Badger cull maths, stats and management

Dr Tim Hounsome | 20 January 2014

I deal a lot with numbers in my work. Very often we’re analysing vast amounts of data and looking for statistically significant differences. In order to demonstrate these differences we turn to very, very complicated statistical models that very, very, very clever people have kindly designed for us. It’s a world of complex systems, interlinked effects and obscure interactions. You can imagine therefore, why I laughed out loud when I saw the recent figures on the costs of the pilot badger cull. No complicated statistical models needed here!

I say I laughed. It was a resigned, despairing laugh, one of those involuntary ones that comes out just before you smash your head into the desk and shout something that ends in “….. sake!!”

I seriously don’t think there is any point in writing anything more. The figures really do speak for themselves and I guarantee you won’t need to be a statistician to get the point.

Badger Number - Table

Both pilot cull areas = 567 km²

Welsh Intensive Action Area = 288 km²

*Defra’s prediction : http://www.defra.gov.uk/animal-diseases/a-z/bovine-tb/badgers/culling/

+ based on figures from http://www.careforthewild.com/2014/01/badgercullcost7m/  and http://wales.gov.uk/docs/drah/publications/130129iaareport2012en.pdf

A bit confusing on first reading I grant you, worth a second look? A double-take?!!

If Defra stands back and lets the farmers crack on with a cull and there is no opposition from the anti-cull activists and therefore no significant policing requirement, then the only cost is the £2,628/km² borne by the farmers. Presumably Defra expect that this will result in a decrease in herd breakdowns (!?!) which will save them (and us taxpayers) about £714/km² according to their calculations. Soooo …. the farmers pay (and potentially lose) £2,628/km² and the government saves/gains £714/km². Good deal? Well for the government it looks like a great deal, although I’m not sure the farmers would agree. Cost-effective disease control?  Enough said…

But this is a “best-case” scenario. Do we really expect a future licensed, farmer-led badger cull to incur zero costs from the licensing body (Natural England), Defra and the police? Of course not, that’s totally unrealistic.

“What about vaccination?” I hear you whimper, into the top of your desk. They’ve been trapping and injecting badgers in Wales for the last couple of years and they know how much that costs – £3,913/km².

Oh and I nearly forgot to mention the P word – perturbation! This is the well-documented disruption to badger populations caused by culling, which leads to more disease spread.  Add this to equation and there is a very real chance that the cost to government won’t go down by £714/km² but could actually increase. Not only will farmers be shelling out £1.49m per year from their own pockets but, the compensation costs paid out by Defra (and us don’t forget!), will go up!

Defra calculated that the policy would cost the farmers on average £1,000/km² and in fact it has cost them 2.5 times this. But even more depressing is that in 2013 the total cost was four times more than the cost of a vaccination policy, which incidentally would have had the added value of not causing perturbation.

In summary, the current policy has meant that the government has spent £7,290,000 (£5,800,000 of which was public money) pursuing a policy that could quite possibly make things worse. And the farmers who were conned into joining in have quite likely lost £1,490,000 of their own money.

In it starkest form using Defra’s own figures and the best case scenario, it has cost £12,857/km² to save £714/km².

Now you see where the urge to smash ones head into the desk comes from!

In a final point, you may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the ethics of killing badgers as a means of trying to reduce TB in cattle. This is deliberate. For me this has never been about the ethics of killing wild animals (an entirely different debate).  It is quite clear that even putting aside any such concerns, the recent badger culls demonstrate that this approach cannot be a cost-effective means of disease control.  The sooner someone has the guts to take this on-board the sooner we can start solving the problem.

Tim H 1Dr Tim Hounsome is the founder and managing director of an ecological consultancy. Tim also has ten years of experience of working on the badgers and TB issue. This included conducting research for his PhD on “The Effect of Badgers and livestock on Ground Nesting birds”, and he has published a number of scientific papers on the subject.