2012 sees the resumption of badger culling in the UK in an attempt to control the relentless spread of bovine tuberculosis. So why does this make me profoundly uncomfortable?
There is no question that bovine tuberculosis is a disease we need to control; it causes serious illness in people through unpasteurised milk, and as a result farmers who own animals which are infected, or are “reactors” (potentially infected), suffer severe financial problems as those animals are culled and their trade in animals is stopped.
Further, badgers undoubtedly carry the disease between herds. Two randomised badger culling trials have shown a reduction of around 30% in new incidents of bovine TB where badgers in those areas were killed by shooting.
So, next year’s trials will assess whether it is economically and humanely viable to shoot enough badgers in an area to have a significant impact on bovine TB.
If we can’t, then I’m glad to say alternative methods of control will need to be found. But what does it mean if we can? No doubt there will be a great deal of pressure to kill as many badgers as we can in the UK to preserve or improve industry profits. Will deer (also carriers of TB) be next?
The race to the bottom in terms of cost of food production has already had huge effects on animal welfare. Leaving aside the horrors of industrial battery farming, modern farm animals are freaks – man made products of hundreds of years of breeding, and nothing like their wild ancestors.
Dairy cows are worn out at four years old rather than eight, laying hens at 12-15 months rather then six or seven years. It’s not the farmers’ fault – if their neighbour is more profitable due to lower production costs then inevitably they have to follow that neighbour’s farming practices. Farmers pull off the magnificent trick of trying to balance welfare and profitability on a daily basis to bring us food. But to preserve that profitability, they are having to look at the destruction of some of our native wildlife. Don’t tell me shooting is always humane; I’ve seen enough of it in my career (including the Foot and Mouth disease crisis of 2001) to know that outside the slaughterhouse it quite often isn’t.
As vets, we take an oath to make the welfare of those animals committed to our care our top priority- to me that includes domestic, farm and wild animals. These trials put profitability above the welfare of our native fauna. I accept the necessity of culling to maintain the balance of an ecosystem, but these trials are a precursor to mass eradication of a species to preserve a method of bringing meat to our tables that is demonstrably failing both in economic and welfare terms.
It’s time to look at alternatives; is cheap meat more important than risks to human health and farm animal welfare? By ensuring the farmer gets a little bit more for his produce we can minimise the intensive grazing practices and use of highly bred animals which are behind the rise in TB. Why can’t we let the Badger Vaccine Deployment Project run its course and try to make the badger BCG economically viable before starting culling?
Make no mistake- vets have been fighting animals’ natural tendency to reproduce for many years, and Mother Nature always wins in the end. The only way to reduce badger numbers permanently is to mount a long term, severe culling campaign – inevitably this causes pain and suffering to those at the sharp end.
So the next time someone boasts about how cheap their meat was, think about the pain and suffering that is needed to allow someone to profit from that sale.