The UK cattle industry is in the midst of great change. Bovine tuberculosis is the main issue of the day; seen by many as a big problem which needs to be stopped. The solution which the UK government has opted for, with the backing of the National Farmer’s Union and non-departmental public body Natural England, is to implement a cull on badgers in the affected areas; the argument being that the badgers, who can also carry the disease, help to spread it to cattle. Therefore by killing them the tuberculosis can be curbed and we do not have to have such a big cull on the cattle themselves; thus saving the farmers their livelihoods to some extent (1) (2).
The issue is a complicated one which has sparked quite a lot of controversy throughout the country. Animal rights campaigning group Viva! argue that the badger cull is totally unnecessary; as instead of killing them we can vaccinate the badgers instead (2). Thanks in part to Viva’s campaigning, this strategy has already been adopted in Wales, where the government has pledged not to cull any badgers (3).
Viva! are currently running a campaign urging people to boycott the entire dairy industry, which along with the beef industry does appear to be the main driving force behind the cull (3). Viva!’s arguments are that it is not wild animals which are the cause of the disease, but the industry itself and its emphasis on intensive farming (3).
It is not only animal rights campaigners who believe that killing badgers are unnecessary, however. Georg Haeusler, Chef de Cabinet for Agriculture at the EC, has been reported as saying that the idea that badgers are the cause of the disease is “ludicrous” (5).
Even musicians have been speaking out against culling: Queen guitarist Brian May argued last year that the UK government’s main reasons for culling badgers, that the UK would be unable to export cows due to suspicion, and that the EU would not allow vaccination, are false. Speaking with Haeusler, he reports the EC’s view that if the UK government really believes that badgers are the root cause of the cull and need to die, the EU would not allow it because of the threat to biodiversity (5).
Despite this opposition from a diverse range of society, the UK government last month agreed to extend the proposed ‘trial’ cull, which was initially to last six weeks, for eight weeks more in Gloucestershire. The decision has been condemned by one of the most respected naturalists in the country, Sir David Attenborough. Attenborough’s main concern was not simply that the government are going against suggestions from the European parliament, demands from animal rights activists and even arguments from aging rock stars; but that the decision went against the advice of many scientists who had been appointed by the government specifically for this task (1).
One such scientist who has been reported as speaking out against the cull is Professor David McDonald, a member of Natural England. Yet despite his warnings the body of which he is a member went ahead with advising to extend the cull (1). If you are questioning why Natural England would overrule the scientific advice of its own members perhaps you need look no further than the organisation’s CBE; Poul Christensen, the director of a dairy farm business (6).
Mark Jones, director of Humane Society International UK, brings another argument against extending the cull, in that by causing prolonged disruption in the badger population people are likely to simply exacerbate the disease rather than eliminate it (1).
It seems clear that if we are to find a real solution to the problem of bovine tuberculosis, the UK government does not appear to be the best place to look. While the problem does have many facets, however, I feel it can be summed up in the following way.
The cattle are being killed anyway; regardless if they have tuberculosis or not. The only problem posed by the tuberculosis from the point of view of industry is that they will be killed without a profit being made. In order to save this state of affairs, many proponents of the industry are willing to exterminate large numbers of an entirely different species, who, since they are not used for profit anyway, are seen as less valuable.
So is the answer to help stop the killing of the badgers and the cows close to what Viva! suggests: can we curb the unnecessary suffering of these animals ourselves by boycotting the entire dairy industry? For it does appear to be not simply the disease, or even the way that the cattle are kept which is the root of the problem, but the trend of the entire industry itself. But industry has more players than simply the customers, after all; and the reaction from farmers if they begin losing out even more money from a dairy boycott may be to demand even stricter controls; possibly leading to more culling.
Perhaps a key way in which we can help stop the suffering of the badgers and the cows is not simply to condemn those who support the cull; who are probably only doing it because they want to be able to make a living in the world. If we have something to offer cattle farmers as an alternative, we can be agents for change within the whole way in which the industry is geared. Many cattle farmers may see the badger cull as the only way in which they can continue feeding themselves and their families, yet they have something so much more valuable than the money they are making from selling their milk and beef: land. Land which, if used efficiently and with well-intentioned design and planning, can be utilised to provide many of our basic daily requirements; thus eliminating the necessity of keeping animals purely to gain profit from them.
As ideas of holistic land use, sustainable living and permaculture gain inexorably in popularity, we can help farmers to find the keys to changing their ways of living for the better — something which they always had at their fingertips.
It’s up to us to act as that change that we want to happen in the world by planting the seeds – both metaphorical and physical – for the things which we most want to see flourishing.
- Carrington, D. “Badger cull: Attenborough condemns UK government for ‘ignoring’ science”. Guardian, 23/03/13
- Eustice, G. “Badger culling will ensure a healthy future for British cattle”. Guardian, 14/11/13.
- Viva!, 2013. “Dump Dairy. Save Badgers.” https://www.viva.org.uk/resources/campaign-materials/leaflets/dump-dairy
- Viva!, 2013. “Viva! Victory in Wales.” https://www.viva.org.uk/what-we-do/viva-victory-wales
- May, B. “This cruel badger cull is pointless – and I can prove it, says Queen guitarist Brian May”. Daily Mail, 20/10/2012
- Natural England, 2013. “Natural England Board.” https://www.naturalengland.org.uk/about_us/ourpeople/neboard/default.aspx