How did the Irish badger cull play out?

Badger Image copyright SPL
Image caption Farmers will use the more expensive, free shooting method

When I talk to local farmers about bovine TB, so many of them point out that culling badgers in the Republic of Ireland has helped control the disease.

The data does seem to back that up, with the numbers of infected cattle falling in Ireland and slowly rising in England.

But there are some big differences between the Irish and British culls.

The first is the methods used to kill the badgers. Our farmers will be using more expensive, free shooting, while the Irish snare and then shoot badgers.

Wildlife experts I've talked to say free shooting could well be a more humane way to carry out the cull - at least compared with the use of a snare which involves a loop of metal wire attached to a stake in the ground that traps the badger until someone returns to shoot it in the head.

Problem not going away

Snaring of badgers is actually banned in the UK because once caught, animals can spend hours trying to escape and hurt themselves in the process.

But despite the use of snares, the badger cull in the Republic of Ireland remains uncontroversial, something that "beggars belief" according to Fintan Kelly from the Irish Wildlife Trust.

Indeed, wildlife groups in Ireland are encouraged but also amazed by the outcry over the cull in the UK.

Perhaps one reason for the lack of interest in the fate of Irish badgers is that farming is so important to the Irish economy.

Indeed, massively increasing beef and dairy output is one of the ways the government wants to haul the country out of the economic doldrums, although the recent poor weather may mean a rethink.

Affordable vaccine

But more cattle also means more potential for TB and culling badgers to control the disease is increasingly hard - in parts of Ireland there's talk of local badger extinction.

The problem isn't going away. So, how else might you get on top of it?

Well, one Irish farmer suggested to me that culling deer might be the next step.

There might be a way forward without culling and that's a vaccine.

I was able to visit researchers at Trinity College Dublin who say their plans for an oral vaccine are more advanced than many in the UK think, promising a simple vaccine in edible badger bait in five years and that's knowledge they actively share with researchers in the UK.

Long term, an affordable vaccine is the way forward. But, the lesson from the Republic of Ireland is that a badger cull, along with other measures, can help control the disease until then.

This article was subject to a complaint to the BBC Trust about whether the Irish statistics conclusively showed that badger culling had reduced the incidence of TB. The Trust partially upheld the complaint and the full finding can be found here.