Image of a black and white badger in the woods

The debate on the role of badger culls in bovine tuberculosis control

Bovine tuberculosis (bTB) is a bacterial disease present in cows, which often causes massive economic losses to farmers and costs taxpayers through government testing. Badgers are thought to play a role in the spread of the disease. To prevent it the government mandates badger culls— a practice frequently surrounded by controversy.

This is no different for a cull proposed to take place in Oxfordshire. The proposed cull has come under fire from recent campaign groups, such as the Oxfordshire Badger Group, arguing that the cull of badgers does not stop the spread of bovine TB. There remains debate as to whether these culls are actually effective.

Organisations like the Badger Trust argue that the culls are not supported by scientific evidence and that the real cause of bovine TB is cattle-to-cattle transmission. Although cattle testing is one of the defence methods used to prevent the spread of the disease, government reports have found that not all farmers take the appropriate measures to manage testing of their herds. For example, a third of farmers do not find out a source farm’s risk before purchasing. Campaigners for the badgers think that the culls shift emphasis away from mitigation by farmers, by instead placing blame on badgers whose populations suffer as a result.

Not only this but, many studies have found that badger culls are effective only when they reduce the badger population to below a certain threshold. This decrease is suggested to be approximately 70% or more. However, this threshold is often not reached, possibly contributing to the spread of bTB. In that case it would be better to leave the population undisturbed.

The UK government’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) acknowledges that if the cull is not done properly, it can make the situation worse. Despite this , they still believe that the evidence offers broad support for this practice and reduces bTB enough for it to be the best option.

The question remains as to whether or not badger culls reduce the spread of bTB, making the  debate incredibly hard to settle. Especially since the government had announced plans to phase out the badger cull in 2021, which were then reversed in 2024. The only certainty in this debate is that it will remain contentious.

Image credit: Vincent van Zalinge via Unsplash

Image description: Image of a black and white badger in the woods