So what’s a badger worth? Hard to say since badgers aren’t generally bought and sold in the market place – at least not legally.
The ‘price’ set for every dead badger shot during last year’s pilot badger culls was just £30. This apparently was enough to cover the costs of shooting a badger and disposing of its carcase.
Of course, delivering the pilot badger culls from start to end involved many more expenses, such as the costs of repeated badger population surveys including expensive DNA analyses of badger hairs, monitoring, legal and policing work.
In 2011, long before the pilot culls began, a cost-benefit analysis by Defra of different options to control bovine TB in badgers had shown that the financial costs of allowing the farming industry to cull badgers under licence would still exceed its monetary benefits, especially to farmers.
Meanwhile, scientists, conservationists, the general public and many others continued to express their deep concerns about the scientific basis, humaneness and public safety aspects of the proposed badger culls. But the Coalition Government and the National Farmers Union were determined to press ahead. So began the pilot badger culls in West Gloucestershire and West Somerset in the autumn of 2013.
Things started not going to plan fairly early on. Much to Environment Secretary of State Owen Paterson’s annoyance, the badgers just wouldn’t play by the rules.
Instead of flocking to the peanuts scattered around their setts by cull operatives and standing still long enough in the right position for shooters to take them out quickly and cleanly, these dastardly badgers just kept moving the goalposts.
Then there was the added problem of suddenly finding there were roughly 1,000 fewer badgers in each cull zone than previously estimated and having to revise cull targets downwards. This, one would have thought, should have made it much easier to meet the required target of removing at least 70% of badgers in the stipulated time (i.e. six weeks) and manner (i.e. by ‘controlled shooting’ or ‘free-shooting’ – shooting free-ranging wild badgers at night). But not so. Perhaps they were harder to find being fewer in number. Or perhaps no one actually had a clue what they were doing. i.e. the people, not the badgers, since no one seemed to be sure how many badgers there were to begin with…
By the end of six weeks, 865 badgers had been killed in Gloucestershire, or 30% of the total estimated population, and 708 in Somerset or 59% of the total estimated population – quite a bit less than the required removal of ‘at least 70% of the badger population’ to achieve the hoped-for reductions in cattle TB, particularly in Gloucestershire. The higher proportion of badgers removed in Somerset was largely due to the greater use of cage-trapping, which accounted for 60% of the badgers killed in these first six weeks. A bit of an #epicfail as they like to say on Twitter since a key objective of the pilots was to test the effectiveness of ‘controlled shooting’ – a significantly cheaper method than cage-trapping badgers first before shooting them.
In an attempt to improve on these figures, both the culls were extended, but with diminishing returns: a further 216 badgers were killed in West Gloucestershire during a 5 ½ week extension; while 90 badgers were killed in Somerset during a 3-week extension. From 17-20 badgers killed per night during the first six weeks of culling, the numbers dropped to 4-5/night during the extension. 
A mind-blowing amount of financial resources have been used to implement the two pilot culls. These are estimated to have cost nearly £7.3 million so far or roughly £4000 per badger killed and 80% of this cost is being borne by the taxpayer. The full costs of the cull are still to be accounted for. In both zones, the police are still dealing with cull-related complaints and legal matters though Gloucestershire is the only one to go public with the information.
It’s ironic to look back on how the Welsh Government’s badger vaccination programme was derided for being far too expensive given a vaccination cost of £622/badger. That’s nearly £3,400 cheaper than killing a badger in last year’s pilot culls. According to the National Farmers Union, vaccination would need to be repeated annually for 5 years to achieve social group immunity, which would mean a total cost of £3310/badger. Hmmm, still cheaper over 5 years (and far less disruptive) than culling badgers for just one year! We also know that badger vaccination costs can be greatly reduced further through the use of volunteers.
The Government’s eagerness to press ahead with a badger cull remains puzzling given the findings of the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT).
In 2007, after nine years and £49 million pounds worth of research, the RBCT concluded that badger culling was not the solution to cattle TB in Britain – and that it could even make things worse as a result of the ‘perturbation effect’: the changes to badger behaviour caused by culling, which can lead to a higher rate of TB transmission by badgers.
Cost was a key consideration, but much of the expected cost was largely due to other factors, in particular the behavioural and ecological responses of badgers to culling, which is why culling badgers is such a poor strategy for tackling TB in cattle.
Instead, the RBCT recommended focusing on cattle-based measures alone. The history of TB control in Britain and the results of cattle-based measures to control TB in Wales strongly suggest that Professor Bourne and colleagues were spot on. But we’ll come to that later.
Let’s return to our original question for a moment: so what is a badger worth?
In an age when wildlife the world over is becoming increasingly scarce, why hasn’t there been greater emphasis on the value of a living wild badger? The badger is one of Britain’s few native wild mammals, the largest carnivore we have left on land and the emblem of our Wildlife Trusts. Long before the badger became implicated in cattle TB, this species had already endured centuries of some of the cruellest forms of persecution – something that continues to this day in the form of badger baiting, sett-filling and poisoning. Hence the formal protection of the species since the 1970s.
So why hasn’t there been more discussion of the costs experienced by people as a result of badgers being killed, particularly in an inhumane manner? And why hasn’t this ‘wanna-be greenest-ever’ Government explicitly factored such costs and benefits into its decision-making, given strong indications that the majority of the British public are opposed to badger culling?
In 2004, a study commissioned by Defra found that 73% of those interviewed objected to badgers being killed intentionally, while 87% said it was only acceptable to control badger populations if it could be done without actually killing badgers. In June 2011, a BBC opinion poll undertaken by GfK NOP (a leading market research agency) found that nearly two-thirds of the British public was opposed to culling badgers to control bovine TB. The poll also showed that a majority was against culling irrespective of gender, age or whether living in a rural or an urban area.
Defra’s cost-benefit analysis acknowledges that strong public aversion to culling badgers is an important factor in decision-making, yet still excludes this crucial factor from the analysis. True, it’s not easy to measure the value that people place on not culling badgers in financial terms. But given the strength of public feeling against badger culling, and the Government’s professed commitment to ensuring that the value of nature is properly reflected in decision-making, one would have thought Defra would have invested much more effort on this.
Defra’s cost-benefit analysis is also strangely silent on the conservation costs of badger culling. It’s unclear whether Defra ever conducted a site-specific ecological impact assessment (EcIA) of each pilot cull area, although one would have thought this would be essential. What, for example, are the ecological implications of removing large numbers of a top predator in West Somerset and West Gloucestershire? Some (including former Ministers who should know better) have suggested that this would be beneficial to hedgehogs and ground nesting birds. The science indicates a more complex relationship between badger numbers and implications for other species. Has Natural England or anyone else looked at the impacts of culling on other protected species and sites, including European protected species and Natura 2000 sites? One would have thought the greenest-ever Government would feel compelled to do so.
What about the impacts of large-scale culling on the badgers themselves and the implications for people who value having badgers in the countryside around them?
In July 2011, Natural England advised Defra that the “local disappearance of the badger in some areas cannot be ruled out if culling is carried out on a large scale.”
Defra has repeatedly denied that the culls could wipe out local badger populations. Yet despite several surveys, we still don’t have accurate estimates of the badger population in the two cull zones. Counting badgers as the experts keep reminding us is not easy.
We also don’t know the impacts of culling on the badgers or how culling may interact with other factors that affect badger populations. The latest unconfirmed figures suggest an increase of over 650 badgers in the West Somerset cull zone population since the start of the cull, which may be due to perturbation, earlier miscounting or some other factor.
To those who value having badgers around them, the local disappearance of badgers is a terrible loss. There are badger setts – essentially ‘families’ – that people have known and enjoyed for years, sometimes even for decades. Reducing local populations also makes it more difficult for people to see badgers. For many, regardless of whether they ever see any badgers, any suffering caused to badgers by not being killed outright on the first shot and by the general disruption to their family groups is simply unacceptable.
These are important costs associated with culling that should not be ignored. Yet they are not discussed in any detail in Defra’s cost-benefit analysis, let alone valued.
Given the RBCT’s findings and recommendations, it’s curious to find a cost-benefit analysis of only measures to address bovine TB in badgers rather than a more objective assessment of the costs and benefits of all possible strategies to control cattle TB, including those that rely solely on additional or strengthened cattle-based measures. We have not found a comparable Defra cost-benefit analysis of different options for controlling TB in cattle.
As we wait for Owen Paterson and Defra to finish mulling over the report of the Independent Expert Panel (IEP) on the pilot badger culls and announce their final policy on TB control in England, it’s worth reminding ourselves of some of the key reasons given by the Government and the NFU to justify badger culling:
- It is not possible to control TB in cattle without controlling TB in badgers; no country has controlled TB in cattle without also tackling it in wildlife.
- Culling badgers will have a significant impact on reducing cattle TB incidence and the costs to farmers and taxpayers.
- Controlled shooting of badgers through farming-industry led culls is likely to be cheaper and more effective approach to TB control than cage-trapping alone or vaccination and also likely to be humane and safe.
Let’s take each of these in turn.
- The history of TB control in Britain and the recent achievements of Wales show that it is entirely possible to achieve major reductions in cattle TB without culling badgers. The number of cattle slaughtered for TB in Wales has decreased by nearly 50% between 2009 and 2013 since a range of new cattle measures were introduced in recent years, including annual TB testing, stricter movement controls and tighter biosecurity. In 2013 alone, the number of cattle slaughtered was reduced by 34% and the number of new herd incidents of TB was down by 22% from the 2012.
New cattle measures introduced in England by Defra over the last two years also seem to be having an impact with 14% fewer cattle slaughtered for TB in 2013 than in 2012.
2. Badger culling over 4 consecutive years could result in a 12-16% reduction on average after 9 years (from the start of culling) in the incidence of cattle TB in culled areas relative to un-culled areas. The extent of reduction will depend on site-specific conditions and ensuring that culling follows certain minimum criteria, some of which are difficult to meet. The actual reduction in cattle TB incidence is expected to vary quite a lot. There is also a high risk of making cattle TB worse if culling is not carried out properly. Finally, as culling as not been designed in a scientific manner, there will be no way of being sure how much of any future reduction in cattle TB incidence is due to reducing badger populations and how much due to other measures. 
3. It’s difficult not to say, ‘We told you so’, but controlled shooting was the first of the many #epicfails of the pilot badger culls.
Extension of the culls and greater use of cage-traps than originally budgeted greatly increased total costs. The latest leaks from the IEP report suggest that only 41% of badgers were killed in Somerset in the first six weeks of the cull and not 59%, while 37% were killed in Gloucestershire and not 30%. Earlier leaks from the IEP report to the BBC also suggest that the culls have failed to meet the Government’s own standard for humaneness.
Enough said. We dread to think what is the true cost-benefit ratio for the two pilot culls.
More than two years ago, Defra’s cost-benefit analysis warned in its concluding remarks that the success of the Government’s preferred policy option for bovine TB control depends on:
“…a commitment and willingness from the [farming] industry to accept the costs of operating the policy for the marginal financial benefits that badger control offers and the non-financial benefits of freedom from TB in cattle. The consideration for Government is whether the net reduction in bTB, in areas where the disease is serious and growing, is sufficient to justify the cost to members of the public who may value badger populations and badger welfare.”
Is culling badgers really worth it given the marginal benefits to farmers and the high costs involved, including the cost to those who value badger populations and badger welfare? Is the farming industry really prepared to foot the bill for culling badgers? Do they really want this PR disaster on their hands?
More importantly, is culling even necessary, given the achievements of the Welsh Assembly Government in cattle TB control over the last five years? How is it ethical to continue to pursue a policy that could potentially decimate an iconic native wild species across large areas of England when there is compelling evidence that more effective and viable alternatives exist?
At a time when nature is under threat as never before, persisting with a badger cull policy also sets a terrible precedent for conservation both at home and abroad. When we have so little concern for our own native wildlife, what right do we have to ask others to protect their lions and tigers and rhinos?
No one disputes the need to address the recent rise and spread of cattle TB in Britain and the related costs to taxpayers and farmers. But ludicrous amounts of time, money and effort have been spent on trying to implement a badger cull policy of dubious value to cattle TB control that is opposed by the majority of independent scientists, leading wildlife and animal welfare charities and the general public.
Surely all this time, effort and money by both sides would be far better invested in strategies that could generate much greater reductions in bovine TB and more quickly than badger culling? If Wales could do it, why can’t England?
By September 2013, over 304,000 people had signed an H.M. Government e-petition against the cull. At the time, this was the largest number of signatures received since e-petitions were started a few years ago.
Long before the culls started, scores of people were out surveying setts and organizing themselves to protect badgers during the culls through night patrols and other means. Countless people have donated time and money to identify and advocate for better solutions to the cattle TB problem – solutions that don’t involve a pointless, cruel and costly cull of a native wild species.
It’s high time the Coalition Government steps up to the plate to value nature properly, ensure its TB control policies are consistent with its environmental policies, and teach Defra what the ‘e’ in its name actually stands for.
In Biodiversity 2020, England’s national strategy for its wildlife and ecosystem services, the Government stated:
Given the Coalition Government’s performance on a range of environmental issues, Badgergate proposes Biodiversity 2020 be amended as follows: