Pilot badger culls fail on two major counts

Friday 28th February 2014 turned out to be a big news day in the badger world.  Breaking news from the BBC very early in the morning started an avalanche of insights into the way badger cull operators had worked during the Somerset and Gloucestershire pilot culls.

Lifting the shroud of secrecy that has surrounded much of the cull operation, the BBC’s Science Correspondent revealed that the Government’s own appointed Independent Expert Panel (IEP) has concluded that the pilot culls were neither effective nor humane.

Although the full report has yet to be published, the BBC stated that the panel had found that less than half the badgers were killed in both areas over the original six-week cull period. This falls a long way short of the target figure of removing ‘at least 70%’. Furthermore, between 6-18% of badgers took longer to die than 5 minutes, thereby reportedly failing Defra’s own humaneness standard that no more than 5% of badgers taking more than 5 minutes to die.

Defra’s guidance on best practice for shooting free-ranging badgers states that badgers must be shot in the heart/lung area.  However compliance reports released by Natural England (NE) have revealed that their monitors witnessed a badger being shot in the head while others were only wounded on the first shot. Defra’s guidance explicitly states, “a head shot presents an unacceptable risk of wounding and must not be attempted.” On 10th September 2013, a NE monitor saw a cull operator shoot a badger through the shoulder. The shot exited the badger’s body through its hind leg. The badger dropped to the ground momentarily, got up and tried to limp to its sett before before being killed with the second shot. Yet on 16th September, less than a week later, Defra was tweeting (for several days) that all badgers had been shot cleanly and killed instantly.

Defra Sep 16 tweet badgers shot humanely

As the on-the-ground monitoring by NE was minimal, it’s probably safe to say, based on these data, that many badgers suffered a similar fate – or worse – when monitors were not present.

Monitors also rarely observed shooters following Defra’s recommended bio-security measures such as wearing gloves and facemasks and using disinfectant. This seems curious given the claims of the pro-cull lobby that the badgers are TB-infested and a threat to both humans and cattle. Additionally, on the known occasion when a badger was shot through the shoulder and with high velocity cartridges, the monitor also observed that the shooter was at times just two metres away from an unsuspecting dog walker.

Fast on the heels of the BBC’s scoop, the influential centre-right think-tank, the Bow Group released a paper describing the the pilot badger culls as a ‘fiasco’. Among other recommendations,the paper’s author, Graham Godwin-Pearson, calls for an Independent Panel on bTB to be appointed to advise the Government on bTB policy direction, now and in the future, thereby removing such policy from the influence of the NFU.  Instead, he says “scientists, vets, wildlife experts, charities and landowners, selected for their knowledge of the subject, (can) become the voice of unbiased reason for ministers.”

The pilot badger culls were intended to test whether shooting free-ranging badgers was effective in terms of removing 70% of the badger population, a humane way of killing badgers and safe for the general public. There is mounting evidence that the badger culls have failed on at least two of these three counts: humaneness and effectiveness – as many warned they would. Elsewhere, Badgergate has also reported on the rocketing costs of the cull, the bulk of which are being borne by the taxpayer.

Despite this, both Defra and the NFU seem firmly committed to culling badgers. The NFU’s director general, Andy Robertson has insisted that the culls must continue, saying that “Badgers play a key role in spreading bovine TB and so it’s essential that any TB eradication policy must include a targeted cull of badgers in those areas where TB is rife.”  A Defra spokesman is reported by The Ecologist to have said: “We knew there’d be lessons to be learned from the first year of the pilot culls which is why we’re looking forward to receiving the panel’s recommendations for improving the way they are carried out.”

Badgergate is also looking forward to seeing the Independent Expert Panel’s recommendations on the pilot badger culls. We wonder what on earth they can propose that would be both cost-effective, humane and effective in terms of removing at least 70% of the badger population. Might they even dare to go beyond their extremely narrow terms of reference to confirm what many of us already know? Bovine TB is primarily a cattle disease that will only be controlled through strengthened cattle-based measures, including improvements in TB testing and stricter controls on cattle movements. Killing badgers is just a costly and cruel distraction.