The badger cull is a highly contentious issue, not least within Britain’s veterinary profession, of which I am a member.
In the lead-up to open season for the pilot culls in which more than 5,000 badgers could be shot in Gloucestershire and Somerset, both the president of the British Veterinary Association and our Chief Veterinary Officer came out in support of the government's plans. Their support comes in spite of the overwhelming scientific view that culling badgers will not help to reduce tuberculosis in cattle, and amidst grave concerns over the future of many populations.
The BVA reached its position of support1 for the government's policy without consulting its full membership, and has ignored subsequent calls from veterinarians and one of its own member societies2 for it to reconsider. The BVA’s position is not necessarily representative of majority veterinary opinion, in that many vets oppose or have serious reservations about the policy. Rather, the position shows that the BVA has, in my view, lost touch with its key purpose of providing leadership and guidance on animal welfare issues, and has allowed its judgment to be over-influenced by its close historic alignment with the farming industry.
Perhaps even more startling was the assertion by the Chief Veterinary Officer in an article in the Independent on Thursday 30th May3 that culling badgers is somehow necessary to protect human health. While bovine TB, caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium bovis, is indeed a potentially zoonotic infection (i.e. an infection that can pass from animals to people), the advent of widespread milk pasteurisation in the UK effectively eliminated it from the human population in the UK many decades ago, and there is no evidence to suggest that the rise in bovine TB in cattle in recent years has resulted in any increase in the incidence in people. Indeed, in a recent article in the Financial Times, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is quoted as describing the risk to people in the UK from bovine TB as ‘negligible.’4 The overwhelming majority of human TB cases are attributed to the human form of the disease, caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Attempts to defend an unjustified badger cull on the basis of human health risks for which there is no evidence are misleading and unacceptable.
This episode makes me feel ashamed to be a member of the profession I studied so hard to join. Don't misunderstand me -- there are many good vets doing amazing work to improve the lives of all kinds of animals, from the dogs and cats with whom we share our lives and homes, to the animals on farms and the wildlife that struggles to live alongside us. Nevertheless, the fact that some in positions of influence appear to have abandoned precaution for the sake of political and perceived economic expedience casts a dark shadow over the profession.
One can only hope that the future leaders in Britain’s veterinary profession will adopt a more precautionary, independent, science-led and, most importantly, empathetic and welfare-based approach to the issues facing all of the animals with whom we share our world. While we continue to try to persuade the current incumbents to change their positions, young vets have much to learn from this sorry episode and much to gain by placing themselves at the forefront of the animal protection movement.