Badger culling – science-based policy, or policy-based science?

Mark Jones, Veterinarian and Executive Director, Humane Society International/UK
The pilot culls

If plans proceed, this summer will see large numbers of badgers targeted and shot at by farmers, landowners and their agents wielding rifles and shotguns, in what DEFRA refers to as ‘pilot culls’ in parts of Gloucestershire, Somerset and possibly Dorset.

The pilot culls are the first stage in the government’s controversial policy on bovine tuberculosis and badger control in England [i]. If the pilots are deemed successful, the policy could be rolled out in up to 10 additional areas per year for the next four years. The aim in each area will be to reduce badger populations by at least 70 percent in the first year, and maintain them at or below the new level for at least three more years.

According to DEFRA, the policy could result in a 16 percent reduction in the number of new confirmed cattle herd TB incidents across the culled areas and adjacent ring over a nine-year period. In other words, we might at best see a small reduction in the rate of increase of TB infection in cattle in the cull areas.

However, many scientists with expertise in animal diseases have concerns that the policy could end up achieving no reduction in bovine TB in cattle and could make it worse [ii]. One thing is for certain – many thousands of badgers are set to suffer and die. Natural England, the government agency handling the licensing process, estimates that if the policy is rolled out, 90,000 to 130,000 badgers could die, resulting in a reduction in the national population of up to 30 percent, and up to half the population in the west and southwest of England [iii].

While the government claims badger culling is necessary as one of a number of measures designed to gain control of bovine TB in the national cattle herd, it continues to ignore advice from the independent group of scientists that oversaw and analysed the only credible scientific study into the impact of culling badgers on bovine TB in cattle. The Randomised Badger Culling Trial, conducted at a cost of £50 million, and in which 11,000 badgers were killed, concluded that badger culling could make ‘no meaningful contribution to the control of TB in cattle in Britain’ [iv]. Many of the scientists expressing concerns over the government’s policy are the very same ones who were involved in the RBCT.

Contrary to common perceptions, the two pilot culls slated for this summer are not designed to determine whether badger culling will reduce the incidence or prevalence of bovine TB in cattle. The pilots are designed to examine how efficient the kill strategy is:  

  • whether it’s possible to kill 70 percent or more of the total badger population across the designated areas within six weeks;
  • whether this can be safe for the public; and
  • whether free shooting at night will prove to be a humane way to kill badgers.

Moreover, the methods by which DEFRA intends to establish whether these criteria are met are highly questionable and shrouded in secrecy.

Specific concerns about the culls
Wildly differing estimates of the badger population in the cull zones

To know how many badgers constitute 70 percent of the population in the zones, you have to know how many there are in the first place. Badger populations do vary naturally both through the year and between years, but nowhere near as wildly as DEFRA’s estimates. Take the west Somerset zone. In 2011, we were told that ‘between 1,000 and 1,500 badgers would be killed over a four-year period’i, suggesting the populations might be around 1,500 to 2,000. In October 2012 we were told there could be as many as 4,300 badgers [v]. Then in February a revised figure from DEFRA estimated anywhere between 1,972 and 2,973 badgers in the Somerset zone [vi].

Inaccuracy and variability in the badger population estimates, and the fact that calculations are apparently to be based on population censuses taken at different times of year than the culls, spell potential disaster. If the culls go ahead, there is a likelihood that the number of badgers to be killed, as set by Natural England, could well result in a greater number killed than intended, and populations in some places could be wiped out altogether [vii].

Monitoring the humaneness of free-shooting

As regards humaneness, in spite of the best efforts by Humane Society International/UK to gain insight, DEFRA has flatly refused to reveal exactly how humaneness is to be assessed, beyond saying that some badger carcases will be examined by experts. Who will be selecting the carcases, how these will be chosen and examined, how those badgers that are shot, injured and retreat underground to die a slow and painful death will be factored in, remain a mystery. And how to account for the suffering of surviving badgers whose communities have been devastated?

This makes the British Veterinary Association’s support for the government’s policy all the more perplexing [viii]. The public expects veterinary professionals to provide guidance and leadership on issues concerning animal welfare, and the BVA is regarded by many members of the public and by government as a leading voice of the profession. However, instead of demanding a full and thorough examination of the methodology for evaluating humaneness, the BVA, in consultation with interest groups within the profession, will only state that ‘our support for the culls will be withdrawn if it is shown that they are not humane’ [ix].

Why are the culls still going ahead?

So with no real scientific credibility, no public [x] or parliamentary support [xi], and plans for pilot culls in which the methodologies used to determine success are at best suspect, at worst unknown, DEFRA’s policy appears to be little more than a sop to a farming sector that has intensified over recent decades and is pushing cattle to the limit of their production capabilities.

Badgers have become little more than a scapegoat and a distraction from the real issues concerning bovine TB – namely that the intensification of the dairy [xii] and beef sectors, along with a lack of action by successive governments to introduce effective testing and biosecurity protocols and encourage vaccine development, has coincided with an increase in prevalence and incidence of bovine TB through many parts of the national herd.

Owen Paterson, our Secretary of State for Environment, was quoted recently as saying “Further down the road, the culling of badgers should be a completely normal part of life in the country.” [xiii] It’s a very sad situation when the Secretary of State charged with protecting our wildlife and biodiversity is prepared to wreak such havoc and suffering on one of our most iconic and best-loved wild creatures for the sake of political expediency.

References:

[i] The Government’s policy on Bovine TB and badger control in England. December 2011. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/69463/pb13691-bovinetb-policy-statement.pdf

[iii] The impact of culling on badger (Meles meles) populations in England and measures to prevent their ‘local disappearance’ from culled areas. Supplementary advice provided under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992    and Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). Natural England, July 2011

[iv] Bovine TB: The Scientific Evidence (final RBCT report). 2007. Available at: http://archive.defra.gov.uk/foodfarm/farmanimal/diseases/atoz/tb/isg/report/final_report.pdf

[v] House of Commons Library Standard Note SNSC-5873 on Badger Culling, dated 23 October 2012. Available at www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN05873.pdf

[vi] Estimates of badger population sizes in the West Gloucestershire and West Somerset pilot areas – A report to Natural England. 22 February 2013. Available at http://www.defra.gov.uk/animal-diseases/files/population-badger-pilot-areas.pdf

[vii] Donnelly, C.A. and Woodroffe, R. Reduce uncertainty in UK badger culling. Letters to Nature, published May 30th 2012

[ix] Letter to the author from BVA President Peter Jones dated 25th April 2013.

[xii] http://www.thedairysite.com/articles/2549/dairy-farming-systems-in-great-britain

[xiii] Hard culling puts 100,000 badgers in line of fire. The Sunday Times, 26th May 2013. Available through subscription at  http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/uk_news/Environment/article1265191.ece?CMP=OTH-gnws-standard-2013_05_25

 

Mark JonesMark Jones is a veterinarian with postgraduate qualifications in aquatic and wild animal health. He has extensive experience working in the aquaculture and fisheries sectors, and in wild animal health and conservation. He works as Executive Director of  Humane Society International/UK, based in London.