Amongst many other things DEFRA are responsible for the dairy industry, who produce milk and beef for the people of the United Kingdom. Whilst farmers involved with cows work very hard and generally do very well in terms of high milk-yields, good-quality beef and relatively low disease-rates, there is a problem with Tuberculosis (TB) in cattle.
Cattle are susceptible to being infected with Bovine TB (bTB). This is a serious disease in cattle which means that all cows on the farm may be slaughtered - and this is both upsetting and financially damaging for the farmer.
It is believed by DEFRA that as badgers, cats, rats, deer and other animals can get TB, the cows are being infected from another type of animal. DEFRA believe that the best way to deal with the problem of cows getting TB is to kill badgers. They have been almost silent on the risks of other wildlife (cats, rats, deer, etc) infecting cattle with TB.
However, some people believe that DEFRA's actions are based more on simple prejudice and a desire to placate the NFU and the remainder of the farming community who are rightly worried about the harmful effects of TB on their cows and their cash balances.
Over the years there have been a number of partial but inconclusive studies concerning badgers and TB. At one time badgers were gassed with cyanide in their setts, but the public rightly thought this was too brutal; and it didn't work anyway (the cows kept on getting TB). In fact, the incidence of TB in cattle seem to rise, as the use of cyanide increased!
Caring experts have demanded that DEFRA concentrate its efforts on finding out the actual infection mechanism of cows getting TB; and develop a vaccine to prevent cows getting TB anyway (even if they come across the disease somehow).
Another possible vaccine would be for badgers and other animals - if developed, it would be more than possible to place a TB vaccine in food left out for badgers. This is the method used to help control rabies and mange in foxes on mainland Europe, so there is every reason why it would be helpful here in the UK too.
Importantly too, whilst some cows are tested to see if they have TB, the tests are not done very often and are relatively inaccurate. Given this fact, it may well be that there is a pool of TB-positive cows that we just don't know about. These cows could well be transferred from farm to farm passing their infection round the country until they were either slaughtered for meat or picked up as having TB anyway. It is not all that unlikely for TB to be introduced into an apparently TB-free herd of cattle, by cattle brought into the herd from a market. It is also possible that these incoming cattle may have TB, but, with the less-than-perfect accuracy of the TB tests for them to test as TB-negative, and therefore comprise a "secret" source of TB.
Another aspect is the activities of both badgers and cows. Badgers like to live in their setts in the woods, but love to come out onto open farmland to eat all those juicy worms that come out onto the short-cropped grass at night. A very good place to find worms is under and around cowpats. Now, if a cow has TB, both its urine and its poo, contain the TB infection. Consequently, a badger may well become infected with TB from TB-infected cows (this is exactly the opposite to what DEFRA would have you believe).
Cows, on the other hand like to eat grass; and studiously avoid eating the grass in and around their own cowpats and other animal droppings. The only simple way for a badger to infect a cow with TB is if the badger coughs, spits, wees or poos very near to the cow. Given the fact that badgers are very shy timid animals, this seems a less than likely possibility.
Yet another factor is modern animal husbandry - by this we mean how farmers treat and store their animals. In the "olden" days, cows lived out doors all year round; and would only come into the confines of a shelter or barn when giving birth, when ill or in conditions of extremely severe weather. In those days a cow was pretty much a fully-organic free-ranging animal; which had little in the way of drugs, advanced veterinary treatment or intensive agriculture.
These days, cows are reared much more intensively. Many cows live year-round in specially-built concrete-floored cattle sheds. Whilst the cows have room to move in the shed they have less room than if they were in a field system. Because the modern cows are in a more confined space and under warmer conditions, the chances of any bugs breeding is higher and the likelihood of infection greater too. Accordingly, intensively-raised cows now have much more drug and veterinary treatment than ever before.
Many people believe that a "rogue" cow which is unknowingly suffering from TB is far more likely to infect the herd in shed conditions than in field conditions. After all, a cow in a shed can easily cough or urinate any infection onto all the other animals in the warm shed. If those other animals are to some degree stressed by their environment (lack of space, too close to other cows, lack of freedom, etc), this might well compromise their immune systems. In turn, this might mean that a cow in shed conditions has less inherent ability to fight off infections than one in field conditions.
If animal husbandry is a contributory factor in TB (both for badgers and/or cattle). this might well explain why the higher incidence of TB in cattle is in the south-west. This is a good area for cows; and many cows are now intensively reared here. In contrast, other areas of the country where cows are less intensively raised seem to have lower incidence of TB. Again, this may be true; or it may be false - the problem is that we just do not know the answers.
Overall though, the combination of modern farming methods might well explain the bulk of the problem with cows (and other animals getting TB).
Of course, at Badgerland we are biased - we like badgers, and we do not want to see them gassed, trapped or shot. However, we fully accept that farmers have every right to be worried about TB and the effect on their lives and livelihoods. Whatever other people do, we just want to know the truth about TB and its infection route between different species. It seems to us that good-quality research could be done by any of Britain's brilliant scientists to advance our knowledge a great deal, and it would not cost a great deal of money.
So, do DEFRA do research along these lines?
Kill badgers, seems to be DEFRA's answer. They don't use cyanide gas any more, but they do place badger traps so badgers (the best loved wild mammal of the people of the United Kingdom) can be shot some time later.
To keep up with the Government position here (mainly pro-badger killing), visit the DEFRA web site, and use the search function to trace papers about badgers and tuberculosis.
DEFRA have had almost as bad a press as MAFF (their predecessors) did before them. That said, it is a possibility, that the powers that be at DEFRA may becoming more wildlife-friendly. Check out this news article for some hopeful news: