I grew up on a farm near Rochdale, a gritty part of England where badgers were unknown outside The Wind in the Willows and The Rupert Bear Annual. But recently, like many aging expatriates, I traced my family tree and went back to see where my great grandfather lived in and around Leominster, Herefordshire in the 1840s. About 10 PM one Saturday we were blundering around in the dark on a lonely country lane outside a farm where he had worked as a laborer. In the US that would have been enough reason for the farmer to take out his shotgun, but in Herefordshire things are different - a few minutes later we were drinking tea and eating cake with an extraordinary farming family in the very kitchen my great grandfather must have sat in to get his orders and swap stories with his boss.
I had traced my family through the 1840 and subsequent England censuses and one of the wonders of these documents that are now on the Internet is that you can turn the pages and see who was living in the neighborhood at the time and how they were employed. When I mentioned the trove of information in the census to the farmer and named a judge who was living in 1840 in the nearest house a half-mile away, the farmer excitedly told me "He's still there!? not realizing it was the judge's great grandson.
I say all this to emphasize how extraordinary it seems, even to an expatriate American and former Brit, to go back to a part of Britain that is essentially unchanged in 160 years: you can walk the same lanes and fields, see the same night sky, drink tea by the same fires, brush the same hedges and trees, and hold the same earth your ancestors did. And in this case, had I stayed long enough, I could have met the same family of badgers that my great grandfather did. Because, like the judge's family and unlike mine, they are still there.
The farmer had recently lost 15 cattle to bovine TB and was adrift and swirling in the world of DEFRA set aside for those with TB positive herds. There were badgers on his land and on his neighbors'. Badgers and TB were killing his livelihood; a business that had barely recovered from the foot and mouth epidemic of 2001 and that had been built by his family's aspirations over 100 years. It seemed increasingly unlikely to pass to the next generation. But there was no animus towards the badgers - these were stouthearted country people who wanted to do the right thing.
I am no expert on bovine TB and badgers. But I think I have learned something from spending half my life in science in the UK and half in the US. I attach an article from The New York Times, October 7, 2010 entitled "Scientists and Soldiers solve a bee mystery". This article describes how university scientists and scientists in a Department of Defense laboratory got together to use a state of the art device in the military lab to identify the likely viral and fungal causes of a mysterious disease that has been killing bee colonies from one end of the US to the other. A bee disease? I can hear you ask. Of course - because bees are essential to pollination of many trees, alfalfa, and other plants essential to our food supply and agricultural economy. But the point of the story - to me - is that these US scientists had the impertinence to ask to use an advanced military device - built for an entirely different purpose - because it offered a chance to solve the question. You have to do what has to be done, not only what you have the tools to do yourself, to solve a problem.
In 1885 Louis Pasteur and Emile Roux invented the first vaccine to prevent rabies in humans - about 10 years before the first animal virus was actually discovered. Given the fear of this disease at the time, a vaccine must have seemed a miracle. No one in 1885 would have imagined that 100 years later Germans and Belgians would be vaccinating the wild animals of the forest to eradicate rabies in its reservoirs and to remove the threat permanently. Nor could the countless millions who died in Europe of the Black Death and the Great Plague over the centuries have imagined a day when we are vaccinating prairie dogs against this disease to protect the health of the black-footed ferret, an endangered US species. As I read the official reports on badgers and bovine TB in Britain it strikes me that these reflect a failure of vision rather than a failure of science. Of course this is a very difficult problem. Of course there are no easy solutions - otherwise they would have been applied to solve the problem long ago. We just have to hope that there is a difficult but as yet unknown solution because that is the nature of our scientific belief system. Chairman Mao said that a journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step: Louis Pasteur had no idea where his steps would take others but what an amazing journey that has been. For badgers and TB it seems we have barely started the trek and are discouraged already.
I refuse to accept that there is no solution other than killing all the badgers. As long as you believe killing is the answer there will not be a serious search for alternatives. The recent DEFRA report sets out many possibly valid reasons why PCR cannot be reliably used to detect bovine tuberculosis (a complex microorganisms with a large genome of some 4 million bases) in badgers or their environment. My confidence in this conclusion must be undermined by knowledge that DEFRA for the past decade has also believed, against the scientific evidence, that PCR cannot be reliably used to detect foot and mouth disease virus (one of the smallest pathogen genomes known at 8500 bases) even when billions of virus particles are present in a readily available sample and many others are using the method successfully around the world. The discouraging tone of the DEFRA report also brings to mind Thomas Edison, who would famously stand in a room full of his research employees loudly and excitedly announcing that one of them had discovered that an idea had been proven wrong. He did this to create an environment where negative results would spur others to try something different again and again until success was achieved: the Edison company was known as a bee hive of discovery.
So we should not let ourselves be diverted by a sideshow over badger TB PCR, its possible applications and its potential failings. Such sideshows play into the hands of those without ideas other than killing. Today, killing badgers is the only option because there has been a failure of vision for the past decade. Let's legislate in 2010, irrevocably, that no more badgers will be killed after December 31, 2015. That gives us 5 years to develop and validate alternatives. What are those alternatives? I don't know. But I do know that they exist and that unless we search for them seriously and with a sense of urgency they will not be uncovered. One way to start that process would be for the RSPCA and those interested in badgers to commission the Royal Society to develop a scientific strategic research plan based on the premise that killing is no longer acceptable.
Your readers might query why a fresh look is necessary - surely all the facts are on the table. I would urge them to start with a remarkable paper by Brigitte Nerlich and colleagues on Conceptualising Foot and Mouth disease (http://www.metaphorik.de/02/nerlich.htm). This paper describes how public perception of the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic was shaped by incessant War metaphors in newspapers and other media: the same narrative is being followed for badgers and TB with very negative consequences. Nerlich and colleagues quote a famous article on the metaphors used in Gulf War reporting that provides a summary of the prototypical war narrative, "The Fairy Tale of the Just War?:
Cast of characters: A villain, a victim, and a hero. The victim and the hero may be the same person.
The scenario: A crime is committed by the villain against an innocent victim (typically an assault, theft, or kidnapping). The offence occurs due to an imbalance of power and creates a moral imbalance. The hero either gathers helpers or decides to go it alone. The hero makes sacrifices; he undergoes difficulties, typically making an arduous heroic journey, sometimes across the sea to a treacherous terrain. The villain is inherently evil, perhaps even a monster, and thus reasoning with him is out of the question. The hero is left with no choice but to engage the villain in battle. The hero defeats the villain and rescues the victim. The moral balance is restored. Victory is achieved. The hero, who always acts honorably, has proved his manhood and achieved glory. The sacrifice was worthwhile. The hero receives acclaim, along with the gratitude of the victim and the community.
Nerlich points out that in the FMD media narratives, FMD was the villain, the farmers the victims and the government wanted to be the hero. Vets and the army were helpers. They all made sacrifices and engaged on an arduous heroic journey. The parallels with badgers and TB are inescapable. We need to set aside these misconceptions and prejudices and start again on a new narrative that will lead to a solution.
I have young children and we read The Wind in the Willows. I never saw a badger when I was a kid but we all knew they were out there somewhere. None of us wants to have to take our children to a zoo to see a badger because we have destroyed the free-living population. I don't believe that farmers or animal lovers in Britain need to be adversaries over badgers - it is the disease that is the problem and we all share an interest in a real solution. I would like to believe that 160 years from now those same farm and badger families would be living together in Herefordshire, walking the same fields that are forever England. Let?s make this vision possible.