The sad story of the big bad British badger culling of 2013


image: Simon Howden /

Before we start, a confession: I don’t like culling. It is necessary, sometimes, but I don’t like it, and I don’t think we should jump on it like it’s the best management technique we have at our disposal.

So, this is how the story went. A bad illness, bovine tuberculosis, started to spread throughout the land. Farmers got hit, badly. Cows would get sick and die, or need to be put down. Something needed to be done. Herds started to get tested, which cost a lot of money and pain to everyone – the government, the farmers, and well, obviously, the cows were not having a blast either. Vaccination wasn’t – and still isn’t – an option, as tests can’t recognise a sick cow from a vaccinated one. And vaccinating badgers directly was too expensive.

So the power that be needed to find a solution.

Enter Badger Culling

People started blaming badgers for spreading the disease. They started to talk about badger culling, as a solution to the TB plague. Pilot projects and studies to assess the effectiveness of culling were carried out. The answer was that there was no strong evidence to support that a large culling would solve the TB issue.

The badger culling started anyway.

Madness ensued. As the scientific community kept stating how misguided the idea was, people started going around the fields at night shooting badger. Lethal shots only, supposedly, although that has been questioned as well. Groups of volunteers, in response, started patrols aimed at disturbing the shootings. Farmers started to realise how bad the move was for PR.

But the cull went on anyway.

To achieve, well, underwhelming results. In order to be successful, 70% of the populations in the selected areas needed to be culled. The official results are yet to be made public, but rumour has it that the numbers are far below that. Apparently, the population estimates were off, so the total number of badgers to be culled kept changing. In order to kill more animals, instead of just shooting free-roaming individuals, a cage-and-shoot procedure was approved. Then, perturbation happened – badgers from the target areas, disturbed by the culling activities, started to move away from them. The main risk is, obviously, that this would spread the disease even more.

Now, badgers do get bovine TB, and yes, they do transmit it to cattle. And the situation needs to be solved. Although the effectiveness of the culling was questioned by scientists even before its start, it was decided that it was the more financially viable. But with free-shooting not producing the expected results and caging being implemented, the budget went up. Vaccinating badgers doesn’t seem so expensive anymore, and while Natural England is currently evaluating the possibility of extending the cull, vaccination initiatives are starting in Wales and England.

The story continues..

Want to read more about badgers and badger culling? Have a look at the Badger Trust and Natural England, RSPCA’s views on the culling and their report on why the badger culling will fail. There’s lots of papers on perturbation, you can find some open-access ones here, here, and here. And if you wanna know more about the critter itself, its IUCN page is a good start.

About the Author Nick Piludu

Nick is a conservation biologist who holds degrees from Bangor University, Wales and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Originally from Sardinia, Italy, he spent the past few years studying and working in Europe and Africa. He enjoys travelling, good food, coffee and wildlife.

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