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Badger Culling - The Total and Abject Failure of a Politically-Motivated Policy

26/12/2014 13:04 GMT | Updated 25/02/2015 10:59 GMT

On coming to power, the coalition government in Westminster saw fit to overturn the recommendations against badger culling issued by the Independent Scientific Group which oversaw and analysed the most extensive field study to date, the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT), which was set up under the previous government, and deliver what the Coalition Agreement referred to as "a carefully managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of bovine tuberculosis".

To this end, two controversial 'Pilot Badger Culls' were set up under the government's policy on Bovine TB and badger control in England published in December 2011, in order "to test [our] assumptions about the effectiveness, humaneness and safety of controlled shooting [of badgers]".

After two years, the government's own results clearly show the pilot culls have failed to deliver on either effectiveness or humaneness. Its apparent determination to carry on regardless reflects the political motivation behind the policy, which has little or nothing to do with science-led disease control.

Effectiveness - FAILED

In the first year of culling in 2013, both of the cull companies broke their license conditions (set by government agency Natural England) by failing to kill the 'specified minimum number of badgers' (70% of the estimated starting populations before culling began) in a single period of six weeks. Both were given extensions (three weeks in Somerset, five weeks and three days in Gloucestershire) based on unreferenced advice from the chief veterinary officer; both still failed to reach their specified minimum targets.

The Independent Expert Panel (IEP), convened to evaluate the outcome of the first year's culls, concluded that the culls had 'failed' the effectiveness test. Many independent scientists feared the resulting disturbance to badger behaviour could result in an increased risk of bovine TB to cattle, and the Chairman of Natural England's Scientific Advisory Committee described the culls as an "epic failure".

Despite this, the government decided to continue with the culls, and Natural England set ranges for target numbers for the second year of culls with very low minimum levels. Some said this was a deliberate ploy to make them easier to reach, so the government could claim the culls to have been 'effective'. In the event, in West Somerset the cull company just managed to achieve the minimum target, whereas in Gloucestershire the cull company failed to reach half of the minimum target.

Taking the IEP's best calculated estimates for the populations of badgers present in the two zones before the pilot culls began in Autumn 2013, and making no account for recruitment through births or immigration since, the cull companies have, after two years of killing including significantly extended periods in the first year, reduced populations by 51-71% in Somerset, and 46-66% in Gloucestershire.

The policy specifically required that a minimum of 70% of the initial population be removed in not more than six weeks in the first year, and that culling in subsequent years should "maintain the badger population at the reduced level achieved through culling in the first year". Clearly the pilot culls have failed to deliver an effective cull, and any assumptions about the likely benefits from culling (in terms of reduced bovine TB risk to cattle) can no longer be considered as valid.

Humaneness - FAILED

The companies set up to conduct the pilot culls were permitted under their license to employ two methods of killing: trapping and shooting, and 'controlled' shooting (ie shooting free-roaming badgers).

Trapping and shooting is deemed to be humane (in spite of legitimate and largely unanswered concerns about badgers left in traps for up to 16 hours on cold, wet early winter nights). However, 'controlled shooting' was untested prior to the pilot culls, and so humaneness monitoring and post mortem protocols were established for the first year of the pilot culls, and the IEP was charged with establishing criteria and evaluating the results.

The IEP decided that in order to be considered 'humane', less than 5% of badgers targeted by controlled shooting should take more than five minutes to die. Following the first year of culling, it concluded that "It is extremely likely that between 7.4% and 22.8% of badgers that were shot at were still alive after five minutes, and therefore at risk of experiencing marked pain. We are concerned at the potential for suffering that these figures imply". The panel went on to recommend that, if culling was to be continued, standards of humaneness must be improved.

In the second year of culling, the government removed the IEP, and instead published its own analysis of humaneness monitoring carried out by its own agencies. The data showed that of 63 controlled shooting incidents observed by Natural England monitors, 82.5% were shot once and retrieved, 8% had to be shot more than once, and 9.5% were not retrieved. In addition, of some 234 shot badgers that were subjected to post mortem examination, only just over 83% had 'major thoracic damage' (as would be expected if they had been hit in the target area).

Clearly little had changed between the first and second years of culling, and the pilot culls cannot be considered to have satisfied the humaneness criteria established by the IEP.

Chief Veterinary Officer's advice - FLAWED

While largely ignoring independent scientific opinion, much store seems to have been placed by Government on advice received from its own Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO). Indeed the controversial extensions to the first year's culls were granted on the basis of unreferenced support from the CVO.

In his assessment following the second year of culling, the CVO stated that the outcomes in Somerset suggested that culling could "deliver the level of effectiveness required to be confident of achieving disease control benefits". The CVO seems to have rejected the assumption in the Government's policy, and natural England's license conditions, that to be effective the culls were required to deliver a 70% reduction in the badger population over a 6 week period in the first year, and that in subsequent years the numbers culled should "maintain the badger population at the reduced level achieved through culling in the first year". He also seems to have ignored advice the Government received from the meeting of key scientific experts convened in July 2011 before its policy was first published; the experts concluded that the results from the RBCT provided the best scientific evidence available on which to predict the effects of any future policy, and that "the more that a future culling policy deviates from the conditions of the RBCT... the more likely it is that the effects of that policy will differ" - what has taken place over the past two years in West Somerset and West Gloucestershire is very far removed from what took place during the RBCT.

With reference to humaneness, the CVO stated that "the likelihood of suffering in badgers culled by controlled shooting remains comparable with the range of outcomes reported when other culling activities" (such as deer shooting). This seems to indicate the CVO has abandoned the criteria set out by the Independent Expert Panel set up to evaluate the outcomes of the first year of culling, and instead reverted to simplistic and irrelevant comparisons to 'other culling activities', which involve very different animals and take place in very different circumstances.

The CVO's unsubstantiated and flawed advice to Government does not reflect the opinions and concerns of the many scientists, including veterinarians, who remain unconvinced by the Government's policy of badger culling.

Government response - CARRY ON REGARDLESS AND BLAME THE PROTESTORS

The government's response has been to announce it will carry on regardless. In the media statement which accompanied the release of the data from the second year of culls, Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss was quoted as saying:

"The Chief Vet's advice is that results of this year's cull in Somerset show they can be effective. That is why I am determined to continue with a comprehensive Strategy that includes culling."

In the statement, the low cull numbers achieved in Gloucestershire were blamed on "the challenges of extensive unlawful protest and intimidation". This suggestion was quickly refuted by the Gloucestershire Constabulary, whose spokesperson Simon Masters issued the following statement:

"There was not extensive criminal protest in Gloucestershire, there were only three arrests from criminal offences during the entire period of the cull and most protect activity was conducted lawfully. The offence of trespass is a civil offence. All reports made to Gloucestershire Constabulary of intimidation and harassment have been fully investigated and there are no prosecutions pending."

The government is being challenged to retract its misleading statement on protesters being responsible for the low numbers of badgers culled in Gloucestershire.

Cattle measures - SUCCEEDING

Amidst all this controversy around badger culling, the Welsh government, which has rejected badger culling, has been successfully reducing the impacts of bovine TB through the introduction of stricter cattle measures, including more frequent testing, tighter movement restrictions, enhanced biosecurity and greater intolerance of farmers who break the rules. These measures have seen the numbers of cattle slaughtered in Wales under the compulsory test-and-slaughter policy halved over the past 4 years, and the declines continue.

Similar reductions are now being seen in parts of England, particularly the West and South West where the disease is most common. Some supporters of badger culling have suggested this indicates the culls are working, but it must be remembered that the pilot cull areas represent only around 7% of the total land area of Gloucestershire and 4% of Somerset, and that during the RBCT it took several years before any impacts on cattle TB were recorded, making any such assertions nonsensical.

This should come as no surprise. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, before anyone knew badgers could even contract the disease, bovine TB was successfully brought under control using strict cattle testing and restrictions on cattle movements and trading, in what was known as the 'Area Eradication Strategy'.

A relaxation of these strict measures, and irresponsible cattle trading practices, led to the bovine TB crisis facing the British cattle farming industry today. It is only through tight regulation and responsible farming practice that this disease will be controlled.

Badger culling is ineffective, cruel, costly and pointless. It's time both government and farming leaders stopped treating badgers as scapegoats and acknowledged that bovine TB is primarily a disease of cattle. Controlling and eliminating the disease in the primary host is a fundamental tenet of disease management.