Research undertaken by Queen Mary University of London using the largest ever mathematical model profiling a huge number of cattle and badger TB infections has cast serious doubt on the role of badgers in transmitting TB to cattle.
Using a ‘big data approach’ the science has revealed that the infection pattern between the two species is completely different and suggests very strongly that cattle are infected by other cattle, rather than by other species.
The research found little geographical overlap between farms with infected cattle and setts with infected badgers, and that the cycles of infection between the two animals are not synchronised. In badgers TB was found in clusters whilst in cattle the disease was more random and dispersed.
The findings reflect the uncommonly high level of cattle movement in the UK not seen elsewhere in the world, resulting in TB being found in unrelated and geographically widespread areas. In comparison badgers are social animals that live in small groups meaning the presence of TB is far more clustered.
Responding to the new research Dominic Dyer, CEO of the Badger Trust said,
“This research builds on an ever increasing number of studies demonstrating that the contribution of badgers to the problem of cattle TB is tiny and cannot be separated from the general contamination of wildlife and the environment by the cattle industry.
We have already seen another study this year (Woodroffe, Donnelly et al 2016) showing conclusively that badgers actively avoid cattle in pasture and farm yards, and that cattle actively avoid feeding on grass where badgers urinate or defecate. Yet another study (Barbier et al, 2016) shows a significant disease risk as TB spreads from cattle faeces into the worm population where it can remain for significant lengths of time.
All in all, the case for continued intervention with the badger population is proving increasingly pointless. The reality is we could kill every badger in the country but bovine TB would continue to spread in cattle herds, due to inaccurate TB testing, excessive numbers of cattle movements and poor farm-level bio-security. It is modern, intensive livestock rearing and trading that are the real culprits in the spread of bovine TB.”
Badger Trust Chairman, Peter Martin added:
“The government and the farming industry have become dangerously obsessed with badgers whilst all along the real problem has been cattle infecting themselves both directly and through contaminating their own environment. The debate has been hijacked by politics and economics whilst the basic epidemiology of the disease has been ignored for far too long.
Millions of pounds taxpayer’s money has been wasted on ineffective and inhumane badger culls with millions more to come as the government rolls out its policy to new areas of the country. All this has been in the face of vehement opposition by scientists and the public. Badgers have become a convenient fig-leaf for concealing a chaotic and doomed policy that has failed to get to grips with effective testing, cattle movement controls and basic standards of hygiene and husbandry on farms.
The approach to TB science in Wales has been far more open and rigorous, and has led to the lowest level of new herd breakdowns in ten years. There they have proved that vaccinating badgers is a far more effective intervention than culling, a point reinforced by this latest research. However