This coming summer, a killing spree looks set to go ahead in England's countryside, with farmers, landowners and their agents licensed to take pot shots at badgers at night over huge areas of Gloucestershire, Somerset or possibly Dorset, in a misguided attempt to control the spread of tuberculosis in cattle.
Following months of pressure from Humane Society International/UK, Defra has finally released a document - albeit heavily redacted - on how it intends to assess 'humaneness.' It makes for disturbing reading. Defra now admits that some badgers are likely to be wounded but not immediately killed, with injured animals expected to experience massive bleeding, hyperventilation and shock, and some eventually dying of secondary infection or starvation.
Contrary to common misconceptions, this year's pilot culls will not determine if killing badgers reduces TB in cattle. Scientific opinion is already clear that it won't; in fact it could very well make things worse.
Instead, the culls are intended to establish if it is possible to kill at least 70 percent of badgers in a given area within six weeks; whether it is safe for the public; and whether killing free-roaming badgers at night with rifles and shotguns (so-called 'controlled shooting') is humane from an animal welfare standpoint.
The reason we have asked Defra for information on how 'humaneness' will be assessed is because we believe it is essential that scientists, veterinarians, welfare experts and the general public, have the opportunity to scrutinise the basis on which serious decisions will be made that will determine the fate of thousands more badgers. If Defra concludes that the pilot culls are successful and humane, badger culling could be rolled out across large areas of west and southwest England, with as many as 130,000 badgers slaughtered over the coming years. That's as much as a third of the national badger population in England, and perhaps half of all the badgers in the southwest [i].
A read through the information Defra has provided makes you realise why they delayed disclosing the methods to be used to try to kill these animals.
Defra now admits that some badgers are likely to be wounded but not killed outright, and may eventually die of 'secondary infection or starvation,' presumably having crawled back underground into their setts.
These badgers will likely suffer for the longest time, yet their suffering won't be measured because Defra's monitors won't be able to observe them or retrieve their carcasses to see how long it took them to die.
Most shocking of all are the descriptions of the injuries and associated experiences badgers might suffer when they are shot - severe haemorrhaging, breathlessness and hyperventilation are all likely, as a result of bone injury to the skull, vertebral column, ribs and long bones, and injuries to soft tissues including the heart, lung and liver. Clearly this is going to be a bloody massacre and widespread animal suffering is inevitable. Whilst some badgers may die fairly quickly, others could suffer for hours or even days.
The Defra document loosely describes how data will be collected through observations of shoots and radiographic and post-mortem examinations of badger carcasses, but vital questions such as who is going to conduct these analyses, how many shoots are to be observed and how badger carcasses are going to be selected for examination, remain unanswered.
Perhaps most importantly, the document makes no attempt to explain the scientific basis on which any of this data will be used. We have no idea how many badgers will have to suffer, by how much or for how long, before controlled shooting is deemed unacceptable. We have asked the Information Commissioner's Office to help us obtain answers from DEFRA to these critical questions.
As a veterinarian, I'm deeply troubled by Defra's reluctance to release meaningful information on this issue. I am also deeply troubled by the British Veterinary Association's support for the pilots. In light of the information Defra has now released, the BVA needs to seriously think again, a point raised by myself and a number of other concerned vets in an open letter to the Veterinary Record and Veterinary Times.
A larger ethical question
This all begs a larger ethical question. How can it be right that, in order to placate a cattle farming industry that has intensified in such a way as to facilitate the spread of infection, wild animals must suffer and die in huge numbers? Even if every last badger in England were killed, bovine TB would remain a problem in cattle because cattle, not badgers, are the main source of infection. As Professor Patrick Bateson recently pointed out, domestic cats carry the same amount of TB as badgers. So when we've killed all our badgers, will our feline friends be the next scapegoat? Or perhaps deer, who can also carry the disease? How many other species are we going to blame before we finally concede that, as uncomfortable a truth as it may be for the farming industry, cattle TB needs to be tackled in cattle?
Secretary of State Owen Paterson and the National Farmers' Union have put a lot of energy into marketing the badger cull to farmers. But farmers are sorely mistaken if they believe their interests are being protected. Sadly, they are simply being condemned to an even longer legacy of cattle infection, which will continue long after the current administration is a distant memory. Farmers also risk incurring the wrath of a public opposed to the culls and rightly concerned about the suffering.
It's time for Defra to end this ill-conceived scheme and let good husbandry, sound biosecurity and modern science prevail.
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[i] The impact of culling on badger (Meles meles) populations in England and measures to prevent their 'local disappearance' from culled areas. Supplementary advice provided under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 and Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). Natural England, July 2011