Wednesday 22 May 2019

Country Matters: A fox's tail, and the badger cull saga

Curlew: The bird’s plaintive cries are a nostalgic reminder
Curlew: The bird’s plaintive cries are a nostalgic reminder

Joe Kennedy

A brushless fox (ever see one?), plaintive curlew cries and snipe flitting over wet bottom-fields were unexpected autumnal visitations.

The curlews, after gloomy news of a numbers crash and virtual disappearance from traditional sites, turned up near Castlebellingham, Co Louth, where an observant reader (PG, Meath) spotted a small group.

To see, and hear, one of these birds of estuaries and mudflats is encouraging. These particular ones may have been Scotland migrants preparing to return.

Curlew cries are a nostalgic reminder of what once were common evening sounds along seaboards as 'curi-li' and the sound of a tolling bell fell together over homeward tracks along long empty strands.

The snipe in West Cork had not been seen since winter-into-spring's tough weather when birds hammered vainly at hard ground and entered cattle sheds to search for food; one was found in a parked car!

The fox - sans tail - that I encountered was a healthy adolescent which crossed my path at a gateway to a house before turning to look, in a thoughtful way, as if an opportunity to enter might present itself.

What had happened to the tail? Had there been a territorial snapping fight with siblings? Could it have been caught in a trap?

I once had a kitten which had its tail development arrested by a banging door. Over time, it dropped off, leaving a 'Manxified' moggy. But this fox didn't even have a stub.

The programme of vaccination of trapped badgers in selected areas here continues as an important part of the anti-bovine tuberculosis campaign of the Department of Agriculture. Last week, however, Irish cattle were being blamed for an outbreak of the disease in Cumbria in the north of England.

Cattle imported to England from Northern Ireland were reported to have been responsible - and so, yet another round of culling has begun over there. This seemingly endless saga, costing millions, has resulted in the deaths of thousands of heads of cattle and badgers.

Dominic Dyer, of the UK's Badger Trust, supports vaccination as the best response. Movement of cattle with undiscovered infections spreads the disease; they transfer it to wild animals so that TB is embedded in multiple species, he says.

The UK's National Farmers' Union says culling will stop the spread of a disease "ruining farmers' lives". How does infection occur?

The Zoological Society (UK) fitted trackers to badgers and cattle on 20 farms which revealed that the animals seldom met. This suggested that the disease was not passed by direct contact but through contaminated pasture and waste. The bacteria can survive in slurry and soil for months.

Vaccinating badgers is a scientific advance in this ongoing dilemma of the countryside. But after badgers are sorted, what then about "multiple species"? Will deer, foxes, rodents and every wild creature have to be eventually earmarked for shooting and trapping - and vaccination?

Constant vigilance of cattle movements is the one sure method of curtailing and stamping out this scourge.

Sunday Independent

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