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Badger culls 'boost fox numbers'

19 December 2007 - BBC News

Culling badgers in order to control bovine tuberculosis (bTB) can cause a doubling in fox numbers, UK government scientists have found. This could impact on livestock farming and conservation, the authors write in Biology Letters journal.

The researchers looked at effects on foxes during the badger culling trials in England between 1998 and 2006. Their figures show that intensive culling of badgers resulted in roughly one extra fox per square kilometre. Red foxes are of concern to farmers and conservationists alike because they prey on livestock, ground-nesting birds and brown hares. They are widely culled by farmers and gamekeepers.


The Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) was set up to investigate how bTB spread between cattle, badgers and other wildlife. It also enabled scientists to assess the effects of badger culls on other species sharing the same ecosystem. It was understood that red foxes might be affected because the foxes use badger setts as breeding dens and share a similar diet - suggesting the two species may compete for food.


"What we saw was an increase of fox numbers in the culled areas," Mr Trewby, from the Central Science Laboratory, told BBC News. Mr Trewby said: "Obviously it is a contentious issue whether foxes have a significant impact on farming. They may have an impact, or there may be increased mortality, but that's something we can't comment on at the moment."


Rosie Woodroffe, senior research fellow at the Zoological Society of London, commented: "I think it is another aspect of badger culling that needs to be taken into account in deciding on the modest benefits of culling badgers set against a number of costs."


Dr Woodroffe, who is a member of the ISG, said: "What we concluded was that the only way you could have even a modest benefit for control of cattle TB was by culling badgers on an extremely large geographic scale, over long periods of time in a highly co-ordinated way. She added: "If you don't do it in that way, you actually make it worse. Badgers are social and highly territorial. This limits the spread of disease because infected badgers are mainly going to interact with their own group. When you cull the badgers, you break down that territoriality, so the badgers are ranging more widely and meeting more herds of cattle. But they are also more likely to be interacting with what used to be neighbouring social groups."

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