Animal rights, badgers, cows and culls

case studyThis week has seen an announcement by H.M. Government that, in a part reversal of national policy, badgers (but not deer) may in some circumstances now be culled if farmers believe this will reduce the risk of their dairy herds developing TB.

The debate about bovine tuberculosis (TB in cows) has raged for years. It has cost UK taxpayers vast sums of money, as key stakeholders in the consultative process (many of them farmers), top scientists and government advisers have striven to resolve the matter. Likewise, many farmers see bTB as a real threat to the continuation of their way of life. But hundreds upon hundreds of hours of vexed high-level debate over the past 10 or 15 years still it seems leave the central questions unresolved.

Different issues
The issues are often presented this way: are badgers the reason that cows get TB? and if so should the badgers be culled (i.e. shot or gassed)? and by whom, at whose expense? (Or, conversely,do badgers in fact get TB from cows, not the other way around?)

This is of course, as with many other complex situations, a simplification of the inter-related underlying tensions.

Fundamental disagreements
Nonetheless, in some observers’ views this contest at base is about the ‘rights’ of farmers to do as they wish on their land, the ‘rights’ of badgers (and their human admirers – rarely farmers) to live unmolested wherever they reside, and the relevance and rights or wrongs of the hotly challenged scientific evidence: the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for instance, has said it is opposed to culls ‘based on solid science, not sentiment.’

And underlying all this, but less frequently acknowledged in popular debate, are matters of business, profit, loss, politics and science.

Business or bucolic?
Whilst even attempting to summarise the various positions is to invite challenge, questions and considerations could be said to include: why the development of an effective bovine (and/or badger) TB vaccine has been so slow (humans regularly undergo TB vaccination); issues concerning the possible efficacy or additional damage risks which culling might have; the requirements in European farming policy in respect of vaccinated cows; the costs to taxpayers of compensation by the UK Government for farmers whose TB-positive cattle are destroyed; the business case for milk from certified uninfected herds; and the view of some people that indigenous UK wildlife should be left in peace.

To many urbanites the plight of cows, badgers and farmers (not to mention the credibility of veterinary scientists and government officials) seems trivial, but this is a very serious matter to most of those involved.

Entrenched and conflicting positions
The major stakeholders have conflicting and entrenched views. They will find it difficult for a long time yet to achieve any consensus, perhaps in part because they perceive this at some level to be a battle for rural life (the farmers) or hearts and minds (the badger lovers), with the politicians hovering nervously between the two.

* Can debates in which protagonists have such different fundamental bases actually be resolved?

* What role does or can science have in a matter which is in some minds more about business cases ans / or ways of living?

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Posted on September 18, 2010, in Real-Life Examples and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Until very recently I worked for the British Veterinary Association, which supports “targeted and managed badger culling”.

    The evidence about whether badgers transmit TB to cows is not conclusive either way. What is certain is that farmers are not so passionate about eradicating TB that they will support all measures, especially those which affect them financially or in terms of prestige. For example, farmers continue to transport animals around the country in order to show them at county fairs and the like – at which biosecurity is lax and cattle to cattle contact frequent – and biosecurity on farms could be much better in many cases.

    In the same way, people who oppose culls are happy to twist evidence to suit their cause. It has never been found that culling would not reduce the incidence of TB in cattle. When the Independent Scientific Group (http://www.defra.gov.uk/foodfarm/farmanimal/diseases/atoz/tb/isg/) said that culling could not meaningfully contribute to TB eradication, it did so because it knew that a proper cull would not be politically acceptable, ie politicians were not prepared to support it due to the financial cost and the anti-cull lobby (most of which is urban middle class), and without that state support it could not possibly work (legally or practically).

    Science can and always will be used by all sides of a debate to support their argument and disprove that of their opponent, as long as the mass of the public do not engage with that science, ie find out the truth for themselves. It is easy to manipulate people when they remain wilfully ignorant.

    The real motivations on both sides of an argument such as this are much more complex than they are usually supposed to be. Why are the urban middle classes so worried about the badger, of which there are many, when we breed other animals just so we can kill them? Why are farmers so reticent to spend a little money on biosecurity measures in the present in order to eradicate TB in the future, but can’t wait to pick up their shotgun? Unfortunately, our society is not mature enough to have such a discussion.

    Debates such as this could be resolved, and the role of science would be central, but not until we develop a social space in which it can be accepted that debates very rarely boil down to us against them, good vs evil, right over wrong. We need to appreciate that matters of humanity and its interaction with its environment are highly nuanced, and must be be treated as such – not like a boxing match.

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