The Blog

Paterson Out, Truss in: Will Change at the Top Mean a Change of Fortune For England's Badgers?

Owen Paterson has served English farmers, taxpayers and, most of all, the wildlife he was supposed to protect, very badly indeed. Liz Truss would be well advised to use her experience from her time in the Education Department to learn from his mistakes.

Whilst the badgers were accused of moving the goalposts last year, the Prime Minister has shown Defra's Owen Paterson a red card and moved him right off the pitch.

His departure as Secretary of State for Environment provides an opportunity for a much-needed re-think of a badger cull policy for which farmers and taxpayers are paying through their pockets, and badgers with their lives. Elizabeth Truss is fresh off the benches as Paterson's substitute. But will she change the rules of the game?

The badger cull, designed to placate some farming and veterinary interests, has proved to be a disaster.

In his dogged determination to pursue the persecution of badgers, Mr Paterson chose to ignore overwhelming independent scientific evidence and opinion indicating that killing badgers would contribute little or nothing to TB control, or indeed even make it worse. He also seemingly ignored the disastrous outcomes of the 'pilot culls' conducted last autumn and deemed ineffective and inhumane by his very own Independent Expert Panel, and decided to repeat the killing in Somerset and Gloucestershire this year. DEFRA is even conducting research into badger sett gassing, an indiscriminate and inhumane method of killing badgers which was abandoned in the 1980s. He also chose to brush aside compelling data from Wales where stricter cattle measures are having a huge impact on reducing the number of cattle slaughtered because of TB, without a single badger being killed.

Owen Paterson has served English farmers, taxpayers and, most of all, the wildlife he was supposed to protect, very badly indeed. Liz Truss would be well advised to use her experience from her time in the Education Department to learn from his mistakes.

Paterson's approach to scientific experts seems to have been to ask them for their opinion in the hope they agreed with him, and then ignore their opinion when the vast majority of them didn't. Liz Truss would do well to take a less blinkered approach, and start by seeking counsel from some of the independent scientists who understand the epidemiology of bovine TB.

Professor David Macdonald, chair of Natural England's Science Advisory Committee, publicly urged the government not to extend the pilot culls last year when they had clearly failed, and recently described the policy as an 'epic failure'. Dr Rosie Woodroffe from the Institute of Zoology who was a member of the Independent Scientific Group which designed and analysed the Randomised Badger Culling Trial a few years ago, has stated that badger culling "alters badger population structure in ways which accelerate transmission [of bovine TB], undermining any benefits for TB control". In a recent publication in the prestigious journal Nature, modelling by researchers from the University of Warwick demonstrates what independent scientists have been saying for many years - that the focus on badger control is misplaced, and that control of bovine tuberculosis in cattle will only be achieved by focussing instead on cattle-based measures.

Indeed, virtually every expert on this subject is of the view that a badger cull is not the right approach.

These people are not activists - they are scientists who understand the way infectious diseases spread among and between animal populations, and politicians ignore them at their peril.

Truss should also give serious consideration to the data coming out of Wales, where stricter controls over cattle testing, cattle movement, and on-farm biosecurity protocols are resulting in significant reductions in cattle TB. The number of cattle slaughtered because of bovine TB has reduced by more than half in the principality since 2009, with those killed in March and April this year being the lowest ever recorded in both months since 2008. The data on new herd incidents in Wales for the 12 months to the end of April this year show a 21 per cent reduction on the previous 12 months, with the number of cattle slaughtered down by one third over the same period.

These are compelling figures. The Welsh Chief Veterinary Officer Christianne Glossop identified the re-introduction of annual cattle testing as the cornerstone of Wales' TB eradication programme. Wales has rejected badger culling, and is bringing down cattle TB rates in leaps and bounds. Meanwhile in England, millions of pounds of public and private funds are being wasted on pilot badger culls and research into alternative methods of killing badgers, with all the associated societal divisions and policing costs, only for us to be lagging way behind Wales in terms of controlling bovine TB.

Another priority item on Liz Truss's to-do list should be to re-evaluate DEFRA's proposals for distributing public funds to help build badger vaccination programmes.

Badger vaccination is a laudable enterprise and it's good to see DEFRA promoting it in its 25 year strategy to achieve bovine TB-free status in England.

The problem is that for many years now, DEFRA and its NFU partners have put considerable energy into convincing farmers that vaccination of badgers is an expensive waste of time. They were wrong of course, and now farmers are being told the truth about the advantages of badger vaccination. However, DEFRA's funds are not being focused in the right direction. To actually have most impact, and to attract lay volunteers vital to running the scheme on the ground, vaccination needs to focus on high-risk areas and be delivered as an alternative to culling. Instead, DEFRA will only be making funds available in the so-called 'edge area' which borders the high-risk TB hotspots in the West and South West of England, which were never in the running for badger culls in the first place. That means the government won't be supporting any badger vaccination programmes in areas that might benefit most - where TB is already a big problem, and where badgers (and by extension cattle) most need protecting. It's precisely this kind of misguided policy making that Liz Truss needs to sort out, and fast.

Badger culling has been shown, over and over again, to be ineffective, inhumane and entirely unnecessary to control TB in cattle. We can only hope that Liz Truss will take the politics out of TB control, look at the science, take advice from the experts, and do a better job for farmers, the taxpayer and our beleaguered badgers, than her predecessor.