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More research needed to save Brock the Badger

Friday 14 January 2005

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, seriously worried about a new threat to our badger population, pleads for more research for a medical cure for bovine tuberculosis

WHEN I was a very small boy, as World War II was coming to an end, my mother stopped me playing with my best friend, a lad of the same age who lived perhaps 20 yards away. In a childhood totally dominated by talk of war, it was the worst thing that had ever happened to me.

"His sister is very, very poorly," Mum tried to explain. "If you go to his house, or he comes here, we might get very poorly too."

Some months later, my friend's sister died and I heard her killer being spoken of in very hushed tones as "TB." Only years later, when penicillin became freely available, did I lose my dread of tuberculosis.

Before antibiotics, TB was one of this country's biggest killers. And much of it came from milk, causing the government to launch a massive eradication campaign to cull tens of thousands of infected dairy herds. Soon, milk was virtually unsaleable until it could boast of being "TT attested."

Can research save Brock the badger?
Can research save Brock the badger?

These sad memories came flooding back this week when I read reports from a scientific study in Ireland which has proved - so the experts say - that bovine TB is being spread to cattle by badgers. And as a result, some farming organizations are calling for widespread culls of the badger population in various TB "hotspots", one of them being in Cumbria (See News).

Now this leaves me feeling very sad indeed. Not being a vet or a biologist, I don't know if bovine TB and human TB are closely related. I do know that thousands of cattle have been destroyed because of it, and with foot and mouth still a recent nightmare, I realise something must be done.

At the same time, Brock the badger is one of the most popular members of Britain's all-too-limited mammal species. As Brock, he has appeared regularly in our literature and Badger of The Wind in the Willows is one of the greatest literary characters of all time.

Unlike foxes or rabbits, he does very little damage and is already under threat from man: thousands of his kind are killed every year by cars, his habitat is being chewed up for building and - God help us - badger-baiting is still a popular "sport" in some areas, West Yorkshire being one of those centres.

Fortunately - or, perhaps unfortunately, if you are a dairy farmer - there is absolutely zero chance of Defra launching a massive badger cull with a general election afoot. The public outcry would be just too great.

But, as ever, this situation has been known about for decades. The old and useless MAFF came up with its age-old solution: kill the badgers and compensate the farmers. But the widespread culls were stopped after media pressure.

What I would love to know is: how much research was done since then to find a cure for bovine TB? At a time when the agri-pharmaceutical industry was pumping out dozens of dodgy drugs like growth hormones to be pumped into livestock, or the feed companies were creating BSE by turning cattle into carnivores, has any serious work been done in this truly important field?

A few years ago in Germany, where there is an active and vocal Green Party, the Government was faced with a plague of foxes (as we might well be here, soon). Unable to have them shot, gassed or poisoned because of public opinion, they came up with an ingenious solution.

Foxes were put on the pill! Contraceptive chemicals were hidden in little meat-like tablets which were dropped from the air during the fox-mating season and, after a couple of years, the situation was under control.

In a nation of animal lovers like ours, with a Government which likes to boast (without too much concrete evidence) of its green sympathies, could we perhaps treat tasty badger morsels with antibiotics in a similar way? Or am I being absolutely crazy? Such a solution would demand time, imagination and, of course, money. If only...

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