WILDLIFE:

What's infecting England's cows with TB? Is it badgers, or farmers and climate change?

"There's no security, or peace and tranquility, except underground." -- Badger, from "The Wind in the Willows" by Kenneth Grahame

NEWENT, Gloucestershire, England -- In a mist-shrouded parking lot, Will Ricks, a surveyor and landowner from Ross-on-Wye, stands in a circle of lamplight and briefs eight volunteers on the evening's mission.

Ricks and his group belong to a volunteer organization, Gloucestershire Against Badger Shooting (GABS). Since the badger cull, or killing, began in August in Somerset and Gloucestershire, GABS volunteers spend most nights trudging down the public footpaths that crisscross muddy fields to monitor badger habitat, searching for trapped and wounded animals.

Everyone in the group wears a high-visibility vest and tall rubber boots. Ricks instructs them on the rules of engagement. An older couple have driven from Cheshire, 150 miles away, to join the patrol.

Here in the fields and woods of rural England, a bizarre war rages for the country's soul. Armies of marksmen paid by the National Farmers Union (NFU) hunt badgers by night in a controversial culling project that supporters insist will reduce the incidence of bovine tuberculosis, or bTB. Gunmen are not permitted to shoot at a badger if there's a human in the field. And they're not allowed to shoot badgers within 30 meters of a sett -- the elaborate system of tunnels, paths and dens badgers call home.

Badgers are nocturnal, foraging for worms and insects in fields and cow pastures. And they are a known reservoir of Mycobacterium bovis, the bacterium that causes the chronic disease.

The assault on the badger, hero of the world-famous children's novel "The Wind in the Willows" and since 1992 a protected species, is being driven by Owen Paterson. He has been the Conservative member of Parliament for North Shropshire since 1997, and is now secretary of state of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Bovine tuberculosis can spread either through ingestion or between animals through aerosols. To be sure, it is widespread in Britain. It was found in one of every 10 cattle herds tested in 2009. Last year, 28,000 head of cattle were slaughtered because of bTB at a cost to the taxpayer in compensatory payments to farmers of £100 million ($163 million).

Paterson insists culling badgers will reduce incidence of the disease. But scientific research has shown culling does the opposite. When badgers are shot, bTB infections skyrocket.

Why do badgers leave their homes?

Analyzing data from test culls carried out between 1975 and 1997 in the U.K. and Ireland, Imperial College biologist Christl Donnelly found that culling actually increased the incidence of bTB. Donnelly's findings state that "the increased numbers of badgers culled ... were associated with significantly increased bTB risk."

Wildlife biologist Chris Cheeseman, former head of wildlife diseases at the government's Central Science Laboratory, spent 35 years studying badgers.

"Badger setts are closely knit," Cheeseman said. Badgers live within complex social groups with strict hierarchies, like elephants or meerkats. When their sett is perturbed by death of a member, they tend to disband. "Killing them causes them to travel farther and wider. They are more likely to find other places to live," Cheeseman said.

"Cattle gave the disease to badgers, not the other way 'round," he added. Badgers often rummage in infected cow pats for dung beetles and share watering troughs with infected cattle.

In the opinion of veterinarian Mark Jones, U.K. executive director of Humane Society International, crowding and herd movement cause the rapid spread of bTB.

"According to Defra's own figures, there have been 127 million cattle movements between farms since 1998," he said. "The numbers of movements more than quadrupled between 1999 (3,373,646) and 2010 (13,690,294). Around 40 percent of the national herd is currently moved from one premises to another each year."

Recent research shows that herd-to-herd transmission of bTB in cattle accounts for 94 percent of cases. Badger-to-bovine transmission accounts for about 6 percent.

Is climate change the real villain?

Retired farmer Steve Jones, who spent 40 years managing large-scale dairy farms, says the badger is being framed.

"The badger is a political scapegoat. Loads of farmers are not behind the cull. Just managing cows' lungs would solve half of the problem. Managing slurry, nutrition, calving, mastitis would solve the rest of it. The one aspect that has no influence on bovine health is the badger."

Complicating this battle is climate change. M. bovis can survive for several months in the environment, particularly in cold, dark and damp weather. Prolonged wet weather such as what the U.K. and Europe experienced this past spring and many of the last several years allows M. bovis to incubate for much longer periods in slurries, where liquid cow manure is stored until it can be spread on fields.

Cows remain inside barns for extended periods during inclement conditions, which leads to increased bedding contamination and greater spread of infection through aerosols. Herds pass the infection among themselves. In spring, calves drink their mothers' infected milk. The illegal -- but common -- farming practice of disposing of infected milk by pouring it out on fields or into streams where badgers forage just makes matters worse.

Biologist Elaine King, former director of the Badger Trust, found that high rainfall, low temperatures and low levels of sunlight closely matched outbreaks of bTB in cattle.

The badger sett vs. the Paterson set

Paterson seems unmoved by either the science or public opinion on the badger cull. In September, after being briefed on the most recent findings of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Paterson stated that climate change would mostly be beneficial because "it would lead to longer growing seasons," especially in northern areas.

In a 2012 referendum, members of Parliament overwhelmingly voted to abandon plans for the badger cull: 147 voted in favor of canceling it, 28 against. Paterson walked out of the chamber, saying, "I can't stand any more of this."

And he didn't have to. Despite the advice of Natural England's science adviser, Oxford University zoologist David Macdonald, Paterson declared the cull a go. Natural England is a nondepartmental public body responsible for advising the environment secretary on policy matters related to conserving and enhancing England's natural environment.

Scientists, veterinarians and animal rights groups such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Humane Society International oppose the cull. More than 304,000 members of the public signed a petition condemning it. Renowned conservationist and wildlife documentarian Ian Redmond joined a GABS patrol. In a statement, he said: "If the cull is carried out as planned, the sub-population of badgers in the pilot sites will, in 6 weeks, meet the International Union for Conservation of Nature criteria for 'Endangered.' If this were being reported in a developing country, conservationists would be outraged."

Farmers who oppose the cull feel they are being misrepresented.

Although it claims to be the voice for the entire English farming community, the NFU counts a meager 55,000 as members -- 18 percent of the 307,000-strong national agricultural workforce. And the NFU never bothered to ballot its own membership on the issue, according to a Twitter post by Adam Quinney, the union's vice president.

In Wales, at least, political objections have registered. In 2010, after the Badger Trust launched a judicial review against the Welsh Assembly, plans for a cull were jettisoned. Welsh badgers are trapped and vaccinated at a cost of about £600 per animal. Paying contractors to shoot badgers costs about £2,000 per animal.

So what is the badger cull really about?

"This is really about who owns the countryside," Cheeseman said. "The fox hunting ban went through under Labour. Now Conservatives want to repeal it. [Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron] doesn't have the political guts to do that. Farmers and landowners feel they've been deprived of the right to manage their property as they see fit."

Unlike the U.S., the U.K. has little land that can be considered part of the public trust. A full third of the country remains under the ownership of the aristocracy, a set to which both Paterson and Cameron belong. Over the centuries of feudal ownership, landlords have exterminated native populations of boars, bears, wolves and lynxes.

Professor John Bourne, chairman of the Independent Scientific Group on bovine tuberculosis who advised against the planned cull, wrote: "I think the most interesting observation was made to me by a senior politician who said, 'Fine John we accept your science, but we have to offer the farmers a carrot. And the only carrot we can possibly give them is culling badgers.'"

The bottom line of all this for badgers is that they are safe -- at least, for now.

Natural England has called off the badger cull in Gloucestershire because of failure to meet its 58 percent eradication target.

In a statement, Natural England said, "Although the cull in Gloucestershire has finished early, this does not have any impact on the original licensing, which remains in place for four years."

Culling may resume next year, but first there will be another independent review.

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