For many years, badgers have had a bad press. Blamed for being the main cause behind the spread of TB in cattle, various schemes to either vaccinate or cull the badger population in the United Kingdom have been met with mixed reactions and mixed results. Now scientists from Imperial College and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) have found that the humble badger may not be as guilty as first suspected.
Having attached GPS collars to hundreds of badgers and cows across twenty farms in Cornwall and Devon, the research team found that contact between the two species was minimal. During the year and a half that they studied the interactions between them, no badger ever came within sixteen feet (five metres) of a cow, instead actively avoiding getting close.
This led the researchers to conclude that TB must be passed between the two species in the environment, either through bodily fluids or contaminated feeding troughs. The findings, published at the beginning of August, open up the possibility that cattle spread the disease between themselves, meaning that the disease could linger in farmyards and pastures even if the local badger population is culled in its entirety.
While one of the senior researchers leading the study stressed that badgers were not wholly innocent in the spread of TB, she also pointed out that cows were not ‘innocent victims’ either. Professor Rosie Woodroffe of ZSL said that while an infected herd could be isolated, farmers did not treat the pastures they had been grazing on as contaminated. With TB now proven to survive in the environment for prolonged periods of time, the way farmers manage an outbreak of the disease may need to be re-evaluated.
Now that we know their role in spreading TB is not so black and white, perhaps the time has come for the wider world to change the way we see the much-maligned badger.