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Applying all options

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IT IS in the nature of science to raise as many questions as answers. Even so, if anyone ever hoped that the results of the randomised badger culling trial would make it easier to reach a political consensus on the approach to adopt in controlling bovine tuberculosis (TB) they are likely to have been disappointed. It is eight years since the trial was started and badger control options outside the trial areas ceased. The intervening period has seen a significant increase in the incidence of the disease, and movement into new areas. The results of the trial which are now emerging have done little to dampen the controversy about the extent to which badger culling should form part of control measures; if anything, opinions seem to have become more polarised and, like the disease problem itself, the political and practical challenges have increased.

The Government has long been urged to make clear how it intended to proceed once the results of the trial were known, and this was eventually considered in a strategic framework for the control of bovine TB published by DEFRA in March last year (VR, March 5, 2005, vol 156, pp 293, 294-296). This tended to emphasise the difficulties and uncertainties regarding badger culling rather than indicate how a solution might be found, although it did make clear that any decision would not be based on science alone: ‘In considering the evidence on badger controls, we will, as well as assessing the scientific merits of options, need to focus on costs, practicality of delivery, conservation implications and take into account wider public opinion in informing policy decisions on badger or other wildlife controls.’

Since then, while emphasising that controls involving cattle are essential, the Government has recognised that ‘international experience indicates that it is not possible to contain and eradicate bovine TB if its background presence in wildlife is left unaddressed’. In December, as well as announcing premovement TB testing of cattle and new compensation arrangements for farmers whose cattle are compulsorily slaughtered because of bovine TB, DEFRA launched a public consultation on the principle of badger culling to help control the disease and the approaches that might be adopted (VR, December 24/31, 2005, vol 157, pp 823-824). Its consultation document reiterated that a decision on whether to introduce a badger culling policy would take into account ‘scientific evidence, how successful a cull would be in reducing bovine TB in cattle, cost effectiveness, practicability and sustainability’. Comments were invited by March 10. Meanwhile, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is looking into the issues raised in DEFRA’s document. The committee announced its inquiry in January and heard evidence in Parliament earlier this week.

The BVA’s policies on the control of bovine TB, including recommendations for surveillance and control of the disease in badgers, were set out in a strategy document sent to the animal health minister and published in The Veterinary Record last October (VR, October 15, 2005, vol 157, pp 485-487). In that document, as well as detailing measures directly involving cattle, the BVA expressed support for a humane badger culling policy aimed at eradicating bovine TB where sufficient evidence existed to classify a sett or social group as infected. The Association is still developing its response to DEFRA’s subsequent consultation document on badger culling, but it strongly believes that, if the disease is to be controlled and eradicated, measures involving both cattle and badgers are necessary. It considers it scientifically implausible to argue that epidemics of bovine TB in cattle and badgers in the same area exist independently and are unconnected, or that either can be effectively controlled without addressing both. It also believes that the need for continuing research cannot be used as an excuse for doing nothing to bring a worsening disease situation under control; despite scientific uncertainties, there is a need to start tackling the disease in badgers now, using the scientific information that is available, and sound veterinary epidemiological principles where the science is lacking.

The evidence available suggests that, if culling is to be effective, it needs to be carried out efficiently over a relatively wide area and, for this reason, the BVA believes that culling would need to be tightly coordinated by the Government, with appropriate training of operatives to ensure that the methods employed were humane. Landowners would need to be persuaded of the value of the exercise, as widespread compliance would be necessary.

At the launch of the consultation document on the option of badger culling, the animal health minister expressed the hope that ‘we don’t hear just the same old arguments; I think we do have new and interesting evidence . . . that I hope will inform a more mature and more rational debate than the one that we sometimes have’. That may seem like a forlorn hope, but it is one that should be widely shared. The problem of bovine TB in cattle and badgers is very real and it is in everyone’s interests that solutions are found. Despite the uncertainties, there is a need to consider the options rationally and ensure that all available control measures are appropriately applied.

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