Gassing badgers: Science vs. Royals

In the wake of the official release of the Independent Expert Panel’s report  (IEP) on the failed pilot badger culls in England, Princess Anne has stated that gassing badgers is the way forward. Gassing, according to the Princess Royal, is a more humane way of killing badgers than shooting because ‘they just go to sleep’. Her remarks were made to the BBC’s Countryfile programme, which will be broadcast on Sunday, 7th April.

Badgers - a bundle of babies

© Andrew Cooper/naturepl.com

Badger setts were gassed with hydrogen cyanide (HCN) at Porton Down as part of an early TB control programme from 1975 to 1982. It was believed at the time that HCN was humane in action and that animals exposed to it would either become unconscious and die or if the dose wasn’t strong enough to kill, merely fall unconscious and recover with no ill effects.

But this is what Dr Chris Cheeseman has to say about gassing badgers at Porton Down based on first-hand experience:

“Watching badgers exposed to HCN, retching and vomiting while uttering distress calls, is an experience I shall never forget.  Gassing was immediately halted as a control method and live trapping followed by shooting was adopted in its place.

Apart from the need to establish whether any new gasses such, as carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide, are humane in action, it would be necessary to overcome the practical difficulties of gassing setts in inaccessible places, such as steep, thickly wooded banks, tin mine shafts or cliff edges.  There is also the problem of achieving lethal concentrations of gas in the blind ended tunnels of a sett – badgers often reopened setts gassed with HCN from the inside.  Then there is the problem of killing non-target species such as polecats, otters and the many protected small mammals that frequently occupy setts. 

 Finally, it would be necessary to devise a strategy which would avoid the possibility of causing local extinction of badger populations, since this would contravene the Bern Convention and have unknown ecological impacts, and establish whether gassing caused any negative perturbation influences that might exacerbate the spread of TB in both badgers and cattle.

It would be far more sensible to concentrate on improving the cattle TB testing regime than invent new ways of killing badgers.”

Controlled shooting during the pilot badger culls failed miserably to achieve the required target of removing at least 70% of the badger population. In both Somerset and Gloucestershire, less than 50% of the estimated badger population was removed in the end.  Shooting also failed on humane grounds with an unacceptably high proportion of badgers living longer than five minutes after being shot. (See http://www.fwi.co.uk/articles/04/04/2014/144045/quick-guide-to-the-iep-report-on-badger-culls.htm  and https://www.facebook.com/TbFreeEngland/posts/559091854198583 for brief summaries of the IEP report.)

Given the failure of Government’s recent pilot badger culls (a failure that was long-predicted by experts), calls for gassing are likely to increase amongst those who remain convinced that TB in cattle cannot be controlled without addressing it in badgers, despite much evidence indicating otherwise.

According to the vast majority of independent scientists, this constant focus on badger culling, indeed some might say near obsession, is a just a costly distraction from addressing the key underlying causes of cattle TB in England. This includes in particular the failure of the cattle TB testing regime to identify and remove infected cattle and prevent the onward spread of bovine TB.  Approximately one in five infected cattle are missed during routing skin testing using the SICCT test and the movement of cattle from apparently TB-free herds is a source of further cattle-to-cattle transmission.

The latest statistics from Wales have demonstrated how improvements to cattle testing and related measures have reduced cattle TB incidence by 48% in just five years – without any badger culling whether by shooting, gassing or other means.

Notes:

Dr Chris Cheeseman has worked on badgers and bovine TB for many years. We are extremely grateful to Dr Cheeseman for sharing his experience of past experiments of gassing badgers in the UK.

You can also hear Dr Cheeseman’s recent interview on Radio Gloucester Claire Carter (drag cursor to 2.41.12) and read his article for Badgergate on ‘Why a badger cull won’t work’, which was published before the start of the pilot culls…If only the powers that be would listen.