UK halts badger kill after study of TB

The British government this month ended the controversial practice of killing badgers on farms whenever any of the cattle there have been diagnosed with tuberculosis.

Badgers in Great Britain have been known to carry TB and experiments have shown they can transmit it to cattle, but whether cows often catch the disease from badgers outside the laboratory has proven controversial. Unpasteurized milk from sick cattle can then give TB to people, so for more than 2 decades, health authorities have had local badgers killed if a cow develops TB.

Badger fans objected, and in 1998 the government set up a trial of three alternative approaches: leaving badgers alone; culling them in reaction to detection of TB, which is the current practice; or proactively culling to keep badger numbers low even when TB hasn’t been detected. The trial included farmland in 10 locations around England.

A government-appointed group of scientists overseeing the trials, chaired by John Bourne, former director of the Institute for Animal Health at the University of Bristol, has concluded that results in hand so far justify ending reactive culling.

Cattle in test areas with reactive culling caught TB 27 percent more often than did cattle in areas where researchers left badgers alone. On Nov. 4, the government announced the end of that part of the test, but it will continue monitoring to see how well proactive culling works.

The disease has not been found to afflict badgers in North America.


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Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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