As this year's licensed badger culls come to an end, a row is emerging over whether farmers are being misled about the impacts on cattle tuberculosis within the cull zones.
This year was the third year of culling in licensed zones in Somerset and Gloucestershire, the two original 'pilot zones', and the first in a new zone in Dorset. During the first two years of shooting in Somerset and Gloucestershire, a total of nearly 2,500 badgers were reported to have been killed. If this year's license targets have been met, between 935 and 2038 additional animals will have lost their lives across the three zones.
Statutory measures designed to control bovine tuberculosis in cattle led to the premature slaughter of around 33,000 cattle last year across Britain, at a cost to the taxpayer of close to £100 million.
Proponents of badger culling claim that widespread killing of supposedly protected wild animals will significantly reduce these impacts and costs.
The basis for this claim comes from the results of the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT), the largest trial ever conducted in order to determine the impact of a wildlife intervention on a disease of livestock. The RBCT, which took almost 10 years, costing the taxpayer some £50 million and 11,000 badgers their lives, showed that if you conduct an intensive, simultaneous cull over a large area, removing a large proportion of the population in the first year and maintaining it at the reduced level for at least 4 years, you might achieve a reduction of new TB cases in cattle of just 12-16 percent nine years after culling commenced. The scientists who oversaw the trial concluded that 'badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain.'
The current culls have not been intensive or simultaneous. Instead they have been haphazard, patchy, and carried out over extended periods of up to 11 weeks. They have also failed to reduce badger populations in the cull zones by the proportion suggested by the RBCT, advised by experts and required by their license, and failed to meet humaneness criteria set by a government-appointed Independent Expert Panel. These facts alone invalidate any attempt to use the results of the RBCT to predict the outcome of the current policy. Indeed the perturbing effect the culls will be having on the surviving badgers in the cull zones makes it very likely that the prevalence of TB among badgers will have increased, potentially increasing the risk to cattle.
In spite of this, senior politicians, farming leaders and some vets have already been claiming that there have been massive reductions in cattle TB in the cull zones, and that this shows that the culls are working and should be rolled out to more areas of the country.
A former Environment Secretary, who oversaw the start of the pilot culls, has been widely reported as saying the culls are working and should be extended.
In his speech to the National Farmers Union Annual Conference in February, its president stated:
"I want to stress that in the two pilot areas in Somerset and Gloucestershire we are already seeing that TB incidence on farms has declined. Not just by a small amount either - in the Somerset pilot area TB incidence on farm has decreased from 34% to 11% compared with two years ago. In Gloucestershire, vets are also reporting a reduction in TB in cattle too."
And a well-known Gloucestershire vet is reported to have told a local veterinary meeting in Exeter in February 2015 that the culls in Gloucestershire had resulted in a huge decrease in cattle TB, and that the killing of "small black and white animals" had actually saved the lives of huge numbers of "large black and white animals".
However, closer examination of the government's own data reveals a very different picture.
Badger culls haven't been taking place in isolation. Over the past few years the government has been introducing a range of cattle-focussed measures aimed at reducing the spread of TB between cattle. These measures include increased cattle testing frequencies and the use of multiple tests to help overcome the fact that the standard test typically misses a third or more of infected cattle. Stricter controls over cattle movements have also been implemented, alongside improved biosecurity measures to help reduce the chances of cattle coming into contact with infective materials. These measures are having a big impact, as would be expected given that bovine TB is primarily a disease of cattle, and by far the most likely way it spreads is from cow to cow.
So to make any judgement about the impacts of badger culling, changes in cattle TB rates within cull zones need to be compared to similar areas which have been subjected to the same cattle measures but where no badger culling has taken place.
The government has commissioned some work on this, comparing the rates of bovine TB within and outside cull zones for the first year of culling in Gloucestershire and Somerset.
In Somerset, the figures show that the number of cattle slaughtered because of positive TB tests within the cull zone fell from 246 to 208 in the 12 months before and after the cull, a fall of 20%. However, a similar fall was seen in a 'comparison zone' where no culling took place. In Gloucestershire, the numbers of cattle slaughtered actually rose within the cull zone after the first year of badger culls, whereas in the 'comparison zone' numbers fell. The numbers of cattle herds affected within the cull zones rose after the first year of culls in both Somerset and Gloucestershire.
We should remember that the current culls were never designed to establish whether badger culling will reduce TB in cattle. The RBCT is the only study specifically designed to do this, and the scientists who conducted it stated in their final report: 'It is unfortunate that agricultural and veterinary leaders continue to believe, in spite of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, that the main approach to cattle TB control must involve some form of badger population control'. As Lord Krebs, who is widely credited with initiating the RBCT, made clear in a recent interview on Radio 4's Farming Today programme, farmers are being given false hope by the National Farmers Union and other cull proponents. It's interesting to note that the National Farmers Union declined to take part in that programme.
Claims that the current haphazard, poorly conducted and inhumane badger culls are somehow responsible for big reductions in cattle TB rates are unsubstantiated and irresponsible, particularly given the additional cattle measures that are being put in place, and it's highly unlikely that it will ever be possible to know for sure what impact badger culling might have, regardless of how widely and for how long the policy is implemented.
Politicians, farmers leaders, and particularly veterinarians, should know better.