Badgers have long enjoyed a somewhat special status in the UK — "Badger-baiting" was banned in 1835, and the creatures are protected by their own law. The nocturnal mammals of the weasel family have also appeared numerous times in popular culture, becoming a familiar face to the nation's children in particular.
However, it looks a lot like that special status is about to end.
Under new government plans, up to 100,000 badgers in England will die in a controversial "badger cull", shot dead by professional marksmen. The cull is scheduled to start as a pilot scheme in the counties of Gloustershire and Somerset but could soon spread to the rest of the country.
Advocates say the cull is needed for the health of England's cattle. It's long been known that badgers can carry the bacterium Mycobacterium bovis (M. bovis) which can cause Bovine tuberculosis (TB) in cattle — a serious and costly problem for the England's cattle industry. Just last year 25,000 cattle were killed in England due to the disease, and the problem is said to have cost the British taxpayer £500 million ($800 million).
However, as the BBC notes, exactly how large a role badgers play in the spread of the disease has long been a matter of controversy. Between 1998 and 2005 the British government ran the Randomized Badger Culling Trials (RBCT) an an attempt to see how any cull would affect the spread of TB. The study found that a cull, if done properly, would lower outbreaks by as much as 16% over 9 years, but also admitted there were risks and difficulties.
Following that study, in 2008 the British government denied the cattle industries demands for a cull. It was only in 2010 when the incoming Conservative government made a cull their policy that the plan began to look like a reality, and the plans became reality when the government defeated an appeal by the Badger Trust earlier this year.
The level of public scrutiny over the plan has been immense — celebrities such as former Queen guitarist Brian May have come out in support of badgers.
Many question the method, whereby badgers will be lured out of their warrens at night with peanuts and other treats and then shot by trained snipers. Critics say a cage-trap system — where by the badgers are captured in cages to be killed, or vaccinated against the bacterium — would be more humane. Unfortunately, according to one report from the Guardian, cage-trapping and vaccination is said to be 12 times as expensive as the current plan. The current plan's expense itself is an issue too. One agricultural economist has described the plan as "a good deal for the farmers, but a bad deal for the taxpayers, in strict economic terms."
Rumors have been swirling about that say the badgers may get a reprieve. One government source has told ITV News that the government is planning a u-turn or at least a delay. However the latest news suggests that the badger cull will go ahead, and British authorities are preparing for a showdown — Reuters reports all police vacation time in Gloustershire before the New Year has been cancelled. The fear is that violence may break out.
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