Animal conservationists are staging a badger cull rally in Bristol this afternoon, demonstrating their opposition towards the proposed killing of the creatures in Somerset and Gloucestershire.
The Stop the Cull rally on College Green, organised by the Badger Trust, is due to be attended by Queen guitarist Brian May and the chief executive of the RSPCA.
But what is the cull about and why are animal conservationists battling against it?
In December 2011 plans were announced for controlled culling to be carried out by groups of farmers and landowners, initially in Gloucestershire and Somerset, to try to curb the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in cattle.
The announcement followed consultations in 2010 and 2011.
The pilot study will assess the effectiveness (in terms of badger removal), humaneness and safety of controlled shooting.
Bovine tuberculosis is an infectious disease of cattle, caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium bovis (M. bovis).
While bTB is predominantly a disease of cattle, it can affect a range of species. Defra maintains “there is a significant reservoir of infection in badgers. The disease is transmitted between cattle, between badgers, and between the two species”.
It is also a zoonotic disease, which means it can be transmitted from infected animals to people, where it causes a condition very similar to human TB.
However, according to the Department the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), “the risk of people contracting bovine TB from cattle in Great Britain is currently considered very low”.
The Government says Bovine TB costs the UK more than £100m per year, and that culling will help combat the disease.
In July this year the Badger Trust saw its legal bid to block the badger cull fail in the High Court.
In terms of the cull itself, the government cull areas must be at least 150 sq km in size, and the groups of landowners and farmers applying to cull must show they can access at least 70 per cent of the land.
Licences will be issued by Natural England under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992.
The groups will employ trained marksmen to shoot the badgers as they roam - so-called "free-shooting".
The effectiveness of free-shooting badgers has never been studied. The Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT), a study from which the Government draws many of its arguments, badgers were trapped in cages and then shot.
The Badger Trust has pointed out that if free-shooting proves ineffective, farmers may have to resort to trapping, which would increase costs approximately ten-fold.
The Government’s point of view
The Government maintains “Bovine TB is the most pressing animal health problem in England. The annual number (and incidence) of herds infected with TB in England has been on a slowly rising trend for some 25 years.”
Even the League Against Cruel Sports, which opposes the cull, acknowledges: “The disease has a devastating effect on farmers and tens of thousands of cattle are slaughtered each year as a result.”
The Government claims it must intervene to tackle bovine TB in order to protect the health of the public; protect and promote the health and welfare of animals; and meet its international (in particular EU) and domestic legal commitments.
According to the Government, “maintaining the current approach focusing mainly on cattle measures is not sufficient. This approach would incur ever-increasing costs to Government (and therefore the taxpayer), and place increasing costs and burdens on farmers, making it more difficult for farm businesses to remain viable”.
It maintains culling is the best way forward, because “A proactive, controlled cull of badgers has the potential to reduce bovine TB in cattle by reducing the number of infected badgers, thus reducing the rate of transmission of the disease to cattle”.
The Government bases its theory on the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT), a £50m Government-funded scientific study carried out between 1998 and 2006, which it claims “demonstrates conclusively that badgers contribute significantly to bovine TB in cattle”.
Detailing its policy on bTB, the Government says: “The scientific evidence from the RBCT suggests that proactive badger culling, done on a sufficient geographical scale, in a widespread, coordinated and efficient way, and over a sustained period of time of at least four years, will reduce the incidence of bovine TB in cattle in high incidence areas.”
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has repeatedly called for a badger cull. Its director of policy Martin Haworth said in June: “We must remember that no other country in the world has ever tackled TB successfully without also controlling TB in its wildlife reservoir, and this is why the NFU fully supports the two badger control pilot areas as part of the Government s science-led policy.
“This policy is desperately needed to tackle what is a terrible and damaging disease.”
What the animal conservationists say
Those opposed to the cull draw on a ten year study in which 10,000 badgers were trapped and culled to establish whether localised culling of badgers helps to reduce bTB.
The Independent Scientific Group (ISG) who carried out the experiment concluded “badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain”.
The Badger Trust, which represents about 60 voluntary badger groups, took its battle to the High Court earlier this year. There it argued that cull plans drawn up by Defra were illegal, on the grounds they would at best make a small impact on the disease and could make it worse.
Referring to the culling rules, under which riflemen would have to prove they had killed seven out of every ten badgers, the Trust says: “If they killed any fewer the expected benefits (marginal in the long term) would be lost and the serious risk of perturbation and further infection, discovered only in 2003, would be increased.
“Worse, killing more than the target number risks local extinction, contravening the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats.”
The trust also argued that the plan to have culling licences issued by Natural England was outside the law, and that the only person authorised to issue them was the Environment Secretary - Caroline Spelman MP.
But in his judgement, Mr Justice Ouseley ruled against the Trust on both counts.
Meanwhile the Green Party strongly opposes the new badger cull pilots on the basis of scientific evidence, significant concerns over animal welfare, public safety and ethical concerns.
Caroline Allen, veterinary surgeon and Green Party Spokesperson on animal issues, said: "I completely understand the distress this issue causes to farmers and that TB is a serious disease of cattle.
“However the feeling of frustration and wanting to do something must not mean we disregard the facts and ethical considerations. The current plan is a dangerous one."
She added: "This is a massive undertaking, there are so many ways in which this cull could go wrong, due to the pertubation effect, which is likely to result in the incidence of TB actually increasing.
“When you bear in mind that the measure of success is a reduction in TB of around 15%, i.e. leaving 85% of the disease untouched, this all seems completely nonsensical".
Ms Allen also said: "While the government has pledged that they will take measures to ensure the cull is are carried out humanely, and with high regard to animal welfare, the anatomy of the badger means that the method chosen, free shooting, is simply not appropriate, carrying a very high risk of leaving badgers wounded and in pain.
“In addition there is a risk to people of injury and even death from the use of firearms at night to carry out the cull.”
She concluded: “Sadly the badger has become the scapegoat for this disease, I call on the Government and Defra to wake up and show some leadership and deal with the other 85% of disease transmission, that which is cattle to cattle.
“Then we might start to make some progress against this disease and the distress it causes to farmers and their herds".
An opinion poll for the BBC revealed in June last year that a majority of Britons in both town and country oppose killing badgers to curb cattle tuberculosis.
Across the UK about two-thirds oppose the measure, the poll found, with majorities against culling in every age group, every region and across both genders.
The Badger Trust maintains vaccination is the answer: “Badger Trust now strongly believes that an injectable vaccine, and ultimately an oral vaccine, provides a very positive way forward in the long-term control of this disease.
“The ‘silver bullet’ remains a cattle vaccine which will not only protect cattle from the disease but will also allow the UK farming industry to export cattle to EU countries.
“A test is being developed which will differentiate between a vaccinated cow and an infected cow. This will require acceptance within the EU.”