It would be stupid to deny that badgers are both a reservoir and a vector of bovine TB. They are not the only ones of course: cattle are also responsible for spreading the disease among themselves. But you don't have to deny it to believe that the eradication programme being planned in Wales is mad.
So, having accepted that badgers are both a reservoir and a vector of m.bovis, a selective cull over a smallish area of N. Pembroke is mad? Mmmm.
Readers may remember the heartrending story of the whole herd slaughter of some 800 organic dairy cattle belonging to Trioni farms in that area, earlier this year. Mad? Yup, you could say that.
So what is the answer? Leave this disease to fester in the environment, spilling over into more and more species? Perhaps to cull more cattle? Certainly some of Mr. Monbiot's supporters reckon it would be better to cull the Welsh farmers, which is as insulting as it is unhelpful. But they miss the point. We have reported so many times the utter futility of testing and culling sentinel cattle, while leaving the cause of their immune response to continue reinfecting. That is what is mad. Mad, and expensive and recklessly dangerous.
But there is another way. A total clearance of badgers works (Thornbury), but after more than a decade of prevarication, following the previous decade of sanitisation of policy, the problem is so widespread that any solution has to be more 'management' than 'wipe out'. And that is achievable. So rather than see George Monbiot's teddies flying high, why not look more closely at a workable solution? For sure several 'scientists' may well have to look elsewhere for gainful employment, but with a workable eradication plan, we - as in GB plc - may just avoid walking into another trade ban.
Yesterday's Western Morning News carried an article by freelance journalist Anthony Gibson, describing just such an approach. Mr. Gibson describes not a blanket 'wipe out' as envisaged by the emotional Mr. Monbiot, but a "highly targeted selective cull, on a sett-by-sett basis."
It would obviously rely on being able to identify which badger social groups were infected, and which not. But that can be done either by using the so-called PCR test, or through visual assessments, carried out by people who understand badgers and can tell from looking at them and how they behave, whether or not they are diseased. There is at least one individual in this region who claims to be able to do this, and I have no doubt that there may be others."So why ," asks Mr. Gibson, "is neither the technology nor the human expertise being employed as the basis for a culling strategy which everything we know about bovine TB and badgers suggests would be (a) effective, (b) acceptable and (c) affordable?" He answers this rehetorical question:
The explanation, as I know only too well from my days in the NFU, is that any culling policy in England must be able to survive the inevitable legal challenge from the Badger Trust. And the received wisdom is that a culling policy that departs from the recommendations of the ISG might well get the thumbs down from the courts.
No matter that the trials which the ISG assessed were badly carried out and seriously disrupted by activists and foot and mouth disease, or that the ISG's conclusions have been heavily criticised as both illogical and premature by other scientists, including the Government's then Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King. There is a clear danger the ISG report would be viewed by a court as gospel, and that a government attempting to do something not sanctioned by it would lose. It was that analysis, more so even than his obvious lack of political courage, that led Hilary Benn into making the decision he did last year..
And so we have the quite bizarre situation, where as Mr. Gibson points out, "the only badger culling policy on the table is a culling policy we know would be worse than useless." Thus far, both opposition parties appear to have taken on board the necessity of a targeted badger cull, limited to endemically infected areas, and possibly based on the PCR identification of grossly infected setts. And the further they distance themselves from a
So what can be done to make a positive outcome more likely? The first thing is to forget about the ISG's crazy ideas on wide-area culling and get behind a selective, targeted cull. . The second is to make the case for selective culling to the public, and I was delighted to hear sponsorship is well on the way to being lined up for a film which will do precisely that, to be made by Chris Chapman in the autumn.
A twin-track strategy of clearing infected setts by culling, and protecting healthy setts by vaccinating, is not only the obvious way forward with bovine TB, it is the only way forward.
It is essential that the industry now unites behind it.
And then at least these youngsters, may have a chance of avoiding the ever open maw of Defra's killing machine.