If you’ve been connected with animal agriculture during the last decade or so, you’ve seen and no doubt reacted emotionally to the horrific images of gigantic flaming pyres as British farmers were forced to cull thousands of pigs and cattle during the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease that wracked the UK back in 2001.
The outbreak resulted in a worldwide ban on exports of British meat, a total halt to the movement of livestock within the country and worst of all, a massive slaughter of affected herds—some 80,000 to 90,000 animals a week were being killed—that required the government to bring in British Army commandos to assist in the task of gunning down thousands of cattle and pigs.
Simply brutal, but a policy that was deemed necessary to control a disease so virulent it can be spread by contact with contaminated dirt on the soles of somebody’s shoes.
Most veterinarians and animal science experts agreed that Britain had no choice but to practically destroy its livestock industry in order to save it.
Now, that same horror movie is back as a sequel, albeit this time rated PG-13 rather than M for Mature Audiences Only. This time, however, the threat to England’s beef industry comes not from a tainted batch of black market monkey meat, as was alleged in 2001, but from a far less exotic source: Your friendly neighborhood badger.
In a tear-jerking article in the UK’s The Telegraph newspaper, Gloucestershire farmer Jim Hunt described his feelings as he watched more than 60 cows being taken away to be shot and then incinerated—especially since those furry little badgers were taking the blame.
“I don’t want to see badgers shot, but there are two sides to every argument, and I did not want to see my animals shot, either,” Hunt told the paper. “Believe me, it wasn’t a pretty sight. The really distressing thing is seeing calves, some just a month old, being incinerated. It’s such a waste of their lives.”
Indeed. The problem that led to the culling of Hunt’s herd is bovine tuberculosis, a nasty disease that is spread by English badgers, overgrown rodents as numerous in most rural areas of the country as raccoons are in many an American suburb. Only as carriers, badgers are a lot more dangerous to beef and dairyfarmers, which is why a badger cull has been ordered to slow the spread of the bovine TB.
Badgers in the crosshairs
Now, here’s where the story gets crazy. Animal activists, who typically use animal disease outbreaks to flog producers for being in the business in the first place, are being accused of using vuvuzelas—those annoying plastic horns that punctuated last year’s World Cup matches in South Africa with what most fans deemed the most grating noise this side of the late Billy Mays—to scare badgers away from the cull zones where professional hunters have been hired to “thin out the badger community.”
Problem is, the 1992 Protection of Badgers Act protects badgers from harassment in Great Britain. The law prohibits “disturbing a badger when it is occupying a sett” (or den) and provides fines and penalties for anyone “willfully killing, injuring or ill-treating a badger.”
No “occupying a sett” isn’t quite what some might imagine, ie, a badger sitting in a shallowhole in the dirt waiting to run out at the slightest provocation. Instead, think more like the underground labyrinth the varmint gopher in Caddyshack retreated to whenever groundskeeper Carl Spackle attempted to smoke him out.
Using vuvuzelas to scare badgers out of their dens—however elaborate—violates the law, British farmers are claiming, and the animal protection groups that ought to be going after the activists are turning a blind eye because the goal is to disrupt dairy and beef production.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, England’s oldest and most prominent animal activist group, openly opposes the badger cull and has insisted that an offense is committed only if the sett itself is disturbed. But British producer groups point to RSPCA’s efforts to get supermarkets to label milk produced by farmers outside the cull zone as “Badger Friendly” and the industry’s criticism has forced Gavin Grant, RSPCA’s chief executive, to answer accusations that he’s jeopardizing the livelihoods of more than 300 local farmers.
“I feel the RSPCA is very hypocritical,” Jan Rowe, a local farmer who also heads up the company carrying out the badger cull in Gloucestershire, told The Telegraph. “They don’t seem to care about badgers dying a painful death from TB or the cattle we have to slaughter.”
Last year, 34,000 cattle had to be culled due to bovine TB; the badger cull is estimated to result in killing about 2,500 animals.
“As country people, we want to see animals being looked after in a humane way,” Rowe said, “and the RSPCA should be concentrating on preventing cruelty.”
An RSPCA spokesman defended its stance, arguing that prosecuting activists wouldn’t stand up in court. “We don’t see on what grounds we would prosecute someone for using vuvuzelas,” he told the newspaper.
If not animal abuse, how about auditory cruelty to humans?
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.