I recently read an article which went into detail about the spread of TB through Ireland’s countryside. This like most other articles on the topic came to the same conclusion, Badgers are the problem.
This got me thinking and wondering how true this may in fact be and if there are any other culprits within Irelands ecosystem. I began to ponder and I thought back to my younger days when upon seeing a mink sprint across the road I was informed they were another menace to farmer’s herds, as were foxes I was told.
Yet if this is the case how is it the Wiley old badger still receives the brunt of all criticisms? Is it a case of folklore being passed down or is it in fact based on scientific proof?
As well all know Bovine TB is a chronic infectious disease which will more than likely result in the death of a cow upon contraction. The disease can be transferred through numerous different avenues. It can be spread via exhaled air, sputum, urine, pus, faeces, direct contact, contact with the excretions of an infected animal or even the inhalation of aerosols. The bacteria of the disease is killed by sunlight (UV rays) but cannot be killed by drying out, and it survives in both acidic and basic environments. It can also survive for long periods in damp conditions and can even survive up to 8 weeks in cow urea.
Once the bacteria get into the cow they breed and infect many different organs, primarily the lungs, digestive tract, and udder, which means that they can be expelled through breathing, infected wounds, saliva, milk, urine, and faeces. Therefore testing once a year is vitally important. Once a cow begins shedding the bacteria it can spread through your herd very rapidly indeed, as farmers of days gone by can testify to.
The first time the badger was painted with the TB carrying brush dates as far back as the 1970’s when numerous herds across the country became contaminated with the infection, leading to the putting down of many cattle. It mainly infected dairy cattle and began to spread through herds like wildfire.
I researched into detail into the day and life of a badger, and although they are a known carrier of the disease I theorize that they are only dubbed the “curse of Irish Farmers” as they are the most regular visitors to farms. They regularly appear on farms due to increased earthworm numbers found in pasture soils, this means they almost constantly feature on farms. Although I found out, through research, that they often share dens/setts with foxes meaning they can also help the spread of the disease also.
A recent study was completed on badgers in every county in Ireland and it found that up to 36.3% of all badgers examined contained the infection. This is not to say this all but proves the ideology, to me it merely suggest that wild animals are more susceptible to disease. A badger population density control program has been operational in Ireland since 2003. It has resulted in an overall decline in mean prevalence of BTB within culled badger populations from 26% in 2007 to 11% in 2011.
I understand that there is a degree of proof in that sentence right there, But again I want to reiterate that they may not be the only offenders. Could we in fact be blaming Ireland’s badger population for something that is evident in a lot of animals living in our countryside’s?
Recently studies were carried out in the US, examining whether or not deer populations could be as big as perpetrators as the badger. The result found that deer grazing close to livestock dramatically increase your herds chance of becoming infected.
Although deer are not as prevalent in Irelands wildlife anymore it seems they may be the ones now infecting herds. Recently there has been a huge decrease in TB cases found in Irelands although recent cases found in Wicklow this year were said to have been caused by a local deer population.
In 2012 Ireland had only an average of 0.3% of animals tested found to have reactors. This suggests the TB pandemic of the past is long gone, although farmers still remain vigilant and cautious. With badger numbers still remaining pretty high I wonder if they were the sole problem after all or if farmers could share the blame for not being careful enough.
This suggests that maybe the badger culling has worked, or maybe the increased vigilance of farmers has played a big part, who knows.
I found through my ‘investigation’ that there are many more carriers of the disease than the badger alone. It affects a broad range of hosts including deer, llamas, pigs, domestic cats, foxes, rodents, carnivores and other herbivores across the country.
I refer back to my previous question, why has the badger been chosen and singled out and labelled the poster boy/girl of this disease? The systematic extermination of the species in Ireland has led to a decline in TB cases but who’s to say this would not also be the case should the same control programme be implemented on Ireland’s foxes or minks or even deer? Were badgers a victim of their own abundance of appearances on farms in search for insects and earthworms? Badgers are said to be creatures of habit and tend to use the same paths, much like ourselves. This would suggest the same animal visits the same pastures repeatedly and not different animals every night.
I am not a badger enthusiast by any means, nor am I a hunting advocate either. That being said I do understand the culling of certain species is necessary to prevent habitats becoming damaged.
I am not suggesting that farmers focus their attentions on culling the populations of other species, instead I am suggesting we stop and think about the poor badger and whether he deserves all of the blame. Has he not shouldered the burden for too long?
As the saying goes “it takes two to tango” and as we all well know there are a lot more than ‘two’ living out there in our beautiful ecosystem.