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(Good)gers and Cattle TB

New research shows that Irish badgers avoid farmyards and cattle

Sometimes farmers find difficulty sleeping at nights. Random, gnawing thoughts drift into our heads as we doze off. Are badgers prowling around the farmyard? Are they sniffing the cattle? Is TB being transmitted?

New research will allow us to sleep more easily. A project led by district conservation of cer Enda Mullen, with Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and the Department of Agriculture, spent three years tracking badgers in the Wicklow countryside. 40 badgers from twelve social groups had radio collars fixed around their necks. Then enthuastiac National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) staff and volunteers from TCD plotted the 12,500 movements of the badgers as they made their ways through the countryside.

We usually find TB in cattle in the lungs.The conventional wisdom states that badgers transmit TB to cattle via aerosol – direct breathing close to a cow. A badger may be lured into a farmyard by the presence of spilled grain, and come in contact with livestock housed in sheds. But this study proved otherwise. Badgers tended to avoid farmyards – and particularly farmyards with cattle. If they visited farmyards at all, they tended to frequent equestrian, and disused, farmyards. But most badgers kept away even from these. A single individual badger (which the researchers christened Violet) seemed to like a trip to the horses, but most other badgers kept well away from all livestock, and even were shy of visiting disused farmyards.

A second study undertaken by Declan O Mahony in Northern Ireland confirmed that badgers avoid cattle. Declan works with the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute in Belfast, and his approach was slightly different. He affixed proximity collars on 58 cattle and 11 badgers in a TB hotspot in Northern Ireland. If the badgers and cattle came within 2 metres of each other (enough distance to share a breath), the collars would emit a pulse. This would be plotted via GPS. In addition, motion sensor cameras were positioned all over the farmyards to video anything which moved.

The results were amazing. There were over 350,000 interactions between cattle and cattle. There were 11,774 interactions between badger and badger. Clearly, you hang out with your own species. And there were no interactions between cattle and badgers. Zero.

So is TB being transmitted by badgers? And if so, how? The researchers looked at water troughs. But badgers and cattle did not use water troughs concurrently. In fact, badgers rarely used water troughs at all. So the researchers turned their attention to the farmyards. They recorded 500,000 hours of video at farmyards in a mammoth undertaking, and analysed the results. The visiting animals recorded mostly were feral cats, some of which were in poor health. Farm cats play an important role in rodent control, but can also be carriers of TB, and any animal in poor condition is more susceptible to disease. Mice and rats were also seen on camera, and very rarely an individual badger (perhaps a cousin of Violets) turned up at a meal shed for a few min-utes. Most other badgers kept away – and all badgers avoided the cattle sheds.

Cattle are large, sometimes dangerous, and often scarily frisky. It seems that the badgers have known this all along, and are keeping well away from them. Instead of scapegoating the badger,we need to increase bio security measures on our feed sheds. And thanks to this hard work and wonderful research, we can settle down to sweet dreams and sleep without worries. Now – did I feed the farm cats?

Donna Mullen