PETER FROST is exasperated by how the government keeps ignoring scientific evidence in order to propagate a solution to bovine TB that is as illusory as it is damaging to the environment
Last autumn the number of one of our most fascinating wild mammals shot in the controversial badger cull soared to more than 10,800.
Tory ministers, and some of their rich farmer pals, claimed the result as a success but the vast majority of leading scientists said there was no basis for suggesting the cull was effective.
It was clear that the badgers were being used as scapegoats for failures in the intensive livestock industry.
Ten culls took place across Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Somerset.
Half the badgers killed in 2016 were shot without first being trapped — a method rejected as inhumane by the British Veterinary Association.
This year badger culling has just begun in 21 areas across England including 11 new areas in Devon, Wiltshire, Somerset, Dorset and Cheshire and could see up to 33,000 badgers killed.
Justin Madders, Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston, criticised the expansion of the scheme. “This week the government announced a badger cull in Cheshire,” he said.
“Scientific evidence is that a vaccination programme would be far more effective yet the government insists on carrying out this cruel and barbaric practice contrary to the science.”
Cheshire East Council said it would ban culling on land it directly controlled but it would not be able to prevent culling taking place on land that it rented to tenants, including farmers.
TB in cattle is certainly a serious problem for some farmers in England, but an earlier 10-year trial of badger culling found it could make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain.
However, Tory environment minister Michael Gove, farming minister George Eustice and their teams remain adamant that culling will help to cut TB.
Almost all scientists, however, have said the badger cull is not working and is very unlikely ever to work. Indeed many scientists think the cull could even make matters worse.
Gove is a firm supporter of continuing the cull despite the best expert opinion. For example badger expert Prof Rosie Woodroffe from the Zoological Society of London told the Guardian: “There is no basis for drawing any conclusions about the effectiveness of culling.”
For culling to work over 70 per cent of badgers in an area must be killed. Otherwise the disturbed remaining populations will range more widely and spread the disease further. Why then are some culling targets being set as low as 50 per cent?
“This means that there is really no way to tell what reduction in badger numbers was achieved by these culls,” said Woodroffe.
“Culling that was consistently ineffective would look like a low badger density and prompt a reduced target. I would therefore consider the conclusion to be based on extremely shaky evidence.”
Even a government independent panel set up to make an assessment of the first year of culling found it was neither effective nor humane. Gove and Andrea Leadsom, minister of state at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, know how to deal with expert panels who give unwelcome if accurate advice — they simply shut the panel down.
The two years of data accumulated since the cull started in 2013 shows clearly that the culls have not cut TB.
Now ignoring all results and advice Gove and the government have embarked upon a widespread expanded badger cull.
Campaigners against the cull say the policy will have no impact on bovine TB and could lead to local populations of badgers being wiped out.
Claire Bass, director of the UK Branch of Humane Society International said: “Badger culling is a costly distraction from the real solution to TB in cattle. It’s a disease of cattle, primarily spread by cattle, and it’s cattle-focused control measures that will stop it. But the government has sanctioned large-scale ‘badgercide’.”
Dominic Dyer, head of the Badger Trust, concurs: “Not only is the badger cull a disastrous failure on scientific and animal welfare grounds, it is also becoming an unacceptable burden on the taxpayer.”
Latest estimates suggest that the cost of culling a single badger is an incredible £6,775.
This figure does not include policing costs, which have been estimated at £500,000 per area per year and include:
- Over £300,000 for costs related to licensing the cull
- £750,000 for sett monitoring n £17,000 for independent panel to monitor the cull
- £700,000 estimated costs for humaneness monitoring
- £750,000 for carrying out post mortems on badgers.
This is an almost exclusively English cull. Scotland is classified as free of TB. The Welsh Assembly government has chosen to vaccinate badgers with trials underway in North Pembrokeshire.
Northern Ireland is conducting research into an eradication programme involving vaccination and selected culling.
There is a vaccine for badgers — the BCG jab, which has been used by a number of wildlife and conservation bodies in England, including the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, the RSPB, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and the National Trust.
Now Andrea Leadsom has told Parliament that not only is there a world shortage of the vaccine but it is also becoming too expensive to use, nevertheless, vaccination continues in Wales and the Republic of Ireland, and there are further plans to introduce it in Northern Ireland.
Cattle can also be vaccinated with the BCG vaccine although it is currently prohibited by EU legislation, mainly because BCG can interfere with the tuberculin skin test, the main diagnostic test for TB.
Let’s leave the final words to Dyer who told the Morning Star: “We could kill every badger in England but bovine TB would continue to spread in cattle herds due to inaccurate TB testing, excessive numbers of cattle movements and poor bio-security controls.
“The badger is being used as a scapegoat for failures in the modern intensive livestock industry that have led to a significant increase in bovine TB.
“No credible scientist has ever suggested that culling badgers will make any significant impact on lowering TB in cattle and there is now clear evidence the policy is failing badly. The government is simply imposing its will in an act of political aggression against both science and the will of the people.”