Even in the face of overwhelming scientific opposition, the British government is preparing to issue licenses to farmers and landowners to shoot badgers in Gloucestershire and Somerset this autumn, claiming its policy is science-led.
Badgers are one of the few iconic wild mammals remaining in Britain. Sadly, since the first bovine tuberculosis-infected badger was 'identified' in the early 1970s, badgers have been persecuted for their perceived role in the transmission of the disease to cattle.
No one denies that TB in cattle is a serious problem. It results in the premature slaughter of many thousands of cattle each year, with devastating impacts for farmers, and at a huge cost to the taxpayer in testing, inspection and compensation. But killing badgers isn't going to reduce TB in cattle.
The main source of TB in cattle is other cattle, not badgers. Whilst several wild mammals can contract the disease, including badgers, and pass the disease between themselves, whether and how the disease spreads between cattle and badgers is still highly debatable and not fully understood.
However, the best available scientific evidence comes from an independent analysis by scientists of the 10-year Randomised Badger Culling Trial. In their 2007 report scientists made some very significant findings and concluded that :
"Badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain."
They also said:
"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".
These statements come from the foremost scientists working to make sense of this complicated issue. The government itself admits that the Randomised Badger Culling Trial provides the most up-to-date science on the issue.
So how the government can claim its policy of licensing farmers and landowners to shoot badgers, scheduled to begin this autumn across two large areas of Gloucestershire and Somerset, is 'science led' when it is clearly not supported by the results of the trial hardly makes sense and appears to be a case of twisting science to suit policy.
Killing badgers will not help farmers. What it will do is decimate badger populations across large areas of our countryside, and cause untold suffering for thousands if not tens of thousands of individual badgers.
According to estimates from Natural England, the government agency charged with overseeing the licensing process, if the policy is fully rolled out, it could result in the death of up to 130,000 badgers in up to 40 licensed areas over the next few years.
Natural England estimates this could result in a 30% reduction in the badger population across England, and perhaps as much as a 50% reduction in the South West .
Eminent scientists have expressed concerns that whole populations of badgers could be completely wiped out. And the vast majority of the badgers who will be shot and killed will be healthy, uninfected animals, who pose no threat of any kind.
Non-government organisations are challenging the legality of the government's plans, both domestically and internationally.
The Badger Trust launched a Judicial Review process in June of this year, claiming that the policy contravenes the Protection of Badgers Act.
The case was rejected by the High Court but the Badger Trust has appealed against that judgement, and the results should be known this month.
Humane Society International/UK is also challenging the badger slaughter and submitted an official complaint to the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (better known as the Bern Convention) in January 2012.
The United Kingdom has been a signatory to the Bern Convention since the early 1980s.
The badger is listed in Appendix 3, requiring countries to take appropriate and necessary legislative and administrative measures to ensure the protection of badgers, and to keep populations out of danger.
HSI UK believes that a mass badger slaughter places the UK government in breach of the convention on three grounds:
- First, the government cannot demonstrate that its policy will not seriously disturb badger populations;
- Second, the government has not given sufficient consideration to alternative methods of controlling TB in cattle, in particular the development and use of vaccines in both badgers and cattle, and the instigation and enforcement of policies to reduce disease transmission between cattle;
- And third, the reduction in cattle TB cases that the government predicts might result from its policy is nowhere near enough to justify the suffering and killing of up to 130,000 badgers and its impact on badger populations.
HSI/UK's complaint will be heard during September, and may be deferred to the full Standing Committee meeting of the Convention in November. HSI/UK, with the support of a host of respected wildlife experts, conservationists, broadcasters and celebrities, has written to the government asking that, at the very least, any badger culling should be delayed until after the Convention has deliberated.
In the meantime, HSI/UK and its TeamBadger coalition partners urge members of the public to make their voices heard for badgers by raising the issue with their Member of Parliament and the Prime Minister to prevent this unnecessary and devastating assault on an iconic British mammal.
1. Professor John Bourne CBE MRCVS, Chairman of the Independent Scientific Group (ISG), Bovine TB: The Scientific Evidence, Final Report of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, June 2007
2. Natural England. 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). 4 July 2011