By Geoff Brumfiel of Nature magazine
England’s West Country is a bucolic landscape of winding country lanes and gently rolling pastures. But as autumn darkens into winter, a war, complete with armed marksmen and camouflaged saboteurs, is about to erupt from the hedgerows. Both sides claim science as their ally.
At issue is the badger (Meles meles), one of the largest predators left in the British Isles after millennia of human occupation. The furry creature is an iconic and beloved species — but to farmers, it is a menace that infects their cattle with bovine tuberculosis (TB). The disease, caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium bovis, could cost the government £1 billion (US$1.6 billion) in control measures and compensation over the next decade. As early as this week, government-sanctioned hunters will begin a pilot effort to cull the badgers. Animal-rights activists — a potent force in Britain — are furious, and are planning protests, milk boycotts and sabotage of the culls.
Battles over wildlife management are hardly unique to England. In the United States, environmentalists and ranchers spar over wolves, which have been reintroduced to many states. In Western Australia, the government has proposed a cull of coastal sharks in response to a swimmer’s death, angering green groups. But the badger question stands out in one distinctive way: it has been systematically studied for more than a decade by scientists at some of England’s top universities.
Badgers do carry TB and can infect cows through direct and indirect contact, and years of research and tens of millions of pounds have gone into studying whether killing them would protect herds. During a 9-year trial, scientists tramped through hundreds of square kilometers of pastureland, probing dens, collecting road kill and performing autopsies on more than a thousand badgers to check for TB. The results are discussed at length in a 287-page UK government study and in numerous scientific papers, including several in Nature.