THE BLOG

David Cameron Vs National Treasures: David Attenborough and Badgers Win Hands Down

12/06/2013 10:32 BST | Updated 11/08/2013 10:12 BST

It is not every day that public, political and scientific opinion aligns in opposition to government policy. But as the trial of licensed badger culling commenced last week - with the aim of tackling tuberculosis (TB) in cattle - it has been roundly denounced as an irrational, counter-productive, waste of money.

Cameron may have realised the depths of his troubles when he found out he wasn't just taking on one national treasure but two. As if badgers weren't beloved enough, Sir David Attenborough has joined a musical supergroup consisting of Brian May, Slash, Shara Nelson and others as they enter the charts this week on an anti-cull ticket.

Around 250,000 people have so far signed a petition, initiated by Brian May, calling for the cull to be stopped. It is set to be the largest ever submission to the Government's e-petition site. The Government may as well have announced a rationing of teabags, or on-the-spot-fines for weather chit-chat.

But it's not simply this popular mobilisation which Cameron should be concerned about. It's that the scientific community is behind them. In October last year, 30 eminent scientists in the fields of zoology and animal diseases stated that the cull was a 'costly distraction' and risked 'increasing cattle TB rather than reducing it.'

Of course, the issue of bovine tuberculosis is a very serious, and growing, concern. With around 38,000 infected cows slaughtered in Britain in 2012 (a 10% increase from 2011) - at a cost of £100 million to taxpayers - it is clear that a similarly serious, evidence-based, response is in order.

However, not only is the Government ignoring scientific evidence and advice - it is actively going against it. The Government Chief Scientific Advisor (GCSA) Sir John Beddington, who stepped down in April this year, refused to back the cull - while another former GCSA, Sir Robert May, has said that the 'policy does not make sense'. He concluded that the Government was 'transmuting evidence-based policy into policy-based evidence.'

One bizarre aspect of it all is that there is a rigorous, long-term, study from which to draw conclusions: the 'Randomised Badger Culling Trial' (RBCT) led by Lord Krebs. However, the Government has taken the findings of these trials and distorted them beyond recognition.

It is a damning indictment of Defra's wrongheaded approach that Lord Krebs himself has described the badger cull as 'mindless'. He has stated that 'the scientific case is as clear as it can be: this cull is not the answer to TB in cattle. The government is cherry-picking bits of data to support its case.'

So what did the RBCT study find? Well, it concluded that if 70% of badgers in a given area were culled, it could reduce levels of TB in cattle by up to 16%. Many have observed that, in the first instance, this is not a particularly significant impact and that in the context of rising bovine TB levels it does not even reduce the problem in real terms. But that is still the best case scenario.

However, the study also found that if the culling is carried out incorrectly then the result could be that badgers flee to other areas and infection levels in cattle actually go up. This effect is known as 'perturbation'.

So in other words, or rather, in the words of the Minister for Agriculture and Food, David Heath MP: 'If we do the cull wrongly, it makes the situation worse, not better.'

That is a grim admission from a minister in the department which is overseeing the cull. And what's worse is that, according to the experts, the Government is set to 'do the cull wrongly'.

One significant problem is achieving the 70% figure for badgers culled: uncertainty over the size of local badger populations simply makes the policy unworkable. If less than 70% are culled it can result in increased bovine TB through perturbation, while if culls go over 70% then Defra is risking the illegal extermination of local badger populations.

Unfortunately, it is clear that David Cameron is more concerned about the politics of it all, rather than evidence-based policy. The Guardian has reported that the Prime Minister 'has made clear to the environment secretary, Owen Paterson, that another U-turn on the culls is unacceptable and that Paterson's job is at stake'. It is no surprise that the scientific community, who rightly expect an evidence-based approach to policy-making, is up in arms.

But it needn't be the case. There are initiatives which could be implemented to ameliorate the problem of bovine TB which deserve at least looking at rather than dismissing. Vaccination programmes for both cattle and badgers have been shown to be more cost-effective and humane than culling - and vaccination trials are already being carried out in Wales.

Improving the UK's poor record in biosecurity and agricultural practices is also an important component in limiting the transmission of the disease. We should be remedying failures such as the slow removal of TB-infected cattle, as well as shortcomings in disinfection processes (from farm to market to slaughterhouse), not pushing through an irrational and harmful cull.

Rather than looking over his shoulder at the Tory backbenches, the Prime Minister should be clear-eyed in pursuing the right policies. In choosing not to do so, David Cameron is jeopardising the livelihoods of farmers as well as recklessly endangering the UK's wildlife.