Badgers and bovine TB

Bovine TB is a serious infectious respiratory disease caused by the organism Mycobacterium bovis. It is primarily a disease of cattle but may infect other livestock and wildlife, including badgers. It can also infect people, usually through the consumption of infected milk. Bovine TB poses negligible risk to human health in countries where milk is pasteurised and meat is inspected at abattoir. Consequently, bovine TB is an economic issue rather than one of consumer health.

Cattle movement is the primary reason for the spread of bovine TB throughout the Great Britain and Ireland. Northern Ireland has an especially high level of cattle movement due to the fragmented nature of farm holdings. The ‘skin test’ commonly used to detect TB in cattle can miss up to 50% of infected animals. Improved cattle testing, movement controls and infection prevention are measures proven to contribute to the effective control of bovine TB.

Badgers are often wrongly blamed for the spread of bovine TB. Although badgers and cattle share the same strains of bovine TB, the evidence shows that badgers are catching TB from cattle. Studies have found that TB in cow dung and slurry is infecting earthworms, the badgers’ staple diet. The discovery in Cumbria of three badgers, which were infected with a strain of TB that had originated in Northern Ireland, illustrates that cattle are the primary source of the disease. There is no direct evidence that badgers cause TB breakdowns in cattle herds.

There is now a broad consensus amongst leading experts that culling badgers is wholly ineffective in controlling bovine TB in cattle. The UK’s Plant and Animal Health Agency has reported that badger culling in England has not made any impact on TB levels in those areas. The Irish government has failed to provide any evidence to support its claim that badger culling programme has contributed to the control of TB in the Irish herd. There is a demonstrably greater correlation between incidence of cattle TB and the levels of cattle testing deployed across these regions.

Culling will not reduce the prevalence of bovine TB in badgers. Most of the badger population is free of bovine TB and exaggerated claims of badgers suffering due to of the disease are unfounded. Thousands of badgers were trapped in the Welsh Government's badger vaccination programme and none of them showed any indication of suffering due of TB. BCG vaccination is the only intervention proven to reduce infection in badgers. Laboratory and field studies have demonstrated the efficacy of BCG vaccine in reducing the progression, severity of the disease in badgers.

Bovine TB is a cause of great stress and hardship to farming families. The Northern Ireland Badger Group is committed to engaging with stakeholders to achieve an effective evidence-led bovine TB strategy for Northern Ireland. Culling badgers is neither an effective nor evidence-led solution.