The background

Forget the economy, Europe or the future of the union – the real issue dividing the nation today is the fate of the badger.

The first pilot cull of the much-loved animal will go ahead in Gloucestershire, after campaigners lost a high court battle to stop the government pushing ahead with its strategy to stop the spread of TB in cattle.

Animal rights activists have promised to try to disrupt the cull, while farmers say they face ruin without it.

What are the facts – in black and white?

Is TB a big problem?

Yes. Bovine tuberculosis is one of the biggest killers of cattle in the UK and the dairy farmer’s biggest headache.

Slaughter of contaminated animals is considered the only answer, as the disease can be passed on to humans, although the chances of catching bovine TB from infected milk are very rare in the age of pasteurisation.

Government figures show an upsurge of cases of infection in cattle over the last 20 years. About 6,000 cattle herds in England (11 per cent) had a TB incident last year, and around 26,000 animals had to be destroyed, costing the taxpayer £91m.

So the cost to the state of doing nothing could top £1bn over the next decade. An outbreak of TB costs a farmer around £10,000 on average.

Are badgers to blame?

Remarkably, there is little hard, direct evidence that wild badgers do infect cows with TB, and if they do, we don’t know precisely how the bacteria are passed from animal to animal.

We also don’t know whether badgers are more likely to pass TB to cattle, or the other way round. Bovine TB was well-known in the 1930s but the first case of an infected badger wasn’t recorded until 1971.

But successive groups of experts commissioned to look into the problem consider it overwhelmingly likely that badgers are a major source of infection.

One study found that at a site in the south west, outbreaks among cows dried up for 10 years after every badger in the area was gassed with cyanide in the early 1980s – a practice since banned.

We know that significant numbers of badgers contract TB and unlike other animals that catch it – wild deer, pet cats, foxes, pigs, rats and alpaca – badgers can stay healthy and active for months while carrying the disease and potentially spreading it.

Studies of culled badgers and those killed by cars showed that about 15 per cent were infected with TB. That suggests that any cull where badgers are shot at random means that most of the victims are likely to be healthy animals.

What’s the scientific evidence that a cull will work?

The government relies on this report by the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB to show that a cull will make a positive difference to infection rates.

That’s odd, because the experts who wrote the report after the decade-long Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) concluded that “badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain”.

After killing thousands of badgers in 30 high-risk areas of England, there were a number of surprising conclusions. Just killing badgers who lived near a farm where an outbreak of TB had taken place seemed to make things worse.

Culling over a wider area did cut instances of TB in cattle, but the effect was cancelled out initially by “perturbation” – a scientific way of saying that if you try to shoot badgers in one field, they don’t like it, and move to the next one. So infection rates went up in farms just outside the culling zone as the badgers migrated.

It turned out that if you followed the same culling protocol the best you could hope for after nine years was a 12-16 per cent fall in cases of TB in cows, depending on the size of the area.

These were apparently the wrong answers, because in 2007 the Labour government got its chief scientific adviser Sir David King to review the study.

He agreed with most of the science but came to the completely opposite conclusion and said a cull could work – under strict conditions.

The government appears to have taken on board some of the conditions laid out by both the Independent Scientific Group and by Sir David.

As in the original study, the cull will take place over a large area (300 square kilometres) and it will last for at least four years. But while in the RCBT badgers were trapped in cages before being shot by experts in the RCBT, now farmers will be licenced to shoot the animals (or shoot at them, at least) while they are running around.

Is there an alternative?

Contrary to the words of the new environment secretary, Owen Paterson ( “we would all love to have a vaccine but we haven’t got one”) the first tuberculosis vaccine for use in badgers was approved two years ago.

Initial results have been positive, with a four-year study of wild badgers showing a 73.8 per cent fall in TB infection in vaccinated wild badgers. But the government seems to have little appetite in pushing vaccination.

Defra has pledged to invest a modest £20m in vaccine research and development over the next five years, but the coalition announced in june 2010 that it was scrapping five out of six planned vaccine trials.

It’s true that there is a lack of evidence about the long-term effects of vaccination (a Welsh scientist resigned over the issue) – and decisions like that won’t improve matters.

The verdict

It’s difficult to get around the fact that the biggest independent report into badger culling ever carried out came out in unequivocal opposition to the idea. The study found that the results are likely to be modest, and that the cost of a government-funded cull would be greater than the savings.

In fairness to the government, the policy they have set out is, if nothing else, a cheaper option, with farmers bearing most of the cost themselves.

Practical questions like that appear to be at the forefront of Defra’s thinking, with the department frankly acknowledging that the success or failure of its TB control strategy will depend heavily on what farmers want and are prepared to do.

The department admits: “For most farmers, badger culling is likely to be the preferred option, leading to a higher uptake. This is an important consideration in the context of a policy which requires the industry to bear the direct costs of badger control.”

By Patrick Worrall