Dave Purser is keen to stress that, despite his opposition to the cull, he ‘empathises with farmers, those affected by TB, those that are seeing their cattle killed and going to [premature] slaughter.’
Nevertheless, he resolutely believes farmers have been hoodwinked into believing that culling will help solve their problems, when in fact it ‘could make them worse.’
Similarly, Steve Jones maintains that ‘not the whole farming community is pro cull. They have been sold the lie that a cull is the answer.’ ‘Unfortunately the cull isn’t going to make the future bright for farmers. It’s a multifaceted problem and needs to be treated as such. I would say the badger cull is the most divisive, political programme to be rolled out on the countryside in recent times,’ he says.
Meanwhile, at Forthampton – the heart of the Gloucestershire trial zone – police are now preparing for an imminent showdown between anti cull activists and marksmen as the killing gets underway. It emerges that further badger setts have been blocked.
The Ecologist is tipped off by one farming source that setts near the village of Hartpury to the south, and north, just over the M5 motorway in the hamlet of Longdon, have also been interfered with.
We locate the sites involved; at one, certainly, the vegetation has again been trampled down, with a clear path made through the woodland in just the last few days. Another appears abandoned, with no fresh signs of badger activity, although our source tells us the badgers here are believed to have been persecuted in the past. It’s impossible to tell.
Either way, this is the cull’s ground zero. Any badgers here won’t stand a chance.
* Some farmers names have been changed at their request
A version of this article appeared in The Independent newspaper
A longer version appeared in The Ecologist magazine