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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 December, 2004, 08:47 GMT
Badgers targeted over bovine TB
By Martin Cassidy
BBC Northern Ireland's rural affairs correspondent

They stand quietly, heads bowed, waiting to be loaded for what will be their final journey.

It is a scene which farmer Will Galway has witnessed too often.

It is all the more poignant as these are young productive cows, some heavily pregnant, but all damned by test results which show that they are infected with tuberculosis.

There have been calls for a cull of badgers
There have been calls for a cull of badgers

The hot breath they blow into the cold winter air is heavy with the highly infectious TB microbacterium, which scars the lungs.

On this occasion, Mr Galway is losing 79 cows.

But it is something he has to deal with every year, as time and again his dairy herd becomes infected with TB.

Like many farmers he has little doubt about the source of infection.

On the day the cows were tested he found a dead badger on his land.

A government laboratory later confirmed that the badger was infected with the same bovine tuberculosis which his cows had caught.

Grubs and worms

The badger link is firmly placed in the minds of farmers who frequently see evidence of badgers on their land.

After nightfall the badgers come out of their setts to search for grubs and worms in the fields where cattle graze.

On a clear, crisp winter night, we watch a badger sett at the top of a wooded slope not far from Strangford Lough.

Fresh earthworks are all around and there is a well-worn path through the leaf-strewn forest floor towards the fields below.

A gentle breeze rustles through the woods and then there is a heavy scent on the sharp night air - the badgers are stirring.

Mr Galway's cows head for their final journey
Mr Galway's cows head for their final journey

The feint camera lights attract a cloud of tiny insects.

Fleas, which have emerged with their badger hosts from bedded boltholes burrowed deep into the hillside.

Then they emerge, rustling and grunting, scampering off through the undergrowth.

The badgers night's work has begun and a journey which will take them to favourite feeding places including cattle troughs and cow pats.

These look to be sleek healthy badgers but for infected setts, bovine TB can mean a slow and painful death.

With more than 4,500 cattle herds now under TB restrictions, many farmers want the government to grasp the nettle and move in to cull infected badgers.

Protected species

The President of the Ulster Farmers' Union, Campbell Tweed, said the evidence is clear.

He said: "We seem to have about 30% of dead badgers tested which are affected and we know where the pockets of infection are."

But wildlife and welfare groups remain to be convinced that killing badgers is the way to solve the problem of tuberculosis in cattle.

Stephen Philpott of the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said no convincing evidence has been presented to support the culling of what is a protected species.

Tuberculosis is a very slow death so they have got to suffer a lot and it would be best if they could be cleaned up and we had healthy badgers
Farmer Will Galway

He said: "The USPCA has been called out regularly to badger setts which have been flooded with slurry.

"Other methods equally as ghastly have been used against badgers and that is why they had to be protected in the first place."

Evidence from illegal badger culls does little to support the idea that a wider cull would dent the TB problem in the Northern Ireland cattle herd, he said.

"If these methods have being going on so long why hasn't that by itself controlled the disease?," asked Mr Philpott.

The stakeholders group set up by the Agriculture and Rural Development minister Ian Pearson is now reviewing evidence from badger culling trials in the Irish Republic and in Britain.

Eradication programme

Farmer Will Galway sees the cull of TB reactor cattle as just as unpalatable as killing infected badgers.

He said: "Tuberculosis is a very slow death so they have got to suffer a lot and it would be best if they could be cleaned up and we had healthy badgers."

Many farmers are keen on protecting wildlife, including a disease-free badger population, he said.

"I have no problem with badgers if they are healthy," said Mr Galway.

Like more than 16,000 cattle this year, the fate of Mr Galway's have been sealed in a TB eradication programme which is costing upwards of 16m.

The outlook for the badger is less certain as government considers the controversial issue of badger culling.

Badger cull plan to fight TB
14 Jul 04 |  Wales
Deer threatened by spread of TB
28 Jun 04 |  Gloucestershire

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