THE IMMINENT launch of badger cull trials in the west of England has been dubbed "crazy" by a leading expert on the subject and brought wildlife campaigners out in force.
The trial badger culls are to go ahead in undisclosed areas of Gloucestershire and Somerset within weeks. The two trials are not being carried out to ascertain whether killing badgers can control bovine TB; instead they are testing the effectiveness of shooting as a way to cull badgers.
The trial culls will continue for six weeks. If the culls are found to be humane and badgers can be killed in sufficient numbers, the cull will continue for four years.
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In this eventuality, further trials are likely to be started, with up to 10 licences issued per year. However, it is expected that the incidence of bovine TB will only fall by about 16 per cent in the trial areas over nine years.
While farmers are pleased that the culling trials are going ahead, wildlife groups and many scientists are baffled as to why the government is ignoring the advice of its own experts.
Thanks to a major study, the 'Krebs trial' in the 1990s, it is generally agreed that the culling of badgers is ineffective as a method of controlling bovine TB. In fact the study found that culling badgers can actually make bovine TB worse, because it encourages infected survivors to move around the countryside.
In 2007, the Independent Scientific Group concluded that "badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain" and that the disease could be contained by "cattle-based control measures alone".
Lord Krebs, the scientist who led the Krebs trial, told the BBC yesterday that the government should choose vaccination and control of cattle movements "rather than this crazy scheme that may deliver very small advantage, may deliver none. And it's very hard to see how DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) are going to collect the crucial data to assess whether it's worth going ahead with free shooting at all".
Speaking on Channel 4 News last night, rock star Brian May said the cull "cannot solve the problem" and warned that "a terrible, terrible tragedy is about to unfold". May is fronting a campaign against the cull called Team Badger, which is made up of a coalition of animal charities, including the RSPCA and the Born Free Foundation.
The bird protection charity RSPB says it opposes a cull and will never allow the practise on its land. The charity's conservation director Martin Harpersaid: "The dairy industry has endured terrible times while trying to cope with this devastating disease. However, we have never been convinced that the best way to help farmers is to force them to foot the bill for a contentious cull that is only expected to reduce outbreaks by about 16 per cent."
Even supermarkets have felt moved to distance themselves from the massacre of badgers, with Waitrose, M&S and the Co-op telling the BBC they will not stock milk from farms that allow badger culls (although the identity of farmers involved in the trials is being kept secret).
But in The Daily Telegraph, Clive Aslet, of Country Life magazine, puts forward the view of a farmer he met who says badgers need to be culled for their own protection against a debilitating disease. "It may not be a point that activists find easy to accept," writes Aslet. "But, as with foxes, a love of badgers is not incompatible with killing them. What is undeniably bad for an individual badger may be good for the health of the species."
And Anne McIntosh, a Conservative MP on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, told Newsnight: "We owe it to the farmers and to the rural economy of the areas most badly affected - and to the badgers themselves - to eliminate bovine TB, which we have singularly failed to do."
McIntosh is wary of going down the vaccination route. "What happens to the meat and milk from cattle who show signs of TB after being vaccinated?" She asks. "Will it be allowed to be exported?"
Meanwhile, badger lovers have taken to Twitter to drum up support for a government 'e-petition', which if it attracts 100,000 signatures will automatically trigger a debate on the cull in the House of Commons.
The 'hashtag' #replacelovewithbadgersongs was trending on the social media site today, encouraging users to replace the word 'love' in famous songs with the word 'badger'.
The stunt had the desired effect: the word 'badger' was soon trending. Between yesterday and today, approximately 20,000 new signatures have been added to the petition.
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