24th February 2016

Once, entirely by accident, I caught a badger. We’d been having problems with foxes, and the badger had wandered into the live trap up in the orchard, no doubt attracted by the cat food used for bait.

I’d never seen one really close up before, and was surprised how mangy, smelly and fierce it was. Not a bit like Wind In The Willows. The children, then very young, thought it was a bit frightening and I think it rather put them off some of their squeaky soft toys.
I did know that badgers were by no means vegetarian, and this one – given half a chance – would have given me a nasty bite. Using a long stick, I carefully lifted the cage door and the badger bolted for freedom.
People tend to think that badgers are rare, probably because they are nocturnal and we rarely see any during daytime. In fact, as a result of being protected by the 1973 Badgers Act and the even tougher 1992 Protection of Badgers Act, they have never been more numerous: probably around 250,000 nationwide. Road-kill is, unfortunately, one way of estimating the badger population – the more dead ones you see, the more there are likely to be.
And just to be clear about what I know about badgers: badgers most definitely carry TB. While most are perfectly healthy, about a quarter carry the disease. This is a fact. Another fact is that many of Cornwall’s dairy farms are effectively shut down because of government trading restrictions which apply to bovine tuberculosis.  
So having made it quite clear that I am not remotely sentimental about badgers, let me explain why I am very strongly opposed to the idea of culling them as part of Defra’s attempts to control TB in cattle.
The first reason is that while badgers can break into stores and contaminate feed, and through their faeces and urine they might also contaminate pasture, they are not the only wild animal that carries TB. So do deer.   So can foxes, hedgehogs, pigs, sheep, horses, dogs, cats, rats and many others.

There are more than a million feral cats in Britain, and 7.5 million domestic pets. Alpacas, now increasingly marginalised as an “agricultural” animal and no longer welcome at many rural shows, are far more prone to TB than badgers.  

It therefore seems quite illogical to get so worked up about badgers, unless we are also prepared to cull feral cats – which outnumber them by 4 to 1.

The biggest single vector for transmitting TB to cattle is other cattle. Arguments have long raged over whether it is better to keep the cows indoors, away from wildlife and possibly contaminated fields – but then run the alternative risk that they simply spread the disease amongst themselves.

Dairy tankers, driving through the mud as they go from farm to farm, are also capable of spreading TB.

There has been so much publicly-funded science thrown at badger studies over the past 20 years that now there really is little that we don’t know. If you shoot 4 badgers, you will most likely kill 3 healthy ones. That makes it easier for diseased badgers to take over the healthy badger setts. Culling can easily make the disease even worse.

This week’s news that the badger cull is coming to Cornwall will keep me busy on other pages in this newspaper, so it can’t be all bad. But although they might celebrate today, it is actually not good news for our dairy farmers and I doubt it will make any difference to the TB problem. And it is of course even worse news for the badgers.