Humane (adjective): Kind or considerate towards people or animals. The opposite is ‘beastly’.

Introduction:

The UK Government has decided to carry out a cull of badgers in an attempt to deal with bovine tuberculosis which infects some of the UK cattle herd. Over 100,000 of a protected species could be killed with little certainty about outcomes, and alternative solutions remain undeveloped.

Such wildlife massacres have occurred throughout human existence, and we take full advantage of our technology to kill more efficiently where we should be using it find less destructive solutions.

What drives this? Should the meaning of ‘humane’ be reversed because to be human seems to imply a love of killing and cruelty?

Human Pressure

There are few corners of this Earth that are unaffected by humans: we are unique among species in having colonised every single habitat from the equator to the arctic, even burrowing deep into the planet and putting astronauts into orbit around it. We naturally prefer to live where resources are plentiful and the climate benign, but are capable of coping with, and even thriving in the extremess. As the World population rapidly increases, pressure increases on the available land and therefore upon the ecosystems, organisms and resources that exist there. The effects of this increase is amplified by our demand for ever higher living standards, and our preference for meat over vegetable diets which results in more land needed for animal production (which is much more land intensive than crops).

As well as agriculture, mining, fishing, waste, pollution and urban development all put remove habitats and put pressure on wildlife. In The Observer newspaper this week I read that many species in islands around the globe that are officially administered by the UK are threatened with extinction (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/mar/18/seabirds-british-overseas-territories-extinction), along with tigers, orang-utans, pandas, some whales, albatrosses…. the list goes on and on. Anyone who tells you that the dramatic collapse in species in not caused by humans is either lying or is willfully ignorant.

There are two main drivers: human need and human greed, in both cases for land, resources and money. People in Brazil hack into the forest to create a small-holding to feed their burgeoning families, whilst others illegally destroy hundreds of acres of forest to steal the timber, create mines or set up cattle ranches. It comes to the same thing: the destruction of a complex ecosystem that supports great biodiversity, less space for wildlife, and the loss of an essential World-wide resource.

It’s all happened before

Sometimes, we attempt to reverse the situation, for instance, where I live, the red kite was driven almost to extinction in the UK by being declared ‘vermin’ because gamekeepers and farmers believed that it took game chicks and lambs. (http://www.redkites.co.uk/) In 1989, four pairs were introduced to the Chiltern Hills from Sweden and they have flourished so that these lovely birds can be readily admired across much of Buckinghamshire. It is unfortunately probably the case that one reason for their success is the number of animals killed on the roads, but none the less, can be counted as a success.

So what has all this got to do with badgers?

Well, although this rather endearing and retiring forest dweller is protected, it has effectively been declared vermin by the current UK government, which begs the question, “Have we learned anything from the past?”. It doesn’t seem so when all we can think of doing is to carry out a massacre.

The problem is real: badgers have become infected with bovine tuberculosis, which the must have caught from infected cattle, and so they get sick, and then they wander onto farmland at night, re-infecting the heards of cattlen This is heart-breaking and expensive for famers and one has sympathy with them. But is the answer just to kill the badgers?

Badgers have been here an awful lot longer than cattle, of course, but that counts for nothing. However, cattle are far from an ‘environmentally friendly’ option for agriculture as they contribute to global warming through methane production and beef production takes up more land than crops. If we were sincere about food security for the burgeoning human population, we would not be considering beef, but be focusing in growing what provides the most food, which is crops. As it is, people across the World are demanding more meet as their incomes increase.

However, what drives everything is money… and power of course.

The options currently open to farmers are few: they are not allowed to kill badgers unless they have a special license, and if the problem is severe, the may be forced to discontinue cattle farming. Vaccinating the cattle or the badgers would be very expensive and anyway both are problematical.

Alternative answers to killing badgers do exist but are relatively untested, such as improving the badgers’ nutrition, which protects them from TB and would mean that they did not need to wander so widely. The National Farmers Union has been working for years to persuade the government to let them take up their shot guns and poison bottles and kill the buggers (badgers). This will be costly, but cheaper than attempting vaccination.

Unfortunately, most studies have cast doubt on the value of culling and even the ministry admits it will only reduce bovine TB by 17% if it does work as intended whilst the entire population of badgers will be wiped out in some areas. But it will make the farmers feel good ‘cos they are getting back at the badger and doing something to protect their herds (and therefore their living).

The ecological outcomes cannot be known, and the loss of this beautiful animal in large areas of the country will be a total tragedy. It says a lot about the human mind: we are prepared to kill over 100,000 of our protected native mammals because it might cut down the incidence of a disease that we brought into the country among money-earning livestock.

Which brings me to the concept of what is ‘humane’. This behaviour is certainly human , and in view of the relative behaviour of humans and the beasts in this tale, I think it would be a good idea to reverse the meanings of ‘humane’ and ‘beastly’.  Humans are capable of behaving appallingly at all levels, and slaughtering other animals is part of our make-up. What is so obscene here is that it is totally pre-meditated slaughter when we have the knowledge to find better answers, if only we would take responsibility for our affect on the environment and not just be driven by money and expediency.

The previous labour government considered this cull, but shied away from it, whereas the “greenest government ever” is more in the thrall of the land-owners. There is another factor in this which is the Secretary of State For The Environment and Rural Affairs which is Caroline Spelman MP. Here’s some information about her career from her web site:

Caroline Spelman’s Career:
Sugar Beet Commodity Secretary, National Farmers Union 1981 – 1984
Deputy Director, International Confederation of European Beetgrowers, Paris, 1984-1989
Research Fellow, Centre for European Agricultural Studies, 1989-1993
Director, Spelman, Cormack and Associates, Food and Biotechnology
Consultancy 1989-2009#

So she is an agricultural technologist who is, or has, earned a living from biotechnology. When humans see the living World through technological eyes, the results are often chilling, and end up contributing to the destruction of animals, plants, habitats and ecosystems that do not earn money. Her decisions must be unemotional, pragmatic and based on what is thought best for agri-business, and also her political party.

It is not humane, but it is human. It is not even efficient as an answer as the outcome is too uncertain, and the process filthy, murderous and ugly.