The badger cull fiasco
In the autumn of 2013, pilot badger culls took place in Somerset and Gloucestershire. The government’s aim was to kill 70 per cent of the badgers by free-shooting in each cull zone over a six-week period (any longer would risk raising the likelihood of TB spreading due to frightened badgers fleeing further afield).
This meant that 2,081 badgers were targeted in Somerset where they calculated there were 2,400 of the animals, and 2,900 were targeted in Gloucestershire where they calculated there were 3,400 animals.
The guidelines issued were an impossible-to-achieve dream and it was clear that the marksmen would fail. And they did.
Since free-shooting the required number of badgers was proving impossible, Defra drafted in an expert on cage-trapping and shooting to boost numbers.
Despite this, after six weeks, 850 badgers were killed in Somerset (40 per cent of the target) and 708 in Gloucestershire (30 per cent). Figures later released showed that just a quarter of the badgers killed were culled by free-shooting – the very method that the culls were designed to test.
The government did three things: it extended the cull period for both zones; it declared that their original estimates of badger populations were inaccurate and revised these figures downwards; and it decreased the percentage required to be shot. In Somerset, the number of animals in the cull zone was revised from 2,400 to 1,450. The shooters were granted three more weeks and told to kill 1,015 badgers. In Gloucester the number of badgers was altered from 3,400 to 2,350. The shooters were granted eight more weeks (against the advice of the lead scientist on the board of Natural England) and told to aim for 58 per cent of this revised figure.
After the extension in Somerset, just 90 more badgers were killed, taking the total to 940, still short of the government’s required 70 per cent.
In Gloucestershire, the cull was due to continue until December 18th but was abandoned on 30th November after marksmen failed to kill anywhere near that revised target. A total of 921 badgers were shot in Gloucestershire.
Astonishingly, the government called the cull a ‘success’.
The purpose of the cull
The aim was not to see if culling badgers would meaningfully contribute to the reduction of TB in cows – a previous 9-year trial cull found that it would not. The government did not even test the shot badgers to see whether they were infected with TB – a decision that indicated that it was not interested in knowing whether badgers were a significant cause of TB in cows.
Its stated aim was to see if it was ‘humane, effective and safe’ to shoot badgers as they ran for their lives.
Is it humane?
The first thing was to find out what the government meant by ‘humane’ and by what criteria this was going to be judged.
Humane Society International did its best to find this out, submitting Freedom of Information requests that often came back with all useful information blacked out. However, it did discover that the noises made by shot badgers and comparisons with harpooned whales would be among the measures used to assess the humaneness.
In September 2013 – after the culling had begun – the government’s Chief Veterinary Officer admitted that he could not define ‘humaneness’, despite the fact that the badger cull is being carried out specifically to test for it. Nigel Gibbens wrote: ‘There are, however, no definitive criteria for determining humaneness in this context.’
Owen Paterson – the Minister who has staked his reputation on the success of the badger cull – also seems confused on this issue. In May 2000, he said that shooting foxes was not a viable alternative to hunting them, writing that ‘it is highly unlikely that any government would wish to see a proliferation of rifles in the countryside’, and yet this is precisely what his badger culling policy entailed.
A previously released Defra document stated ‘no shooter will have prior experience of shooting badgers’ and ‘some shots may completely miss the animal’.
Is it effective?
The target number of animals was not reached. The six-week period had to be extended. The means of killing badgers – free shooting – failed, and the government had to bring in experts on cage trapping in order to kill as many animals as it did. Having trapped them, it would have been just as simple to vaccinate the animals as shoot them.
Owen Paterson claimed that there were around 1,000 fewer animals in both cull zones than they had originally thought. When asked if he was moving the goalposts, he replied, ‘I am not moving anything – the badgers are moving the goalposts. You are dealing with a wild animal, subject to the vagaries of weather, disease and breeding patterns.’ However, Professor Rosie Woodroffe, the UK’s leading badger expert, said that such a drastic change in the badger population would be ‘very, very unusual’.
Is it safe?
The guidelines issued to the shooters gave strict instructions on how to shoot safely. They were so prescriptive that we believed they were impossible to follow. They included:
- There should be no shooting in high vegetation
- There should be no shooting within 30m of a badger sett
- The shooter must be close to the badger
- The badger must be broadside
- Marksmen must not take the shot if the animal’s foreleg is in the backward position, as this obstructs the heart and lungs target
- The badger must be stationary
- Head shots are not allowed
- Neck shots are not allowed
- Shooting at lactating sow badgers is not permitted. It will result in cubs starving underground. (It was not made clear how a lactating sow may be identified at night.)
- The shooters should not identify the species by eye-shine
- Shooters must have thorough knowledge of the terrain
- Shooters must be certain of a safe backstop, so if the bullet misses, passes through the badger or ricochets, no person or farmed animal is hurt
Thankfully, no person was shot in the cull zones but safety breaches did occur. A box of ammunition was left by one of the shooters on a public footpath, while it was reported that an uninsured van carrying badger carcasses crashed in Gloucester city centre. No official report was released about the latter incident.
And the question remains: can it ever be said that it is safe to release bullets that can travel up to one mile in the countryside on dark nights?
Cost per badger
It is estimated that the cull, which ended with just over half of the planned 5,000 badgers being killed, cost £7.3 million, but the full cost of policing has yet to be taken into account. The cost per badger killed at this stage is £1,623.
Care for the Wild has calculated that if the culls are run annually for four years, as planned, the total bill will come to £19 million. However, even if the cull did lead to a drop in TB among cattle, the taxpayer’s bill, including compensation for cattle that have to be destroyed, would only fall by £2.5 million.
Meat is ‘safe’
Much has been made of the need to rid British cows of TB. Given that other conditions such as lameness, mastitis and infertility lead to many more cows being culled than TB, the focus on TB is hard to understand.
Once a cow with bTB is identified, the British government takes possession of the animal, pays compensation to the farmer, and then sells the animal for slaughter. Each year, 28,000 cows with bTB are slaughtered. The government has argued that we cannot vaccinate cows against TB without a Marketing Authorisation (which is not currently granted) as this ‘runs the risk that live cattle and cattle product exports could be banned by other countries’. The government’s solution? Export the infected meat without telling anyone!
A Sunday Times article revealed that the carcasses of British cows infected with bovine TB (bTB) were being exported to France, Holland and Belgium for human consumption. These countries have been officially declared free of bTB, and the French farmers’ union responded: ‘This is surreal. This practice should be halted immediately. It is bizarre that a government ministry is involved in this.’
Furthermore, in July 2013, it was reported that the government admitted selling the meat from the culled cows to catering firms, and that it was possible it ended up in school meals.
Does culling badgers contribute to the reduction of TB in cows?
The government believes that, at best, there could be a 16 per cent reduction of TB in cows. However, new research has indicated that culling may well exacerbate the problem and spread the disease further. Scientists at the University of Exeter have studied badgers to see how their social interaction may spread bovine TB. They found that TB-infected badgers tended to be shunned within their social groups and were more isolated than uninfected badgers. This confines the disease. However, culling disrupts this stability, and infected badgers disperse, spreading the disease further. The study found that vaccinating badgers did not cause this ‘perturbation’ effect.
Furthermore, independent scientists, including the two with the most experience in badger culling and its effect on TB in cows, do not support the current cull. In 1998, a 9-year, £50m pilot badger cull began which killed 11,000 animals. Professor John Krebs was the architect of that cull, and it was delivered by vet Professor John Bourne.
Lord Krebs called this government’s cull policy ‘mindless’ and said: ‘The scientific case is as clear as it can be: this cull is not the answer to TB in cattle. The government is cherry-picking bits of data to support its case.’
Professor John Bourne wrote ‘I just don’t know anyone who is really informed who thinks this [the badger cull] is a good idea.’
Their report concluded that badger culling can have no meaningful impact on the reduction of TB in cows.
Wildlife experts, including David Attenborough and Chris Packham, agree. And more than 300,000 people signed the government’s petition to end the cull.
Unreliable TB data
In January 2014, Owen Paterson admitted that the number of cows infected with bovine TB over the past two years had been ‘overstated’. A problem with Defra’s IT system was blamed and Paterson said that the data ‘will be revised significantly downwards for 2012 and 2013’.
The supposed rise in bovine TB cases was used by the government to justify the badger cull. Now we know that the argument underpinning the government’s culling policy was seriously flawed. Whether the Minister delayed releasing this information until the badger cull pilots were finished is not yet known.
The same month, a Defra-funded study, indicated that the number of active badger setts in the UK had doubled in the past 30 years. Given the difficulties shown in estimating current badger populations in the two cull zones, it is difficult to trust this data. In any case, the researcher who led the survey said that ‘no reliable conclusions’ could be drawn on whether badgers were a major cause of the rise of tuberculosis in cattle, because the number of badgers inhabiting each sett varies enormously, and there is not a straightforward relationship between the number of badgers and the level of TB in cows. Despite this, the document is expected to bolster the government’s claims that a UK-wide cull is justified.
The badger cull has been a fiasco but rather than accept this, the government has, instead, commissioned research into gassing badger setts. The NFU, unsurprisingly, has welcomed the decision.
If this government has its way, the pilot culls in Gloucestershire and Somerset will continue from June 2014. And the culls will be extended further, most likely into Dorset, Devon and Cornwall initially, but they could be permitted right across the country. Owen Paterson has stated that the culling could last 25 years. Whether this is by shooting at free-running badgers, trapping and shooting them or gassing them, we do not know. What we do know is that tens of thousands of badgers – most of them healthy – will be killed to support a dairy industry where cows are increasingly intensively farmed and then also killed when no longer sufficiently productive.