Taking on the state and big corporations on issues of wildlife conservation is never easy, but the voice of the people can make a difference. There’s no doubt that the public outcry about government plans to cull British badgers to stop the spread of bovine TB (BTB) played a big role in halting the plans -although the fate of these much loved woodland creatures h as not yet been assured.
The campaign to save the badgers focused on an e-petition started by animal lover and wildlife enthusiast, Brian May, the guitarist of the legendary rock group, Queen. In the UK system, an e-petition with 100,000 signatures will be considered for debate in parliament. Once the plans to cull badgers in selected areas of England became common knowledge, more than 150,000 people signed it in a matter of weeks. A motion to abandon the cull was debated and the government lost, by 147 to 28 votes. Though not binding, it’s a real step forward.
The story of the badger threat is full of twists and turns. The government’s environmental agency set the cull plans rolling, with the backing of many farmers, because badgers transmit bovine TB to cattle (though they probably originally got it from the cows). Under European Union regulations cows may not be vaccinated and must be destroyed, at great expense to the agricultural industry. Two initial areas remain designated as cull zones, in which three quarters of the resident badgers will be shot.
In spite of the claims that culling was a scientifically sound option, a very different story soon emerged. Ten years of trials in the 1990s, under a different government, had shown that years of culling only decreased disease by an insignificant 16%. Panicking badgers fleeing the gunmen could actually spread it further. Critics argue that vaccinating badgers and better biosecurity are the scientifically valid solutions. Official documents also revealed that there is widespread flouting of the existing biosecurity measures by farmers to control BTB.
Leading scientists in disease control and wildlife conservation eventually joined the chorus of protests from animal welfare and environmental groups. They described the plans as ‘mindless’. Others argued that the cull was a ploy to get rural votes. Still the government stuck to its guns, as some activists began preparing to disrupt the shootings. But it was the parliamentary vote that may have clinched it. Shortly afterwards, the government announced a postponement – but not because of popular opinion. They claimed it was too late before badgers went underground for winter, and larger than expected badger populations made it too expensive.
Though the cull has in theory only been postponed to next summer, the scale of opposition may mean that the plans will be quietly dropped. Badger fans and groups lobbying for improved wildlife conservation are not yet breathing easily but are at least well prepared to fight again if necessary. Meanwhile these much loved woodland creatures are sleeping safely in their dens, as they have done for thousands of years. Without people making their voices heard, it could have been a very different story.