Caroline Spelman's announcement of the Government's intention to sanction the slaughter of badgers last week was devastating, not only because of the obvious implications for the future of one of our most iconic wild mammals, but because once again she has ridden rough shod over the opinion of scientists and the public.
DEFRA's announcement was closely followed by the publication of the results of last year's public consultation on the Government's Badger Control Policy. It was released without fanfare - without any press release or statement but instead was buried deep in the archive section of DEFRA's website. Since the consultation closed in December 2010, DEFRA sat on the results and resisted disclosure, only finally publishing them following a Freedom of Information request from Humane Society International/UK.
The reason why is now clear. DEFRA initially promised that the views of the general public would inform their badger policy. The problem for DEFRA is that when they asked the general public what they thought, 69 percent of them opposed the slaughter of badgers. DEFRA had a similar problem with scientists - the government started out claiming that their badger strategy would be "science-led" however when they were inundated with evidence from prominent independent scientists almost unanimously condemning a badger slaughter, the "science-led" strategy came rather unstuck. Plans to slaughter badgers have been criticised by former members of the Independent Scientific Group charged with assessing the results of the ten-year Randomised Badger Culling Trial, Lord Krebs (now Chairman of the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee), and the Medical Research Council, as well as a host of conservation and animal welfare experts including Sir David Attenborough and the RSPCA.
Whilst the majority of the scientific community have vociferously opposed DEFRA's strategy, it saddens me to see the British Veterinary Association jumping on board the badger slaughter bandwagon. As a veterinarian, my profession's version of the Hippocratic Oath is very important to me. I vowed that 'my constant endeavour will be to ensure the welfare of animals committed to my care.' Clearly the BVA seems to have little time for the welfare of badgers, given its apparent support for the untried and untested "free-shooting" method of slaughter proposed by the government. This is truly alarming because whilst it's difficult to say exactly who will benefit from DEFRA's strategy, there is no doubt that badgers will suffer. Tens of thousands of these iconic and well-loved animals will be shot by landowners or their agents who often possess dubious firearms competence. Animal injury, suffering and death will once again become commonplace in our countryside.
It's also hard to see how the BVA's position will improve the welfare of cattle, given the lack of scientific evidence to support badger slaughter as a means of controlling bovine tuberculosis. However, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. The BVA has had a close relationship with the farming community for many years, facilitating an industry that often pushes animals to the very limit in pursuit of profit. In doing so, they appear to have lost sight of their duty to animal welfare. The BVA would do well to reflect on the fact that the welfare of cattle under the care of some of its members would be better served by concentrating on instigating much stricter controls on cattle movement and by the rapid development of vaccines to protect both cattle and badgers against this devastating disease, including changing regulations to allow cows to be vaccinated. Such measures should surely be a priority and be given every chance to work before the shooting starts.
Granting farmers licenses to shoot badgers is the latest in a growing list of dubious policies rolled out by DEFRA, following the forestry sell-off debacle and the farcical approach it adopted to the issue of wild animals in circuses. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that senior DEFRA ministers, most of whom hail from farming backgrounds, have an unhealthy interest in pacifying a misguided minority of their rural constituents. Caroline Spelman's judgement as Secretary of State is rightfully being called into doubt by many political observers.
All is not lost, however. There is a further government consultation under way, which gives some time before the badger massacre begins. Humane Society International/UK will contribute to that, as well as pressing the government to initiate a comprehensive population analysis for badgers in England. I find it an astonishing admission from Caroline Spelman that there hasn't been a survey since the 1990s meaning we simply don't know how many badgers there are in England. Population estimates of around 300,000 nationally are based on surveys carried out more than a decade ago. We do know that around 50,000 are killed annually on our roads. With DEFRA calculating that around 40,000 badgers might be shot each year as part of their strategy that could be nearly a third of Britain's entire population wiped out either by bullet or bumper. We simply don't know whether some local badger populations can withstand those sorts of losses. A comprehensive, science-based survey of badger populations across the country must be a prerequisite to any consideration of lethal badger control.
The campaign group 38degrees has just launched a national petition urging the Government to reconsider its policy, and Humane Society International/UK urges the public to show their opposition by signing it. The petition, which is being supported by a number of animal welfare organisations, can be found at http://www.38degrees.org.uk/page/s/badgers-petition.
Unlike DEFRA, 38degrees won't be withholding the results!
Mark Jones, is a veterinarian and the director of Humane Society International/UK