Badger Cull: Good Idea?
We have been watching an amazing TV program called The Burrowers, presented by the excellent Chris Packham. It shows what is going on underground in the burrows of some of the best diggers among British mammals, such as Rabbits, Water Voles and Badgers. And of course all the time that you are watching the antics and behaviour of the badgers you have to be acutely aware of the current situation in Somerset and Gloucestershire. It is so obvious to anyone who cares to look into the details of this Badger Cull; the culling of a protected species – let me repeat that: a protected species! – that it is a case of the government being seen to be doing something, as a PR exercise rather than doing the right thing. Only 15 % of badgers have been found to actually have TB.
It appears that the intention is to shoot 120 badgers every night for six weeks, until 5000 animals have been destroyed, regardless of whether they have TB or not. Originally it was stated that 70 badgers would be shot every night until 2700 were culled for the action to be effective. The government minister involved stated on the radio that the badger cull should be “humane, effective and safe”, but which is “effective” 5000 dead badgers or 2700? When he was asked by the interviewer how could it be guaranteed to be humane, when an injured badger could crawl into its sett and die a long and painful death. His reply included the statement that the marksmen are “highly trained” and implied they would not therefore miss their target. To which the logical response is “Oh Yeah!”, since all of the shooting is to be done at night i.e. in the dark! Another person on the program explained what could happen when night hunters are “lamping”, a system that relies on looking out for eyes glowing in the dark and then shooting the owner of the eyes. He said mistakes could mean that you would shoot a fox, or a sheep, or a cat or dog etc. It had already been explained that it was better to shoot badgers in the chest as it is a bigger target and it only took about five seconds for the unfortunate creature to die. (I can’t believe that I’m really writing this stuff!) Apparently shooting them in the head, i.e. brain, means that they will die within one or two seconds but that is more difficult, so the marksman’s target is the badger’s chest.
Now it occurs to me that a badger is an animal that usually hugs the ground as it wanders about foraging for food, particularly the peanuts that have been deliberately buried near the entrance to their sett as bait. So it is possible, surely, even for the “highly trained marksmen” to miss the chest that is flattened to the ground? There are Warning Notices posted around the area chosen for the cull that state that from June 2013 the public should stay out of the area during the hours of darkness. Is that in case there is an accident? In case a hunter, “a highly trained marksman”, misses their badger target? The notice also says you should “keep children, pets and livestock indoors as high velocity bullets are being fired at badgers in the area. These bullets have a 2 mile trajectory and pose a serious danger to humans and animals”. Oh really! You don’t say! So one is led to ask: Just how “safe” is it?
The marksmen will be using special infra-red sights to assist their aim, but must not shoot when people are present. Protests are banned within 100 metres of the badger homes, and within 25 metres of the “shooting business”. Now something else occurs to me: the Badger Cull notice makes a point of informing the public that the bullets have a 2 mile trajectory! I understand that if the Badger Cull is a success there could be as much as a 16% decrease in cattle deaths from TB over the future 5 to 9 years. Wow! Sixteen per cent! That does not seem much of a reduction to me, when you compare it to the mass slaughter of badgers that is intended.
Wildlife groups condemn the Badger Cull as inhumane and unscientific. Speaking as a scientist myself, the whole thing seems to lack the rigour required for an accurate experiment. A correlation does not often lead to an accurate conclusion and this trial seems to rely on collating correlations, rather than producing definite conclusions. Lord Krebs, the President of the British Science Association, is a zoologist who led the Randomised Badger Culling Trials. He became one of the UK’s leading experts on bovine tuberculosis and in 2012 stated that he opposes further badger culling. He also said quote “culling is not a viable policy option” and the two pilot trials “will not yield any useful information”. The RSPCA among many others are also against the cull.
I remember first seeing Chris Packham on TV many years ago, in the 1970s or 1980s I think, when he appeared as a rather punk-looking photographer of wildlife. This was in my “photographic retail days” and the next day, after his program, we would be asked in the shop for the tripod, telephoto lens or close-up equipment Chris had been using in his program. He was good for business. More recently, of course, we have become used to seeing him present and talk enthusiastically about the
natural world. He studied and worked with badgers in his earlier days and in The Burrowers we can all see how thrilled he is to make a program about the badger’s “private life” underground. I saw a recent quote of Chris Packham’s in the Daily Telegraph when he said that he thought that the Badger Cull “is both sad and shameful”, and he called those concerned “brutalist, thugs, liars and frauds”. He thinks they “will dishonour our nation’s reputation as conservationists and animal lovers”. Strong words but the issue is bound to cause strong feelings from anyone who cares about the country’s natural wildlife. I am not alone in thinking that the “removal” of hundreds of badgers from one area will merely make space for another group of badgers to move in! And this may possibly exacerbate the problem in the future!
With so many well-informed experts in this field against the cull surely it’s time for the government to think again.