I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your notice, but the badger cull is back. This prompted me into one of my infrequent forays into the murky world of social media ‘engagement’, resulting in a degree of soul-searching on my part. Perhaps soul-searching is over-egging things a tad. I don’t generally go in for much in the way of self-evaluation. I don’t spend countless hours noodling about feeling glum and listening to Exit Music (for a film) on a loop (not for years now, anyway). But sometimes I have to accept some pretty unpalatable truths, the hardest of which is that occasionally, just very occasionally, I might be wrong.
Having set this article up in such a way that you are now expecting me to figuratively prostrate myself before you and admit my error, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint. This is not so much about me admitting that I was wrong, as admitting to myself that the possibility of me being wrong might actually exist.
Back to the point – There’s a lot of science out there on the Badger cull. Perhaps too much science1. But what there is a shortage of is consensus. What I think we all know and can agree on is that the case for the cull is dicey. There’s little evidence that targeted removal will effectively reduce cases of bTB in cattle. It’s also unarguable that considering the potentially devastating effects of bTB on herds and, scaling up, the farming economy, we should be considering all means at our disposal to reduce cases. If this involves the reduction in numbers of a charismatic, yet abundant, mammal, then so be it. I don’t think conservation does itself any favours by refusing to be realistic and perpetuating an anti-farming rhetoric.
Now if I can be brutally honest, I’m not radically opposed to the badger cull. I do think it is rather a ‘shoot now ask questions later’ approach (which, in my opinion always leaves you without anyone to answer your bloody questions), I think it’s knee-jerk, I think there are other factors involved (does the resurgence of bTB in the last two decades correlate to an increase in badger population or a decrease in regulation?), but if it is proven to be the best method of reducing incidence of bTB in cattle then it should not be dismissed.
Where I’ve recently had my own moment of self-doubt regards the rather more one-sided argument for badger-cattle bTB transmission. I managed to get my knickers in a twist when I saw a statement from a vet that a 50-60% reduction in bTB where badgers were proactively culled was all the proof that was needed of badger to cattle transmission. I objected to the assertion – and despite what follows, I still do. It’s bad science. Correlation not equalling causation and all that. Predictably, I was asked ‘what more proof do you need?’2 Well, science, for one. So they gave me science. Science I had – perhaps due to the media circles I frequent – not seen before.
If you only read the Daily Mail, you can start to see the world in a very Daily Mail-esque way. It’s worth remembering that this works with papers like the Guardian, too. So it was with the environmentalism – because of my own interests, I do tend to only be exposed to papers and studies that make the case for transmission less than conclusive. When it comes to science, I should certainly know better. There’s some pretty strong evidence out there that transmission is not only possible, but likely.
That’s not to say I’ve completely come around to the notion that badger-cattle bTB transmission in the wild has been irrefutably proven – transmission has not been recreated to a decent standard in non-artificial settings. My issue, and it’s an issue with myself as much as anything, is that though I still don’t find this utterly conclusive I suspect there would probably be enough evidence to convince me if the species were reversed. There would probably be an ‘acceptable’ level of probability, given the stakes, had it been a question of saving badgers.
So what’s my point? Read wider, don’t be afraid to discuss what you don’t understand, give as much scrupulous attention to the arguments that match your ethical standpoint as those that don’t – all good advice. Or perhaps it’s that I’m suffering from sun damage this week and have become even more incoherent than is usual.
1Sorry, that’s just a ridiculous statement, I’m not sure what I was thinking. There’s no such thing as too much science
2I was also asked if I had any experience of farming (I do, as it happens) as ‘living with the outcome of your decisions looking after a large herd of animals gives you an insight others don’t have.’ I can’t say that I think much to this ‘unless you’ve farmed cattle, you can’t understand’ argument. It’s the kind of logic that builds closed-shop industries that wither and die through lack of innovative thought, but that’s by the by.