Tuesday 9 August 2016

Badgers? Kill them all

The Almaric Solution sounds like a Robert Ludlum novel but is a syndrome widespread in 20thC interventionist science. Arnaud Almaric's way of separating the Cathar goats from the Orthodox Catholic sheep on 22 July 1209 was neca eos omnes, deus suos agnoscet or Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius or kill them all, the Lord will know his own. Doctors started doing similar as soon as oral antibiotics came available in the 1950s: ear-ache my child? take augmentin and we'll lay waste your intestinal flora. That was all very well, you don't want a Staph infection to spread through the system as septicaemia and antibiotics were prescription only for a chunk of the late 20thC. Except for farmers: they could go a get a bucket of penicillin in case one of their sheep looked a bit crook. Shortly after we moved to rural Ireland 20 years ago, the 4 y.o son of one of the neighbours killed a lamb by imitating his daddy injecting the livestock; he just mis-calculated the dosage by 100x. The syringe and the bottle of penicillin were on a shelf in the barn. Did someone mention farmers and disease? The story of veterinary medicine in these islands over the last, say, 60 years has been the story of tuberculosis and its control. Tuberculin testing has to be carried out by a vet and has to be done on all the animals in a herd, so it is the steady earner for vets in rural practice - a bit like conveyancing for solicitors: frequently required, not intellectually or physically taxing, a nice regular income.

Government agri-policy was/is test, test, test and cull herds that were positive. That is the policy: to stop the infection spreading to neighbouring farms, infecting the milk and causing an outbreak of TB in people. Because the culling is a public good, the farmer gets compensation for his loss . . . from me the tax-payer. Maybe 20 years ago, some scientist had the bright idea that bovine tuberculosis, which was still far from being eradicated after a generation of this regime, was spread from farm to farm by badgers Meles meles [L super cute propaganda badgers, prints for sale at £40] which are no respecter of property boundaries in their hunt for insects, earthworms and a bit of sex. It is true that badgers, like cows and humans, can harbour Mycobacterium tuberculosis, so it is not much of a leap to suppose that badgers spread the bacteria between species just as we can catch the disease from infected milk. World TB Day is 24th March. TB will also spread if you house cattle indoors for much of the winter feeding silage in at the front and pumping out slurry from the other end. It's warm and humid in the slatted shed and the cattle are packed in like commuters on the Metro. So a case could be made that the poor bloody badgers are being demonised and scapegoated rather than address poor farming practice and sketchy ideas of farm hygiene. Actually, it's your fault with your insatiable appetite for cheap beef. The scientific establishment is agreed that, even if it's not a total solution, culling badgers is a useful part of the program to reduce if not eradicate TB. And a LOT of tax-payers' money has gone to fund research in the details of the relationship between cows and badgers, migration and territoriality, dung and sputum. More than 200 papers have been published on "TB AND BADGERS" over the last 20 years.

Maybe ten years ago, I was leaning on the gate with a straw in my mouth watching the day when two chaps came up the lane in a 4x4. They were from the Carlow branch of Teagasc, the agricultural advisory service. They were looking for a particular badger sett that they'd heard was in the area - we'd been grassed up by the neighbours. I was happy to tell them that we had an extended family of badgers at the bottom of our Field Over The River. It is called FOTR because the boundary wall hangs 10m over a steep cliff falling down to the Aughnabrisky River which marks the borrrder between Carlow (us) and Wexford (them). It is ideal for badgers and they have honeycombed the bank and that corner of the field with tunnels and holes. I was also happy to have a robust discussion about the scientific "evidence" behind badger culls and imply that they were paid assassins for the agricultural industry. They took this is good part and assured me that they would never set traps on my property without prior consultation / permssion.

The very next morning (sunny, cirrostratus clouds, a light breeze, lovely) I went for a walk around the farm - it's not something I do every day. I was strolling the edge of the Field over the River saying "Hello trees, hello sky" and generally feeling happy when I found myself stretched out on the grass without having had a conscious desire to lie down . . . and my foot could not move . . . because the boot was caught in a wire noose [a little like the arrangement R]. I had been instinctively walking along a trail because the wet grass was shorter there and the snare-setter had known that badgers do the same thing. Well you can imagine that I was speechless with indignation! Not so much the indignity of falling into sheep-shit - that goes with the program on farms - but the sense of betrayal after the categorical assurance of the previous afternoon. 

I stumped up the hill to the telephone and called a pal of mine from UCD who is an international expert in the genetics, epidemiology and ecology of badgers and TB. White male privilege accords me a network. He gave me the name and number for the head of the Tubadgerculosis Programme for Ireland - a senior guy who wore suits far more often than wellington boots. I spoke, still quivering with outrage, to The Great Man's PA, who reluctantly gave me His cell-phone number. When I got through he was just about to go into a conference on some weighty matter but he realised that I was a public-relations time-bomb and said he'd find out who was responsible . . . and eat 'em alive, he seemed to imply.  That had taken up my whole morning.

In the middle of the afternoon, I got a call from Teagasc, Wexford: young chap on the line was clearly under instructions to Do Whatever to make it better on the Carlow-Wexford borrrder before the whole map burst into flames. Would it be okay if he came up to explain and apologise; he could be there in 45 minutes? Or would I prefer a letter, if I was too busy? I said I'd give him a cup of tea if he came. He did and I did, and I heard that my neighbour across the river had fingered our badgers and invited the badgercides to do their damnedest because his cows were always testing positive. I was also told that they were under ethical  instructions to inspect all traps and snares before 0800hrs on any morning when snares had been set the previous night - badgers being quite strictly nocturnal. I can't remember the details of the arguments, but I agreed to let Operation Killbadger continue. I did suggest that it would be a good idea for better internal communication between badger-hunters: so that they didn't have two members of the same team giving contradictory messages while separated in space-time by one day-kilometer.

Next morning I was up with the Sun as normal and, after a pot of tea, went down to the river to check things out. A young badger was caught by the midriff in a snare cunningly set in the 20cm gap between the stone wall of the field and the wooden fence post. The poor creature cried out and scrabbled as I approached but I was woefully ill-equipped to do much for him - no wire-cutters, no falconer's gloves, no knife, no knowledge. All my killing experience had been limited to mice Mus musculus. At 10 minutes to 8, a contractor from Wexford Teagasc drove up in his 4x4, strode purposefully across a field, forded the river and scrambled up the bank to emerge armed with a .22 air-rifle, gauntlets, pliers and a sack. The contractor was yet another player in the team: neither the tea-drinker nor the liars nor the suit: as I say it's a well funded programme upon which many people depend. The badger was efficiently shot dead, dropped in the sack and taken away to see if he was indeed positive for TB. After two weeks, I had to prod their office to tell me that result; everyone from the office was too busy tooling around the country in 4x4s.

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