1 Badgers, Cows, TB, Science and Policy: A Primer for the Perplexed

For over a generation, the vexed question of whether to cull wild badgers (Meles meles: a nocturnal, burrowing relative of weasels and otters) to control the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in British cattle herds has plagued politicians. Questions of what is known, who knows, who cares, who totrust and what should be done about connections between cows, badgers and the bacterium M. bovis have been the source of scientific, veterinary, policy and increasingly vociferous public debate. Over this time, the controversy has spread—from a local problem involving a handful of people, to a national debate attracting extensive media coverage, costing the country millions of pounds and occupying the time, care and attention of many thousands of ordinary people. Alongside the disease, controversy has spread from its original highly localised context, and has become more visible and significant, creating in recent years a deeply polarised dynamic—tightly focused on badger culling—between increasingly angry opposed sides. Culling advocates argue that tuberculous badgers form a ‘reservoir’ of bTB infection, which must be removed to prevent bTB from re-infecting cattle and spreading the disease further. They emphasise why bTB must be controlled in the first place: it is a zoonotic disease, meaning that people can also catch it. Until well into the twentieth century M. bovis was a significant cause of human TB, particularly in children who drank infected milk: while this public health risk is now well controlled in the UK, it remains a problem elsewhere.Footnote 1 Opponents of culling argue that bTB is more likely to be spread between the cows themselves, particularly when stressed by modern farming techniques and as cattle are increasingly moved around the country. They also contend that badger culling disrupts the complex social groupings of these wild animals, causing the survivors to move around more, disrupting ecosystems and spreading bTB along the way. They argue that policy should instead focus on alternative solutions which may be more sustainable, such as vaccination (of cattle and badgers) and stricter regulatory controls on farming. Others have deep moral objections to killing badgers, wildlife or any animals under any circumstances.

It is estimated that bTB currently costs the British Government around £100 million each year; since culling was resumed in 2010, these have been worsened by policing costs, the political fallout of the controversy, and the emotional and psychological impacts of the disease on farmers and other affected parties.Footnote 2 There are important continuities between bTB and previous British animal health crises, most notably the 2001 foot and mouth disease (FMD) epidemic, and policy responses to the emergence of BSE. All three episodes have involved publicly contested scientific uncertainties; political disagreements over how government should act; conflicts between farmers, policymakers and publics, and the death of many millions of animals.Footnote 3 However, unlike its notorious predecessors, bTB is curiously invisible: sick badgers and cows are nowhere to be seen, while there are only about forty cases of bTB infecting humans each year, mostly in people working directly with animals.Footnote 4 Bovine TB is rarely depicted by the media as a public health issue. Instead, it is framed as two mutually exclusive stories: either a chronic agricultural problem affecting already embattled farmers and a long-suffering government; or an environmental risk and additional threat to fragile wildlife and ecosystems. In Britain at least, the zoonotic risks of bTB are controlled by a regulatory and healthcare system that tests cattle for disease, mostly prevents people from eating diseased meat, pasteurises most milk, and treats the rare human cases. People and animals elsewhere in the world, in countries with weaker, less well-resourced health systems are not so fortunate: however, public debates in the UK rarely acknowledge the global aspects of bTB. Paradoxically, the twenty-first-century controversy over badgers and bTB in Britain may be the consequence of a successful (but largely invisible) regulatory system, which displaces risks from medicine and biology into the more contestable domains of economic, political and moral risk.Footnote 5

Tuberculosis (TB) is an old, familiar disease problem, also characterised by deep scientific uncertainties and problems still defying resolution in the face of twenty-first-century biomedicine. The clinical disease in humans and other animals is caused by microorganisms known as mycobacteria—a group which also includes the bacterium causing leprosy, and many non-pathogenic environmental bacteria. Those causing TB are referred to by biologists as the M. tuberculosis complex (MTBC): they mostly include microbes which infect a single species, such as M. tuberculosis (humans) or M. suricattae (meerkats). The most unusual member of this group is M. bovis, which infects a much wider range of mammal hosts, including humans, cattle, badgers, deer, llamas, wild boar and domestic cats and dogs. M. bovis is the causative agent of the disease known as bovine TB, increasingly being renamed ‘zoonotic TB’.Footnote 6 Mycobacteria grow slowly and have thick, acid-resistant cell walls: this makes them notoriously difficult to culture and develop reliable laboratory tests for. This slowness and toughness makes TB a very counter-intuitive disease: a long time can pass between infection and the appearance of clinical symptoms, which appear and disappear as the bacteria are active or go dormant, forming cysts (tubercles) in multiple organs of the body (not just the lungs). Unlike, say, influenza, it is not immediately obvious that someone has contracted TB (and it may not be so for many years); testing and vaccination regimes are not fully reliable and use technologies over a century old: while treatments exist, they are neither cheap nor easy, and drug-resistant strains of TB are proliferating. Bovine TB is even more counter-intuitive: it expresses itself in different kinds of animals very differently, it is difficult to directly trace transmission routes, even harder to test for and is resistant to many standard antibiotic treatments.Footnote 7 For these reasons, veterinary disease control regimes tend to use surveillance, movement restriction and culling of sick individuals to stop the spread of infection, rarely turning to human public health tools such as vaccination and treatment. This rarely discussed contrast between human and animal public health lies at the core of today’s controversy, as does the ‘fundamental ontological uncertainty’ (the difficulties of fully knowing) what M. bovis is up to as it passes between humans, livestock and wild animals.Footnote 8

Over the near half-century that badgers and bovine TB (badger/bTB) have been debated in Britain, the issue has passed across several generations of scientists, veterinarians, farmers, policymakers and politicians. So far, it has been the responsibility of nine prime ministers, fifteen government administrations and twenty-one Cabinet Ministers. As of 2018, there will have been nine expert led reviews of the situation.Footnote 9 Badger/bTB has provided scientists with steadily increasing opportunities for investigation and advancement, with publications on the topic going from only one or two a year during the 1970s to between thirty and forty a year in the past decade.Footnote 10 While several studies and accounts from participants have discussed the recent history of badger/bTB in the UK, these have generally focused upon a single aspect of the issue, such as farming, animal health policy, animal protection or conservation.Footnote 11 In this book, I will bring these varying accounts together to analyse how the worlds of farming, animal health, field biology, natural history and animal advocacy have interacted to create the controversy we see today. The timeline in Fig. 1.1 is therefore designed to orient the reader in these intersecting stories, and how they have contributed to the ongoing development of the public controversy.

Fig. 1.1
An infographic timeline from 1935 to 2020 illustrates various acts along with political, legal, and environmental events resulting in badger slash b T B public controversy.

Timeline of the badger/bTB controversy. Animal health events are shown below the line; political, legal and environmental events above. See https://time.graphics/line/83803 for an annotated online version

Bovine TB was first found in wild badgers in 1971, at a time when regulatory systems had brought levels of disease in humans and cattle to historic lows. Following a frantic period of investigation and legislative change, MAFF introduced a full-scale badger culling policy by 1975: however, it was rapidly mired in controversy. Following a review conducted in 1980 by Lord Solly Zuckerman, scientific investigations confirmed the reports of badger advocates that ‘gassing’ (pumping sodium cyanide powder into the animals’ underground setts) was not working quickly enough to be ‘humane’, resulting in the withdrawal of the technique. Between 1982 and 1995, a range of alternative culling policies were tried; over the same period animal advocates won further legal protections for badgers. In 1996, senior scientist Prof. John Krebs was commissioned by government to review the situation once again. He concluded that while MAFF’s existing research suggested that there was a link between bTB in badgers and cattle, the evidence was ‘circumstantial’, and that a ‘proper experiment’ was needed to directly test the effects of badger culling on bTB in cattle.Footnote 12 The incoming Labour government was convinced, suspending culling and commissioning the largest field experiment ever conducted in the UK, the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) to do exactly that. After nearly ten years and approximately £49 million, the Independent Scientific Group (ISG) conducting the work concluded that—contrary to widespread expectations—culling had the potential to make things worse; that it ‘cannot make a meaningful contribution to bTB control in cattle’.Footnote 13 This inflamed the controversy, with other scientists, farmers and veterinarians contesting their findings in policy, Parliament and the wider public sphere. Following a change of government, the new minister reversed MAFF’s (by then Defra) long-standing commitment to return to culling, taking the ISG’s advice and making the (short-lived) decision to not cull, investing in vaccination as an alternative policy solution.Footnote 14

In 2010, the incoming Coalition government declared its intention to return to badger culling, starting with two pilot culls using a new ‘free shooting’ technique—carried out by private consortia under licence, and paid for by industry.Footnote 15 As the policy was implemented, the badger/bTB debate moved from a specialist policy concern, mostly of interest to farmers, veterinarians, conservationists and animal advocates, into the political and media mainstream. The new policy was met by legal challenges and widespread protests (including marches, social media campaigning and local action directly disrupting culls), attracting more media coverage in more prominent places than ever before. Despite the concerns of another group of government-commissioned scientists about their ‘effectiveness, safety and humaneness’, and widespread criticism from scientists including Krebs, the culls continued. Since 2015, following the election of a Conservative majority government, Defra has started a ‘rollout’ of the policy, issuing licences in seven new areas. This was followed by further licences in 2017, and the 2018 announcement of licencing across the country, including in areas with low bTB rates in cattle.Footnote 16 This geographical extension has been accompanied by a gradual relaxation of the conditions attached to licencing culls—originally shaped by the ISG’s findings.Footnote 17

To move towards a deeper understanding of the controversy, we need to think about the development of badger/bTB debates in a broader context. To start with, how do these events relate to what the disease itself was doing? Figure 1.2 conveys a broad picture of how the incidence of bTB in British cattle herds has changed since the 1950s, when mandatory disease control measures were originally introduced.Footnote 18 By the late 1960s, this regime appeared to have been a resounding success, with rates of bTB in cattle dropping to unprecedentedly low levels: when badgers were first connected with bTB in the early 1970s these rates had levelled out, but there was little to hint at the problems to come. It is also worth noting the timing of the resurgence of bTB: the lowest point of incidence was in the early 1980s. While bTB was returning during the 1990s, it was not until after the FMD outbreak of 2001 that today’s epidemic became fully apparent. From a socio-historical point of view, the lack of any clear correlation between disease incidence and episodes of public controversy (see Chap. 7, Figs. 7.1 and 7.2) is particularly significant. Badger/bTB was already a notoriously difficult policy problem long before the resurgence of M. bovis, and whenever the issue hits the news, it’s rarely for biological reasons.

Fig. 1.2
A dual y axis line graph of reactors and cattle tests and percent incidence over the years from 1955 to 2014. In it, lines for cattle tested, reactors slaughtered, and percentage incidence are plotted.

Long-term indicators of UK bTB incidence [N.B. note multiple data sources]. Data sourced with thanks from Atkins (A History of Uncertainty, 301)Footnote

Atkins’s data was collated from several sources: directly from AHVLA/AHPA; the UK Chief Veterinary Officer’s Annual Report series; and the Parliamentary Select Committee on Agriculture’s 5th Report Agriculture Committee, ‘Badgers and Bovine TB, Vol. II: Fifth Report of Session 1998–1999 (HC 233-II)’, Agriculture Committee Reports (London: House of Commons: HMSO, 20 April 1999).

The timeline in Fig. 1.2 therefore moves beyond animal health to introduce broader contexts of political, legal and environmental events and long-term trends since the middle of the last century. Beyond the swinging back and forth of power between Conservative and Labour governments, we have seen an underlying agenda of retreating and adjusting the role of the state, towards new models of shared governance across government, industry and civil society. The other most significant political and policy change has of course been the UK’s entry to, increasing integration with and likely withdrawal from the European Union. Following the post-war boosting of agricultural productivity, we have seen further intensification of agriculture in general, particularly in livestock and the dairy industry, with herd size increasing alongside yields of milk and meat, while many farmers have struggled to turn a profit.Footnote 20 Agricultural intensification was a critical factor contributing to the rise of environmental, animal welfare and animal rights movements in the UK: concerns which have in turn precipitated widespread changes supporting sustainability and welfare in protective legislation, policy structures and industry practice.Footnote 21 Finally, we have seen two bouts of public crises over the governance of animal health, agriculture and the environment: first over myxomatosis, FMD and rabies between the 1950s and 1970s; and second over bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), FMD, genetically modified foods and bTB since the 1990s.

These shifts in governance, agricultural and environmental politics in the UK have been accompanied by corresponding shifts in scientific understandings of M. bovis, badgers, cows, humans and the complex entanglements between these organisms. The 2018 Godfray report provides a detailed and reasonably balanced overview of the current situation, while several other recent review articles and reports provide a range of perspectives.Footnote 22 I refer the reader to these sources, but provide here my interpretation of the past and present state of scientific knowledge about relationships between M. bovis, cattle, badgers, farming and culling. At the start of our story (in the early 1970s) bTB was considered to be well understood following the success of eradication policies and was not a particularly active topic of research. BTB was also generally understood to be a livestock disease. While it was held as a primary example of zoonosis (human–animal transmission; hence regulatory structures) in the research literature, there was little consideration of the disease beyond veterinary and some public health publications, barring occasional reports of cases in other wild animals.Footnote 23 Badgers were also neglected, but for the opposite reason: beyond the writings of a few mammologists and naturalists, very little was known about them.Footnote 24 While the burgeoning field of disease ecology was exploring dynamics of infectious disease in wildlife via myxomatosis and plague, these scientists were dealing with rodents and rabbits.Footnote 25

As this book will recount, encountering tuberculous badgers brought together previously unrelated policy, campaigning and scientific worlds. The various forms of badger culling deployed in England and Wales—both scientific trials and disease control policies—have taught us much more, but also uncovered further complexities and generated more questions along the way. This dynamic could be seen following the 1980 Zuckerman and 1996 Krebs reviews, both of which recommended that more scientific research should be conducted. In the former case the uncertainties were around how to cull badgers, while in the latter about the effects of culling on disease spread. Today there seems to be a broad consensus that both cattle and badgers get infected with M. bovis; that infection passes between the two populations; and that infection rates in badgers are much higher than in any other wild animals. However, these ideas were contested prior to the completion of the RBCT. While there may be ‘a broad consensus among epidemiologists’ that this poses a risk to cattle herds,Footnote 26 other scientists disagree. This is over whether infections in badgers are mostly a ‘spillover’ from cattle (making cattle–cattle transmission the main problem), or are ‘self-sustaining’ within the badger population (making it more likely that badger–cattle transmission is a problem too).Footnote 27 Similarly, the effects and efficacy of badger culling on bTB rates in cattle are still contested. While the underlying theory of perturbation—human-induced disruption of ecosystems—is broadly accepted, the extent to which culling-induced perturbation exacerbates the spread of bTB is contested, particularly between ecologists and veterinarians. The picture becomes more complex once you consider what type of culling is involved (gassing, trapping, free shooting), who is doing the job (Ministry employees, private contractors, random people who don’t like badgers), over what geographic- and time-scales, and whether it is done as a pre-emptive or post-infection intervention.Footnote 28 There are also significant issues around the accuracy of current regimes of bTB testing, and arguments over the risk factors for cattle, which may include broader factors such as herd size and infection history as well as the presence of bTB in local badger populations.Footnote 29

Research and policy experiences from other countries paint a rather different picture. Across Europe, the countries experiencing the highest levels of infection are England, Wales, N. Ireland (not Scotland), the Republic of Ireland (RoI) and Spain. In the RoI (the only other country where badgers play a significant role), scientists are convinced that perturbation is not an issue and culling has brought their bTB rates down. That said, the RoI appear to be in the process of shifting bTB management policies away from badger culling and towards a vaccination-focused strategy, although its efficacy is not fully established.Footnote 30 In Spain, wild boar and deer are the main wildlife affected, both of which are culled for bTB control. Elsewhere in the world bTB wildlife ‘hosts’ include several species of deer, water buffalo, antelope and, in New Zealand, the brushtailed possum. While several of these countries have implemented wildlife culling policies with greater or lesser degrees of policy success (i.e. reductions in cattle bTB), perturbation and other ecological effects have been reported.Footnote 31 Furthermore, in the case of New Zealand, possums are a widely reviled invasive species and pest, while the governance situation has also been significantly different in that bTB regulation is controlled and paid for primarily by industry.Footnote 32 As we will explore through the rest of this book, the badger/bTB situation in Britain has been shaped by a unique set of ecological, epidemiological, agricultural, social, political and cultural factors for many decades. As such, any simple conclusions drawn by comparisons between other countries and the ‘perfect storm’Footnote 33 experienced in Britain should be taken with a large dose of salt, as should any attempt at characterising ‘the science’ of this complex topic as fully in support of—or against—badger culling.

2 Knowing Animal Health in the Environment

This book will investigate what happened when the previously unconnected worlds of bTB and the badger were forcibly brought together—when Ministry veterinarians recorded and reported evidence of tuberculous badgers living and dying in a ‘hotspot’ of cattle TB infection in the early 1970s. It will explore controversies over the connections between M. bovis, badgers and cattle since that time, over which bTB went from a well-controlled disease, with policy primarily driven by public health agendas, to a resurgent, poorly understood epidemic, contested between animal health and conservation/animal welfare interests. While the key scientific and policy events have often been documented, they have rarely been explained, or addressed beyond the specific domain of animal health.Footnote 34 This book will perform such an analysis, with a central focus on the dynamics of debate amongst the various actors involved with M. bovis, badgers and cows in Britain over the past fifty years. This work is important not just as an intellectual exercise, but as a contribution to ongoing scientific, policy and public debates—about bTB itself, about how to control the disease, and about how to consider wildlife in policy decisions about (domestic) animal health, agriculture and the environment. The events of the recent past are often used as a resource by participants in today’s controversy, who cite factors such as the introduction of badger protection; intensification of cattle farming and trading; changes in regulatory regimes; or culling itself as explanations for the current disease situation. However, these tend to be picked and used strategically and are often based on anecdotal rather than a critical historical evidence base. By collating this evidence and analysing it, this book can create better public and institutional memories of a notoriously ‘intractable’ policy problem.Footnote 35

In this book, I combine social science and historical approaches to understanding how science, technology and medicine interact with policy and the public sphere. For a long-standing controversy like this, a historical perspective is essential in order to understand how the badger/bTB debate has developed over time, how it has shaped and been shaped by social and political changes since the 1960s, and also how past decisions led to present policy. I have also drawn upon the ideas of scholars working in fields such as environmental history and animal studies to help me understand how human–badger relationships have become entangled with animal health policy. I have used three key sets of ideas in this book: ideas about how knowledge is built through public controversies; ideas about care, caring practices and how they are built; and ideas about human–animal relationships, including how non-humans shape societal change.

Knowledge Controversies and Epistemic Communities. At its heart, this book is a study of what researchers in science and technology studies (STS) and the history of science call a ‘knowledge controversy’—an academic and/or policy and/or public debate centred upon questions of scientific knowledge, expertise and evidence.Footnote 36 Controversies are key processes through which scientists build knowledge about the world, and therefore a key site of study for scholars like myself. The painstaking business of publishing a journal article—gathering, interpreting and analysing data; integrating it with theory and research questions; communicating persuasively that the findings mean something; and successfully passing through peer review—is only the beginning. Once an article—a knowledge claim—is published, the real work begins as other researchers working on the topic publish further articles supporting, reinterpreting or directly contesting that claim. This process, scaled up, creates the interwoven fabric of what sociologists and philosophers of science have described as ‘normal science’, or ‘science in the making’.Footnote 37 Given the inherently social, collaborative and persuasive nature of this process, it should not be that surprising that once STS scholars started looking closely at how scientists do what they do, they found that everyday scientific practices involve the continual negotiation of uncertainty, personal rivalries and a deep interweaving with other social and political processes.Footnote 38

Public knowledge controversies move out beyond the relatively closed worlds of academia, and start taking place in the wider public sphere, generally involving a wider range of people. In these situations, knowledge is not established within science, then ‘popularised’ in mass media—instead scientific communication is multidirectional, with information moving back and forth between ‘popular’ media, policy or campaigning contexts and ‘specialist’ academia.Footnote 39 Public knowledge controversies often involve multiple sources of knowledge and forms of expertise, including scientists, professionals (doctors, lawyers, farmers), non-professional specialists (naturalists, enthusiasts, fans), people with experiential knowledge (patients, parents) and members of relevant publics (local communities, campaigners).Footnote 40 Sometimes public knowledge controversies involve multiple disciplines: the need to communicate across disciplinary boundaries (and pursue disciplinary rivalries) is another factor which moves these disputes into the wider public sphere.Footnote 41 All these factors make public knowledge controversies even more complex than ‘normal’ scientific controversies, and more fiercely contested, as more people become invested in scientific debates over topics of deep concern to them. Such controversies often relate to questions of how people should act (politics), as well as what government should do (policy)—contemporary examples might include debates over climate change, artificial intelligence (AI) and gene editing. In these situations, scientific knowledge is still in the process of being built, meaning that what is ‘known’ about the issues can be highly uncertain and speculative or deeply contested, at times by specific political and economic interests. This further complicates how politicians and policymakers engage with—and formulate policy based upon—the evidence presented to them.Footnote 42

But how and why do scientists come to disagree in the first place? Part of the answer lies in the sheer difficulty of gathering and interpreting data while integrating it with theory to find good explanations, but this is not the whole story. Scientific research is a social process, which breaks down enquiry into many specialist disciplines, each of which establishes their own methods, theories and modes of communication. When thinking about science and policy, another useful concept is that of the ‘epistemic community’—a group of people ‘concerned with producing and disseminating knowledge’, who work together and have shared beliefs, working practices and criteria for assessing validity.Footnote 43 The difference between an epistemic community and an academic discipline or field is that the former has a shared policy focus, which can pull together specialists from multiple disciplines. Classically, epistemic communities are understood to be ‘a network of professionals with recognised expertise’ involved with policy problems:Footnote 44 policy research explores how such experts can (or can’t) contribute to ‘policy learning’ over time. Indeed, some of this work has examined the increasingly strained relationships between scientists and policymakers over the management of bTB since the 1990s—a situation which has been described as a ‘pathology of policy learning’.Footnote 45 I argue that public knowledge controversies often involve multiple epistemic communities, who therefore form different understandings of the situation. Other scholars have combined the idea of epistemic communities with that of ‘communities of practice’, when professional experts work alongside others with relevant knowledge. These epistemic communities have much fuzzier boundaries, which are constantly changing as they work together.Footnote 46 Given that the longer history of the badger/bTB controversy involves multiple, overlapping and distinctly fuzzy groupings, which change over time, it is this latter version of epistemic communities that I will use to understand this case.

Following the established practice of many STS researchers and historians of science, technology and medicine, I have taken what is known as a ‘symmetrical’ stance in relation to the controversy itself. This means that, as far as I am able, I have tried to understand and provide explanations of all sides in the debate, and what they know—explaining positions for and against badger culling, as well as everything in-between. As David Bloor famously argued, such an analysis must also be ‘impartial with respect to truth and falsity, rationality or irrationality, success or failure’.Footnote 47 In effect, this means that the research deliberately sets aside questions of who is factually ‘right’ in the debate, and as far as possible investigates the perspectives of all those involved ‘symmetrically’ (with equal attention). While Bloor and his colleagues may have paid less attention to questions of moral or political normativity, I think these must be directly addressed in a charged debate like this, which taps into deeply held beliefs. For me, it seems a logical extension of the symmetrical approach to likewise set aside questions of who is morally ‘right’ in the badger/bTB controversy. This parallels debates in animal studies where, broadly speaking, some scholars argue that gaining a deep understanding of animals in society is, or should be, inextricably linked to a normative position advocating for their interests.Footnote 48 Others, such as the anthropologist Garry Marvin, who has studied many ‘troubling’ human–animal relationships (including bullfighting and fox-hunting), argue that in order to fully understand such practices from multiple points of view, researchers need to have ‘a shared commitment to no overarching political agenda’.Footnote 49 In neither Bloor nor Marvin’s case does this imply full moral, ethical or epistemological objectivity nor relativism—I understand these positions as part of a methodological stance, making it possible to reach a deeper understanding of controversies.Footnote 50 While I am sceptical that anyone could provide a truly impartial analysis of a controversy like this, I think there is a lot to be gained by retaining this as a (possibly futile) goal.Footnote 51 In this research, I have done this by being as ‘interested’ (rather than disinterested) as possible in all sides of the controversy, while refusing to be drawn into any single agenda.Footnote 52 I hope that this strategy of reflexive engagement is aided by foregrounding my disciplinary and other backgrounds in the Preface of this book.Footnote 53 That said, I have drawn together my thoughts and suggestions on how the badger/bTB debate might move forward in my conclusions in Chap. 8.

Good Care, Good Work, Good Knowledge. The second set of ideas centres upon care—what it means to care, about what, and how caring practices are (like knowledge practices) formed by people as they work together. Human medicine is based on a series of core ethical principles, including respect for the autonomy and confidentiality of patients, and acting in their best interests—this generally implies a fierce commitment to the preservation of human life. The translation of these ethical principles into the working practices of doctors and nurses has been described by the anthropologist Anne-Marie Mol as the ‘logic of care’ in human medicine. Mol vividly articulates how this logic structures the day-to-day interactions between patients and healthcare workers in modern Dutch hospitals, down to the smallest details. She also describes how the logic of care interacts and conflicts with a contrasting ‘logic of choice’, based upon the decisions made by individual patients, about their own behaviour and as they navigate increasingly market-based health systems.Footnote 54 These interactions profoundly shape who makes medical decisions and what decisions are made. While Mol’s logic of care is physical, practical, relational and able to deal with the inherent uncertainty and unpredictability of health and illness, it also tends towards a parental mode in which it can be difficult for patients to exercise much agency. By contrast, while the logic of choice creates ‘the illusion of control’,Footnote 55 playing on consumer desires in the marketing of medical devices, it also increases the possibilities for patients to exercise agency over decisions made about caring for their own bodies. This idea of ‘logics’—or modes—of care has been taken up and used to understand other working practices, including those of farmers, veterinarians and scientists. This work has demonstrated that such tensions and negotiations over choice and agency are not unique to human healthcare and are central to caring relationships between humans and animals.Footnote 56

While practicing and delivering good care is essential to understanding what it is to be a ‘good’ doctor, farmer, scientist or vet, this research has shown how these modes of care are highly variable, and at times come into conflict.Footnote 57 What ‘good care’ might mean in practice can look very different at different places and times, as well as who or what is or should be cared about, and how to care under varying economic circumstances. Like the knowledge of epistemic communities, modes of care are created as groups of people work together towards common goals. Care and epistemic communities have therefore been brought together to understand how caring and knowledge-building practices co-create each other—in the work of running a laboratory or a museum, in developing standards for what constitutes ‘good science’, or in caring for laboratory animals.Footnote 58 In this book, I draw upon recent research by Gail Davies and colleagues on the ‘cultures of care’ of laboratory research. I argue that the fuzzy and changing epistemic communities involved in badger/bTB have created correspondingly fuzzy ‘cultures of care’,Footnote 59 constantly renegotiated over the past half-century. When tuberculous badgers were found in the early 1970s, the separate epistemic communities around bTB and around badgers were forcibly brought together, sometimes mutually reshaping and at other times violently clashing with one another. I will discuss in turn the epistemic communities of farmers and veterinarians (trying to protect cows and humans from TB); of pest control scientists and field biologists (trying to protect human agriculture while also caring for wildlife); and of conservationists and animal advocates (trying to protect badgers and environments from harm). I will also explore how these differing cultures of care have also entailed differing expectations of agency—in ‘experts’, politicians, policymakers, publics and the organisms involved (M. bovis, humans, badgers and cows)—expectations which have been repeatedly confounded over the years. These differences in care have in turn further driven the overall knowledge controversy.

Animal Roles and Traces. This third set of ideas was developed in collaboration with Abigail Woods and colleagues, as we researched the roles played by animals in the history of modern medicine.Footnote 60 It is part of a new body of scholarship documenting how animals, plants and environments have shaped a wide range of human activities, from obvious sites such as zoos and research laboratories, through human–animal working partnerships and the production of animals as human food, to the creation and manipulation of ecosystems and societies. Tools for decentring the human in social and historical research have been developed in the burgeoning fields of animal studies and animal history, where scholars have investigated how animal agency—their bodies, minds and actions—have shaped human knowledge, actions, societies and histories.Footnote 61 Historical researchers (and anyone working with texts) face a particular challenge: how to build better accounts of non-verbal non-humans when most records have been created by verbal, literate humans. We built upon the idea of using ‘animal traces’ (the indirect marks left by animals in historical records, such as photographs and accounts of animal actions).Footnote 62 Historians of biology and medicine can analyse primary sources deriving from physical traces made by and upon animal bodies, which the scientists of the past have examined, manipulated, interpreted and eventually recorded. These form multiple layers of animal ‘traces’ which gain meaning in relation to one another—from the immediate remains of animal bodies, through the images, statistics and interpretations made by scientists, out to the new knowledge practices, social relationships, institutions and even imaginaries of animals that are built in response. We drew upon well-established techniques for writing ‘histories from below’—work which brings to the fore the experiences of powerless and/or illiterate people in the past. We argued that while such approaches have generally been used to explore the neglected histories of groups of people, these tools can be extended and applied to the challenges of animal history.

Finally, we explored the multiple roles that animals have played in medical research and practice since the nineteenth century. These include obvious, well-studied examples such as experimental subjects and models for human health in laboratory research; or disease victims, patients and transmitters of infection. However, our work also investigated no less important, but far less well-studied animal roles: as pathological specimens, shapers of and commodities in food systems, points of cross-species comparison, and vehicles for (human) personal and professional advancement. These are of course related to the wider roles and categories that human societies assign to animals, such as food, pets, workers, experimental subjects, charismatic wildlife and pests—and these roles change over time as society changes.Footnote 63 Understanding and exploring these multiple social roles—particularly beyond the immediately obvious ones—can reveal previously unexplored histories. It can also teach us a great deal about how scientific and medical knowledge has been and continues to be built in partnership with non-human animals. In this book I have further developed this approach, following veterinarians, scientists, conservationists and animal advocates as they have followed M. bovis, cows and badgers, documenting the traces left behind by these organisms as people sought to understand their complex interconnections.

Methods, Sources, Questions. The most succinct way of describing the methodology of this project would be a bricolage—a tinkered together set of techniques, which has grown and changed as my understanding has grown. Another way of describing this would be a ‘mixed methods’ research design, combining together quantitative and qualitative analyses of texts, with interviews with those involved in badger/bTB.Footnote 64 The variety of sources and methods employed has made it easier to conduct this research in an iterative way, with each stage of the work informing the next, feeding back into my research questions along the way.Footnote 65 I found material from a huge variety of sources: archives; mass media; policy documents and online materials; clippings and memories from friends and colleagues; and a profusion of images. I helped colleagues in oral history to organise a ‘witness seminar’ on the history of bTB in Britain, where people who had worked on bTB in the past shared their memories.Footnote 66 I have also individually interviewed many of the key players in badger/bTB, across government, scientific and campaigning roles. While I have used some quotations in the book, these interviews have primarily informed my underlying understanding, making it possible for me to make sense of the mass of documentary evidence available. Where possible I have digitised these sources and uploaded them into the qualitative analysis software NVivo, making the data searchable. However, much has remained stubbornly analogue.

The core aim of my research—and of this book—is to map out the contested terrain of debates over badgers and bTB since the late 1960s, so that we can better understand how the current situation has come about—to try and answer the question, ‘How did we get into this mess?’Footnote 67 How did bTB transform from a well-controlled public health problem into a resurgent, poorly understood disease epidemic, understood either as an economic problem or a potential environmental risk? My work has been guided by two further research questions: What makes a scientific controversy happen ‘in public’? Why have scientific debates over the connections between M. bovis, cattle and badgers become a public knowledge controversy, and why has this process accelerated? Finally, this has been an extraordinarily British controversy. BTB is a global disease problem, while the European badger (Meles meles) lives from the Iberian Peninsula to Iran in the east and north up to the Arctic Circle.Footnote 68 However, it is only in the UK and the RoI that causal links have been drawn between infection in badgers and domestic cattle, and only in Britain that proposals to cull wildlife to manage bTB have attracted such intense controversy. Why has this happened in this particular place (Britain) and time (the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries)? While part of the answer lies in the specific geographical, ecological and agricultural factors contributing to the epidemiology of bTB in the UK, this cannot tell us the whole story.Footnote 69 To learn more, we need to first locate the disease (bovine tuberculosis) and then the animal (the badger) into their respective historical contexts before the two were brought together in the early 1970s. We will therefore take a detour into two backstories—first, the broader history of tuberculosis, including the story of how it came to be recognised, researched and partially brought under control. We will then explore the particular (and frankly peculiar) social and cultural history of badgers in Britain, before returning to the main account of the book.

3 Histories of Tuberculosis in Humans and Other Animals

People have written about and tried to treat the symptoms of what doctors today would characterise as ‘tuberculosis’ for a very long time before we called it that name. As documented by historians of medicine, how these symptoms were perceived, described, categorised and made sense of has changed over time. A disease—understood as a collection of physical symptoms, organised and explained according to underlying models of anatomy, pathology and epidemiology—comes into existence when doctors and patients collectively agree that these belong together, to ‘frame’ it in that way and give it a name.Footnote 70 While the ancient Greeks wrote about a disease called ‘phthisis’, which included symptoms such as coughing, fever, cysts in the body, spitting blood, tiredness and wasting away, some descriptions sound much closer to what we would today call ‘cancer’. Treatments (including sea travel, changes in diet and blood-letting) were very different, based as they were on humoral theories of disease. In the medieval world, phthisis gave way to ‘consumption’ and ‘scrofula’ (swellings or infections in the neck), but underlying disease models and treatments remained broadly similar. It was from the eighteenth century onwards—as doctors started systematically what happens inside the body, via anatomy, pathology and the invention of new instruments such as the stethoscope—that closer connections were drawn between consumption, respiratory symptoms and lesions in the lungs (tubercles). However, these associations did not fully solidify into the new disease of ‘tuberculosis’ until later, in the nineteenth century.Footnote 71

The story of how TB came to be recognised as a disease in its own right is closely bound up with the stories of the birth of bacteriology and germ theory, as charismatic scientists such as Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch vied to establish their reputations through the investigation of microorganisms and their connections with infectious disease.Footnote 72 In 1882, Koch was the first to establish causal connections between microbes and disease, using an elegant series of experiments with guinea pigs and what he had identified down the microscope as ‘tubercle bacilli’. Although the causes of human TB continued to be intensively debated, eventually germ theory became more established as it provided convincing explanations for the spread of disease and generated effective clinical approaches such as vaccination and aseptic surgery.Footnote 73 However, confusion persisted over the relationship between TB in humans and in animals. While veterinarians had demonstrated as early as 1860 that TB in cattle could be passed to humans, medical doctors were less convinced. The controversy was compounded in 1901 when Koch himself changed his position on the issue. Counter to his earlier view that TB was a unified disease, caused by a single type of bacillus, at a major international congress Koch argued that TB in humans and cattle were distinct diseases, caused by different bacteria (later classified as M. tuberculosis and M. bovis). Putting a ‘bombshell’ under the growing consensus that meat and milk needed to be regulated to prevent zoonotic transmission, he also cast doubt on the risks of humans contracting bTB, arguing that this regulatory effort was a waste of time.Footnote 74 Given his status at the time as one of the world’s most famous scientists, Koch’s intervention generated immense confusion and controversy, reopening the uncertainties around bTB and how it should be controlled. The longer-term impacts were varied: in European countries, where veterinarians had more professional power, measures to remove infected meat and milk from the food chain continued unabated.Footnote 75

By contrast, in Britain Koch’s intervention opened a new public controversy, mobilised by industry actors to contest the need for regulation. The government appointed a Royal Commission of experts to investigate the situation (the third since 1890): the investigation took eleven years to conclude that bTB was zoonotic after all. Afterwards, public uncertainties over bTB persisted, making it harder to regulate the disease.Footnote 76 During the interwar period, bTB control was implemented using ‘accreditation’—milk thought to be ‘clean’ could be sold under a government-approved quality mark. By the end of the 1930s this idea had been extended to the ‘attestation’ of cattle herds—a quality mark for those cleared of the disease through the newly developed tuberculin test and slaughtering of infected animals.Footnote 77 Further measures such as meat inspection, milk pasteurisation and improving cattle health were also gradually implemented by local authorities and industry. However, these measures were implemented on a voluntary, self-regulatory basis, leading to a piecemeal approach. It was not until after the war, when international health bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) launched international public health campaigns focusing on TB, including bTB as an exemplary zoonosis, that state-led and enforced control schemes started to come into effect.Footnote 78 In the UK, veterinarians had consolidated their roles as experts within government during wartime, and in line with broader state-led agendas for boosting agricultural productivity, a new Area Eradication Scheme was implemented in 1950. This scheme boosted financial rewards and compensation for participating farmers, but also made it compulsory for cattle herds to be tested for bTB and for positive ‘reactors’ to be slaughtered. It was systematically rolled out across the country, targeting one area at a time, until by 1960 the entire country had been declared ‘attested’.Footnote 79

During the 1960s the final eradication of bTB was confidently predicted (following dramatic drops in disease rates), while MAFF’s attention turned towards the eradication of other animal diseases such as swine fever and brucellosis.Footnote 80 While the local persistence of the disease in some areas was of concern within MAFF, bTB was generally considered to be a success story, dropping off scientific, policy and public agendas. M. bovis had embedded itself deeply into systems of food production via these regulatory systems, meaning that by the late 1960s consumers could increasingly rely upon their milk and meat being free of infections, unadulterated, easy to obtain and cheaper than ever before. The implementation of these regulatory structures contributed to changes in practices for producing, distributing, standardising, processing and selling meat and milk, setting us up for today’s large-scale, fast-moving intensive livestock production systems. The nuts and bolts of applying, measuring and administering bTB testing in cattle herds created a reliable income stream for rural veterinary practices and consolidated extensive structures for regulating, investigating and researching animal health within MAFF, which we will explore further in Chap. 4. By the end of the 1950s, veterinarians were firmly embedded as core trusted experts in MAFF, while bTB testing had created routine reinforcements of the connections between farmers and clinical veterinarians.Footnote 81 By 1971 human and animal health agendas had largely moved on from bTB—widely regarding it as a solved problem—but tuberculous badgers were found in Gloucestershire. These animals had also been the focus of protracted uncertainty and public debate in Britain. However, the participants and key issues of Britain’s badger debate had been, until then, entirely disconnected from the agricultural and public health concerns of bTB.

4 The Great British Badger Debate

Viewed from the outside, the extent to which British people have become exercised over the fate of an animal that many have never seen, much less interacted with, appears deeply strange. This was made clear to me early in this project, when giving talks to continental European audiences, to be met by blank stares and polite requests to explain exactly what kind of animal this ‘badger’ was. The extent to which the badger/bTB controversy is deeply embedded in British (and particularly English) history and culture is highlighted in media coverage of the topic, where journalists often reference Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s novel The Wind in the Willows (1911) to help them talk about animal health. While agriculture today only creates a relatively small proportion of the UK’s GDP and national employment, ideas about agriculture, landscape and rurality continue to have political and cultural significance. Many industrialised countries have their own version of the ‘rural idyll’, but the British version holds animals at its heart: the livestock which have shaped and reshaped our landscape; and the wildlife which are admired, cherished, reviled and excluded from this space.Footnote 82 Several scholars have pointed towards the historical legacies of the Industrial Revolution as the origins of this paradox. As human populations grew and migrated to the cities to take up new jobs, people’s immediate environments and social conditions changed very rapidly, while agricultural landscapes also changed as food production increased and human tolerance for wild animals plummeted.Footnote 83 This period of rapid change created a range of social, political and cultural counter-responses, including campaigns against cruelty, for improving health and for political representation for all. While most of these movements were directed towards people, some (e.g. the abolition of slavery; women’s suffrage) sought to extend the circle of full ‘humanity’, while others were concerned with protecting non-humans, including animals, landscapes and cultural heritage. These social movements initiated ongoing traditions of political campaigning on behalf of animals and the environment, including anti-vivisection, vegetarianism, campaigns to protect the countryside and against blood sports.Footnote 84 In art, philosophy and literature, Romanticism turned away from the wonders and horrors of the Industrial Revolution to instead create idealised images of Britain’s unspoilt agrarian past, including imaginaries of the ‘natural sublime’, the ‘rural idyll’ and greater sympathy for animal suffering.Footnote 85 These ideas have left their mark ever since, as government agendas over rising populations and agricultural productivity have contested with those of conservationists, environmentalists, and animal welfare and animal rights campaigners.

The badger came to have such an unusual significance in British culture today via its multiple links into this history of loss and change.Footnote 86 As noted above, the European badger (Meles meles) has a very broad species range. However, there are some unusual aspects to their ecology and behaviour in the British Isles. To start with, in these countries most large predators (such as wolves and bears) have died out, leaving the badger as one of the largest wild mammals left in these ecosystems. Badgers are omnivorous, nocturnal foragers that in Britain live in large groups, building complex underground ‘setts’; they defend well-defined, stable territories. Population densities are significantly higher than in mainland Europe, particularly in the south and western regions of the UK; and it is likely that these specificities contribute to the unusual disease ecology of bTB in Britain and the RoI.Footnote 87 Even though the badger is not unique to the UK, it is often seen by this country’s inhabitants as ‘that most ancient Briton of English beasts’—iconic and symbolic of the nation.Footnote 88 Biologists recognise it as one of only thirty surviving ‘native’ mammal species in the British Isles, and badgers have widespread associations with ideas of Britishness and the land, perhaps due to the long-standing nature of sett occupation. This can be seen in the usage of ‘badger’ or older versions of the word such as ‘brock’ in family and place names, while images of the animals continue to feature in heraldry and advertising.

The usage of badger as a verb—‘to badger’ (pester or harass) points us towards another, darker set of associations. Badgers have been the target of human practices of hunting, digging (using dogs and spades to extract the animals from underground) and baiting (forcing them to fight with dogs) for many centuries. The animals were eaten, their fat was used as a liniment, and other body parts were used in sporrans and shaving brushes. While these practices are now illegal in Britain and Ireland, badgers are still hunted in continental Europe, a factor which probably contributes to lower population densities.Footnote 89 The oldest British cultural reference I have found is in the c. tenth-century Exeter Book. This manuscript includes many Old English riddle-poems: number 15 tells the story of a heroic animal that lives underground in a hill, fighting and defending its family against digging invaders.Footnote 90 In the sixteenth century, the Tudors legally designated badgers as ‘vermin’—nuisance animals—placing a generous bounty of twelve old pence per head.Footnote 91 Understandings of vermin at this time were significantly different to our own: while such animals were associated with disease, prior to germ theory this was via theories of ‘miasma’ and beliefs about witchcraft. Vermin animals were more directly seen as nuisances because they were creatures likely to destroy crops or steal human food supplies: it is probably for this reason that they were not only killed, but were treated as criminals, sometimes undergoing trials.Footnote 92 The badger at this time was admired—as many hunted animals were—but also reviled and killed if it got in people’s way. Even though the beginnings of modern ‘science’ were forming, many people’s ideas about animals were shaped as much by stories, fables and metaphor as by direct experience or observation. Figure 1.3 depicts a woodcut from Topsell’s The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents (1658). It’s recognisably a badger, yet the image is also highly stylised and appears in the book alongside ‘real’ (bears, cats, beavers) and ‘imaginary’ (unicorns, dragons, manticores) animals.Footnote 93

Fig. 1.3
A sketch of a highly stylized badger also known by the names Brocke, Gray, or Baufon.

‘Of the BADGER, otherwise called a Brocke, a Gray or a Bauson’ (Topsell et al., The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents, 1658)

Ideas about badgers started to change in the early nineteenth century as questions of animal cruelty—and what to do about it—were debated in earnest. While most early welfare legislation was focused on domestic animals, the 1835 Cruelty to Animals Act made it illegal to ‘keep or use any House, Room, Pit, Ground, or other Place for the Purpose of running, baiting, or fighting any Bull, Bear, Badger, Dog, or other Animal (whether of domestic or wild Nature or Kind)’.Footnote 94 The Act was broadly aimed at outlawing popular sports in which animals were made to fight for entertainment, but specifically mentioned badgers as a target of these practices. While the impact was not immediate, the Act had the effect of drawing a line between legitimate hunting and illegitimate baiting, not eliminating but certainly driving the latter underground.Footnote 95 Early natural history accounts contain a disorienting mix of condemnations of baiting, descriptions of badger behaviour and detailed instructions on how to dig them out during a hunt.Footnote 96 It was during the final decades of the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth centuries that badgers started to be more actively debated, certainly if the archives of British national newspapers are anything to go by. While they were far from a major preoccupation, intermittent exchanges started to appear alongside routine reporting of badger-hunts. The rise of natural history as scientific practice as well as a popular leisure activity was starting to transform people’s understandings of wildlife.Footnote 97 These exchanges—often between naturalists and zoologists on the one hand and landowners or people involved with hunting on the other—sketched out two very different animals. People who were observing badgers wrote of an entirely new creature: one which was clean and tidy, played and cared for its fellows, kept to itself unless provoked, and performed ‘useful’ jobs for humans such as eating wasps’ nests. However, other correspondents were not convinced, countering this idea of the Good Badger with their own Bad Badger—a figure familiar from the past. They argued that badgers should not be tolerated, much less cared for or protected, because the animals continued to be a nuisance. The Bad Badger was guilty of a series of misdemeanours, including crushing and damaging crops, ‘taking’ young rabbits, poultry, ground-nesting birds, and by some accounts even lambs, as well as evicting foxes and interfering with fox-hunts.Footnote 98

The rehabilitation of the badger continued through the twentieth century, as the continuing popularity of natural history combined with the rise of new sciences such as ecology to inspire new artistic and literary representations of wildlife. The most iconic examples involving badgers were published within a few years of one another: Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908) and Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Mr. Tod (1912). Like many of Potter’s Tales (written to teach children the basics of natural history) Mr. Tod is a grim tale of predation, in which Tommy Brock the badger is of a decidedly villainous and criminal disposition, fitting into the older Bad Badger tradition.Footnote 99 While The Wind in The Willows has undergone a continual process of adaptation ever since, the character of Mr Badger is still recognisable (for Brits, at least): wise, old, grumpy and a bit anti-social, but also caring and fierce in the defence of his friends. Over time, Mr Badger appears to have melded with the naturalists’ Good Badger, subsequently giving rise to many descendants who populate children’s fictions (and toy boxes) to this day. A further phase in the rehabilitation of the badger took place alongside the rise of popular natural history as mass media content and new professional roles in the second half of the twentieth century.Footnote 100 Badgers were a particular source of fascination for several of the early photographers and filmmakers involved in the creation of the BBC Natural History Unit during the 1940s and 1950s. While they are notoriously shy, these animals have limited eyesight and a strong sense of routine, making them surprisingly easy to observe. They also provided a technical challenge—pushing on the development of night-time photography and live television broadcasts.Footnote 101 The Good Badger therefore became a modern media star not only as a fictional character, but also through the deeply compelling form of the nature documentary.Footnote 102

As we will explore in Chap. 7, 2013 was an extraordinary year for the public controversy over badger culling and bTB. Press coverage reached unprecedented levels, as pilot culls implemented by the then Coalition government were met by widespread protests and controversy over whether they were ‘safe, effective and humane’.Footnote 103 The Secretary of State for Defra was widely ridiculed for stating that ‘the badgers are moving the goalposts’ in response to journalistic questioning about the government’s response to scientific criticism. A host of public figures ventured their opinions on whether badgers should be culled, in a debate that had by then clearly divided along partisan lines (Labour against, Conservatives for). In the middle of all this, founder of the Glastonbury Festival, national hero to many, and Somerset dairy farmer Michael Eavis decided to intervene, on behalf of his agricultural colleagues:

The Somerset farmer, who keeps 400 dairy cows and has a badger sett at Worthy Farm, said he was ‘not inviting’ gunmen to kill his badgers but he was in favour of the cull ‘in certain circumstances’ when there is ‘a heavy loss of dairy cattle’. ‘As a dairy farmer I am not on the side of the badger’, he told the Guardian, in his first public comments on the controversy over badgers’ role in causing bovine TB in cattle. ‘They’ve also uprooted all the orchids, and killed or eaten all the hedgehogs. They’re still treated like a protected species, but they’re actually quite a damaging animal.’Footnote 104

Eavis is not generally known for inviting controversy for its own sake, despite deeply held political beliefs. What is striking about his comments is how other problems caused by badgers become foregrounded, with concerns about bTB and the impacts of the disease on cattle and farmers coming afterwards. As I have documented elsewhere and will return to at the other end of this book, Eavis is far from alone in his opinion that the Bad Badger is still alive and kicking. In today’s controversy over badgers and bTB, participants for and against culling continue to mobilise the Good Badger and the Bad Badger in very similar ways to debates over a century ago. At that time, naturalists were only beginning to observe these animals in the wild, while debates over bTB were still mired in controversy over connecting diseases in humans to those in cows—wildlife was not even on the table. The Good Badger today continues to be lauded, now as a loved charismatic ‘native’ species and victim of human persecution. While accusations of stealing lambs have mostly receded, the Bad Badger continues to be accused of damaging crops, undermining buildings and eating other loved animals (principally hedgehogs). The rhetoric on both sides continues to focus on badgers’ roles in human society and whether we love or hate them, rather than addressing the deep complexities of managing an infectious disease which moves between humans, domestic animals or wildlife in unpredictable ways.

While many aspects of the controversy are unique to the UK, this contested social dynamic (between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ versions of an animal) is not. Instead it fits into a broader pattern of what anthropologist John Knight has described as ‘pestilence discourses’, seen across many cultures.Footnote 105 Pest animals are represented as dirty, violent, reproducing out of control and intruding on human spaces. While some creatures are kept solidly in this role (e.g. flies, rats), sometimes this varies across cultures (primates), while others occupy an in-between space where they are regarded differently by different groups of people within the same culture. When this is the case, the proper role of the animal can be fiercely contested and is often subject to change over time. Striking examples include the multiple roles played by pigeons (loved companions/charismatic wildlife/dangerous vermin), or the dingo in Australia, which in different parts of the country is a reviled invasive species or a protected and valued participant in indigenous ecosystems and cultures.Footnote 106 The curiously plastic and deeply felt nature of the pest category is part of a larger complex of changing social roles assigned to and played by animals; contributing to our earlier exploration of the ‘roles and traces’ of animals in the history of medicine discussed above.Footnote 107 Pestilence discourses have both cause and consequence beyond the realm of language: such animals often have forms of life that bring them into conflict with humans, with often lethal consequences for the animals. At times this involves direct threats to people (e.g. creatures that are predatory, poisonous or disease vectors), but more often foraging on human food supplies, or just getting in the way. Researchers characterise these situations as ‘wildlife conflict’, recognising that they are as much or even more about conflict between humans about animals, as between humans and animals.Footnote 108 As I have argued elsewhere, changes in badgers’ legal status and social roles, alongside long-standing continuities in debates over the Good/Bad Badger are strongly suggestive of a long-standing wildlife conflict, which precedes and drives today’s knowledge controversy over bTB.Footnote 109 Through the rest of this book, I will trace the continuing development of Britain’s ‘badger debate’ since the middle of the last century and explore how it has come to be thoroughly entangled with the politics of livestock health in Britain.

5 Vermin, Victims and Disease: An Overview

This book falls into a disciplinary gap—between historical research focusing on the past proper, with most ‘modern’ history going up to the 1950s at best—and social science, which tends to explore recent events, and rarely pays attention to change over time.Footnote 110 With some honourable exceptions,Footnote 111 the literature on bTB, conservation and the politics of animal welfare follows a similar pattern, meaning that this project navigates relatively unexplored terrain. Therefore, some tough decisions have been made about the scope of the project and this book barely scratches the surface of what remains to be learned. Principally, this is a history of the badger/bTB knowledge controversy, rather than a broader history of bTB or of wildlife politics. This focus on the controversy and on how knowledge about the problem was built has led to more attention being paid to those people regarded as ‘experts’ by the state—veterinarians and scientists—and the individual campaigners who challenged those expert views.

One group who have ended up dropping out of view (despite also being ‘experts’, of a different kind) are the farmers who raise, care, slaughter and grieve for cows infected with M. bovis, and whose ambivalent relationship with badgers is also at the heart of the problem.Footnote 112 This might sound strange, but it is partly because farmers are so important that I have set them aside in this research. My interest in the knowledge controversy, which has largely taken place in Whitehall, various government research facilities and in mass media, means that it would not be possible to do justice to the complexities of this history as it has played out on farms and in rural communities across the country. Such a project would require a different combination of research methods than the ones I have used, most likely employing a local, oral and community history approach. It would also need to be more fully grounded in the maturing literature on the social science of animal health, which is now exploring at depth the experiences, understandings and suffering of farmers involved in animal disease crises.Footnote 113 This decision has also been motivated by more pragmatic considerations: the files I consulted in the UK National Archives and the Zuckerman papers mention farmers less often than you might imagine, a telling absence speaking of their lack of direct engagement with policy. I was also unable to gain access to the post 1945 archives of the National Farmers Union (NFU). Given these constraints, I have sought to draw out farming perspectives whenever I can, as well as noting when, where and how other actors do (or do not) engage with farmers.

Structure of This Volume. Part One: Contexts. Chapter 1 introduces the specific combination of historical and cultural contexts which act as a backdrop to the debate. Chapter 2 starts by recounting the twists and turnabouts of how the UK went from a single badger, found dead of bTB in 1971, to a major government research programme and national-scale culling policy by 1975.

Part Two: Reframing Bovine TB (1965–1995). This section takes a thematic approach to the middle years of the controversy, with chapters on three interacting but identifiably different epistemic communities—animal health, disease ecology and badger protection. Chapter 3 explores the worlds, work and caring practices of farmers and veterinarians, drawing out the history and development of veterinary approaches to disease control policy in Britain. It then traces how government veterinarians worked with others to understand the badger/bTB situation (interspersed with episodes of public controversy) in the context of organisational tensions over the place of applied research in government. Chapter 4 conducts a similar exploration of the worlds of scientists responsible for pest control research within government, drawing out how they had already developed considerable experience of wildlife disease and of negotiating the British ‘badger debate’ by the early 1970s. This obscure niche within government—carved out by applied ecologists—turns out to have been surprisingly influential, not only on the badger/bTB debate, but on British wildlife conservation and animal welfare science, policy and practice. Chapter 5 moves on to the complex and overlapping groups concerned with badger protection, who had succeeded in making the animal into ‘a mammal of interest’Footnote 114 to a widening circle of campaigners, media audiences and members of Parliament by the end of the 1960s. This chapter draws out the rapidly shifting negotiations between multiple ‘cultures of care’ through this period, whereby an early consensus that gassing the animals was the most ‘humane’ solution rapidly disintegrated, creating deeply entrenched oppositions to government policy that persist to this day.

Part Three: Contesting Animal Health (1996–Present). This brings these perspectives back together to explore an entirely new round of contestation over badgers and bTB. I will use the metaphor of the ‘backstage’ and ‘frontstage’ of policymaking to analyse the interactions between policy and public spheres since the mid-1990s.Footnote 115 This account will start in Chap. 6 with the winding down of MAFF’s twenty-year research programme and policy regime, and the commissioning of senior ecologist Professor (now Lord) John Krebs to review ‘the scientific evidence’ and ‘to make recommendations’ on this basis.Footnote 116 This chapter will address relationships between science and policy since the 1990s, exploring repeating cycles of raised and broken expectations around science, technology and bTB. It will also provide an analysis of legitimacy rivalries within policy between the multiple epistemic communities. Chapter 7 will pick up the public face of these disputes, returning to the campaigners and lobby groups involved in badger/bTB. While this knowledge controversy has always had a public face, from 2010 onwards the issue started to attract much more mainstream media and political attention, culminating in a peaking of the issue in 2013. This chapter will chart the public expansion and increasing polarisation of the controversy, placing it into wider political contexts leading up to the Brexit referendum of 2016. Chapter 8 will summarise my arguments about TB in humans and other animals; wildlife conflicts; care as a driver of controversy; and expectations, science and policy. It will close by looking to the future of badger/bTB, making some suggestions about possibilities for moving forwards with this long-standing and notorious policy failure.