Widespread badger cull is not the answer, say North-East experts

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The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by , Health & Education Editor

A WIDESPREAD badger cull will not solve the problem of tuberculosis in cattle, according to new research by North-East scientists.

But Durham University researchers says that it may play a part in controlling infection levels in problem hotspots in the UK.

It has been claimed that controlling badger numbers would reduce the spread of TB in cattle and a cull is due to begin this summer.

However, Professor Peter Atkins, from Durham University's Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience has investigated the spread of bovine Tuberculosis (bTB) in new research and believes this is too simplistic.

"Badgers almost certainly play a part in spreading the disease, but my conclusion is that their impact over the decades has been far less than suggested," he said. "Very carefully arranged culling may have a part to play alongside other measures in areas of particular prevalence such as South West England and South Wales, but my research suggests that extending the policy elsewhere may neither be justified nor particularly effective.

"bTB has been around for several hundred years and appears to have become more prevalent here in the UK because of the intensive cattle breeding and farming from the 18th century onwards."

After World War II, bTB fell dramatically because of a policy of slaughtering all cattle that tested positive.

Professor Atkins said: "It is very probable that other animals did and do carry TB including badgers and deer, but cattle-to-cattle transfer is likely also to be an important factor. "

Professor Atkins believes a cull could even make the problem worse: "When badgers are disturbed, they seem to perceive they are being attacked and move from their original area by a kilometre or more and join other badger groups, which spreads the disease."

He believes that, following 2001's foot and mouth crisis, different parts of the country were restocked with cattle from the southwest, a traditional breeding area.

A likely solution to the problem may lie in vaccination, but inoculating cattle for TB is forbidden by EU rules.

The search for an adequate TB vaccine for cattle continues, but badgers can be vaccinated now as an alternative to culling.

Professor Atkins has concluded that the government should take a more comprehensive approach to controlling TB: "If our analysis is correct, the improvement of cattle controls including improved testing, tighter movement controls and, eventually, a useable vaccine should be enough to halt the spread."

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