The controversial culling of badgers is once again in the limelight, with the release of data from the 2015 culls, and the decision by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to simplify the licensing process for future culls in England in spite of overwhelming public opposition.
Figures released by DEFRA on 16th December reveal that almost 1500 badgers were shot under license in the cull zones in Gloucestershire, Somerset and Dorset in 2015. This brings the total number of badgers killed to almost 4,000 over the past three years, at a cost to the taxpayer that's probably in the region of £25 million.
Around half of these poor animals have been killed by 'controlled shooting', a method the British Veterinary Association has rejected because of animal welfare concerns. The remainder have been trapped prior to being shot. None of the badgers killed under license have been tested for bovine TB, so we don't even know if they were infected - it's highly likely the vast majority were perfectly healthy and posed no risk at all.
There is no credible evidence to suggest these culls are making any difference to bovine TB in cattle. Many experts worry that the culls could be making things considerably worse.
In spite of Government promises that the policy would be 'carefully managed and science-led', the culls have been carried out using methods that are very different than those used in the Randomised Badger Culling Trial which was completed in 2005 and still represents the only credible scientific attempt to determine the impact of badger culling on bovine TB in cattle. The overarching conclusion of the scientists who conducted and evaluated that trial was that '...badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to the future control of cattle TB in Britain'. Leading scientists and experts continue to oppose the culling policy on the grounds that the evidence doesn't support it. Nevertheless, Government ministers and cull proponents persist in claiming that the science supports the continuation and roll-out of culling.
DEFRA ministers have even decided to simplify the license requirements for future culls by removing time limit over which culling can take place, reducing the minimum area for new cull zones, and relaxing the requirements for land access within the zones, all of which fly in the face of advice given by its own meeting of experts in 2011 on which the policy was originally based. These changes were opposed by 78-89% of the public who responded to DEFRA's own consultation earlier this year, but Ministers have decided to introduce the changes nonetheless.
Bovine TB is undoubtedly a serious problem, and attempts to control it impose a huge cost on farmers and the taxpayer. However, the disease has been successfully brought under control in the past through the introduction of strict cattle testing and movement restrictions, risk-based trading, and biosecurity measures. The Welsh Government, which has rejected badger culling, has reduced the number of cattle slaughtered because of bovine TB by almost half over the past four years through the strict implementation of cattle-based measures. There is no reason why the same cannot be achieved in England, without the need for the wholesale slaughter of wildlife.
The Government seems determined to continue to focus on badgers. Its rejection of evidence, independent advice and public opposition, preferring instead to rely on anecdote and the opinions of its Chief Veterinary Officer which seem to ignore or contradict those of his own professional bodies and peers, suggests this policy has little to do with disease control. Instead, Ministers seem more interested in bowing to the demands of a few influential vested interests within the NFU, the farming community, and the veterinary profession.
Bovine TB needs to be brought under control. The solutions lie in the farming industry's own hands. Badger culling is nothing but an expensive, ineffective and inhumane distraction.