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MPs favour mass slaughter of badgers to combat TB in cattle

The Independent - 7th January 2001

By Colin Brown and Mark Rowe

A cross-party group of MPs is about to endorse the Government's plans for culling 12,500 badgers over the next four years to combat TB in cattle.

The Commons select committee on agriculture will tell MPs that the culling programme by the Ministry of Agriculture is the best option, despite criticism by farmers, who complain that it is too slow, and animal lovers who oppose the killing. Some protesters question whether there is any link between badgers and TB in cattle. Despite the culling of more than 30,000 badgers in the past 25 years, the disease continues to spread.

The culling is a highly emotive issue and campaigners have protested angrily at some of the sites where it has been carried out. They have also told the Government that its policy could encourage illegal culling and help those engaged in illegal badger-baiting.

The committee has found no evidence that cages used to trap badgers have been raided by those involved in criminal badger-baiting. Its report will be seen as a reinforcement of the Government's programme, following the report by an expert committee chaired by Professor Sir John Krebs in December 1997. The Krebs report recommended trials in 10 areas where TB in cattle was most prevalent, with culling of an estimated 12,500 badgers.

The committee, which backed the cull in a report last year, was told that up to September last year, 1,953 badgers had been culled. The most intense area of culling was north Wiltshire, where 602 badgers were killed, followed by West Cornwall, with 451.

The committee's report will tell MPs that this suggests that the Krebs figure is unlikely to be exceeded and may be lower, as some animals killed on roads are also being used for the tests.

The trials aim to find out how TB may spread between cattle, badgers and other wildlife. It will also help to tell the experts what proportion of TB outbreaks in cattle is caused by badgers and whether culling badgers is an effective, and cost-effective, way of controlling bovine TB.

Wildlife groups say there is no conclusive proof of a link between badgers and bovine TB. They say the ministry has failed to carry out the culls on a scientific basis and that most badgers are not even infected with TB. They have protested that hundreds of badger cubs are starving to death when their mothers are culled.

Elaine King, conservation officer for the National Federation of Badger Groups, said: "Everybody knows that people get the human form of TB when they live in poor-quality housing, with poor diets and too much stress. We believe cattle get bovine TB for the same reason. A dairy cow is pushed extremely hard to produce milk and this quite probably reduces their resistance to infection.

"The badger is being made the scapegoat. It is extremely unlikely that badgers are the sole source of infection and a solution will never be found unless the scientists look at other routes of transmission."

However, the select committee supports the Krebs report's assertion that the culling programme does not risk wiping out badgers in any of the 10 areas. The total badger population of Britain is estimated at more than 300,000, and 50,000 are believed to be killed on the roads each year. In areas where the culling is taking place, it is estimated that 20 per cent will survive.

The MPs are concerned that the evidence of a link between badgers and bovine TB is compelling but not conclusive. They say more evidence is needed, and support the Government's 1.4m programme to produce a vaccine for cattle but that could take 15 years.

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