There is something very British about badgers. While the lion and the unicorn may adorn the crest of the House of Windsor there is something about the nocturnal mammal with is white nose and peaceful nature that is more stirring than a mythical horned horse. Maybe we should blame Wind in the Willows. Kenneth Grahame’s Mr Badger is the wise, strong and occasionally grumpy uncle of British children’s literature. To anyone who has read it the character of Mr Badger is instantly reconcilable with animals themselves. It is easy to imagine every badger sett as a vast underground mansion where wise old creatures shuffle about the halls, occasionally called on to give council to their more impetuous neighbours. Given this very British attachment to the badger it is no surprise to learn that, when the government decided to cull the badger population earlier this year, 250,000 people signed a petition opposing such a move.
The reason behind the cull, which has been talked about for years now, is to curb the spread of bovine tuberculosis. No one disagrees that it is a disease that needs to be dealt with. No one disagrees with the National Farmers Union when they say that the spread bovine TB is very bad news of cattle farmers. In 2011 and 2012 combined around 54,000 cattle were slaughtered and more than £190m spent trying to control the disease. No reasonable person can argue that repeating such a strategy in the long term is a viable or humane approach to bovine TB. However what is in dispute is if culling badgers, carriers of bovine TB, is the answer. This dispute is the reason the aforementioned petition was started, the reason why the NFU has sought injunctions against those trying to disrupt the cull and the reason the sights where culling is taking place have been ringed by the police.
We can now move from the realm of children’s literature to the more empirical domain of science. The last Labour government ran a fifty million pound, ten year long study to answer one question, would a cull of British badgers stop the spread of bovine TB? The answer was no. Culling has a short term effect on the spread of the disease but, once the killing stops, disease rates climb again. In short the only way a cull will work is if it is a total eradication of the unfortunate sett dwelling carriers. Scientists involved in the original study have come out against the current cull, now drawing to an end after six weeks and less badgers killed than hoped. So too has the current government chief scientist, Professor John Beddington, who tellingly observed that he was ‘content that the evidence base, including uncertainties and evidence gaps, has been communicated to ministers’. Taking Prof Beddington at face value one can only logically assume that the government, specifically Defra, has ignored the evidence and pressed ahead with the recent cull regardless. Why?
It would be an exaggeration to suggest, as some have, that all farmers are Tories. However the historical connection between the Conservative Party and the English countryside cannot be ignored. The Tories are the party of land owners and country fetes as well as big business. Certainly this connection, along with the influence of the NFU, provides enough reason for the Conservative wing of the coalition to go against the science. Badgers do not vote in Parliamentary elections whereas farmers and those who live in farming communities do. The electoral maths is very simple in this case, kill the badgers and harvest the votes.
For me the real interest, and real tragedy, of this saga is not the cull itself, although I’d rather it hadn’t happened. The real problem is that once again science has been swept aside. I have written previously that science is very easy to ignore when it doesn’t produce the desired results. In this case there has been a failure to communicate both the impotence of a cull and the possible effectiveness of alternative strategies. Science has been drowned out by the politics. The worrying point is that if science can’t prevail against the NUF over the badger cull what hope does it have on bigger issues. Can scientific clarity win through against mudslinging from anti GM groups or lobbyist for the energy industry, with multi-million dollar budgets? As things stand it seems not. As in any argument in the public domain it is often the volume ones shouts at rather than the logic behind an argument that wins such debates. The scientific community has yet to learn to shout louder.
To observe this on the smallest of scales we can finish with the badgers. This week, when presenting the news of Parliament that despite running its course the badger cull had failed to meet its desired body count, the environment secretary Owen Patterson utter a memorable quote. When accused of moving the goalposts concerning the targets of the cull he replied, ‘We are not moving the goalposts, the badgers are moving the goalposts’. If reason can’t prevail against that kind of thinking, we’re all doomed.