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To the dismay of many, including Queen guitarist Brian May, the great British badger cull begins tomorrow. Marksmen will take to the English countryside in Gloucestershire and Somerset in an effort to slow the spread of tuberculosis among British cattle, killing up to 70 badgers a day to preserve that other fleeting species, the British farmer.
Bovine TB rates among dairy cows are spiraling, costing both farmers and taxpayers money. According The Telegraph, 28,000 cattle were slaughtered in 2012. Outbreaks cost farmers about $15,000 and taxpayers about twice that, because the farmers are partially compensated for the slaughtered animals and further testing. Officials estimate that about half of herd infections come from badgers.
David Heath, a minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, told BBC Radio, “nobody wants to kill a badger if they can avoid it but we do need to get on top of this disease." Government officials point to New Zealand, Ireland, and Australia as places where culling wild mammals has helped get TB under control, as well as a long-term study that estimated a well-regulated cull could drop the infection rate by about 16 percent.
The goal of this first, six week test cull is to reduce local badger populations by 70 percent. If it’s effective, Environmental Secretary Owen Paterson has said the program could be expanded across England, raising the badger-pelt count from 5,000 to 100,000.
Controversy abounds. The Labour Party is calling for a parliamentary vote on the cull on Wednesday. Mary Creagh, Labour's shadow environment secretary, has called the cull “crazy” and a product of “short-term political calculation” by their rival party. “The Tory-led Government are pressing ahead with the free shooting of badgers despite leading scientists warning against this ‘untested and risky approach’” Creagh said.
Badgers have also found a celebrity ally in May, who is not only a guitar god but also a scientist with a Ph.D. in astrophysics. May has been an outspoken advocate for British wildlife, running the website and activist group “Save Me” to protest hunting of foxes and now badgers. He questions both the ethics and the efficacy of the badger cull.
“Not only is the practice inhumane and impractical, it is also proven to be ineffective in tackling the disease, as has been made repeatedly clear by all the leading scientific experts,” May said. “There is also a viable alternative, which I support: vaccination.”
Following May’s campaign in Wales in 2010, the Welsh government is opting to try vaccination to address the badger-bovine-TB problem. Environmental Secretary Caroline Spelman, however, said there is “no usable vaccine on the horizon.” So while vaccination is the long-term solution—once a vaccine is developed that can be taken orally via mixed in with badger bait—for now England prepares for the hunt.
The cull does carry a price tag. Cage trapping and shooting will cost farmers $3,700 per square kilometer in contracting fees and expenses, while shooting free-running badgers costs about $450. And that’s the cost outside of the $6 million that the police near the cull zone estimate it will take to keep protesters and would-be saboteurs from ruining the cull.
Except for this new threat from licensed badger hunters, the badger has it pretty good in England. Under 1992’s Badger Protection Act, it is against the law to willfully kill or cruelly mistreat the little guys or deliberately disrupt their homes, which are called “setts.” There are about 190,000 badgers in England, so they aren’t endangered, but they are beloved. You wouldn’t believe how many badger protection groups exist.
At the beginning of the month, a flash-mob of 50 people in the badger-inspired face paint sang and danced a pro-badger song outside of the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, and a petition endorsed by May on the government’s website has over 250,000 signatures.
In spite of the normally effective flash mob and petition one-two punch, the cull begins tomorrow. It could be halted by a vote on Wednesday, or it could be eventually be expanded throughout England; no one expects to see any results from the cull for three years.
Until then, as the buffalo was buffaloed by the transcontinental railroad, and as war was once declared against the emu, so the badger shall be badgered.