More Badger Culling, Less Science

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The government’s badger culling project is getting more unscientific by the day, or should one say by the square kilometre?

A few days ago Natural England announced that, for this year’s badger culls, a ‘total of 29 applications or expressions of interest for a badger control licence’ have been received, from Cheshire, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Somerset, Wiltshire and Worcestershire. According to south-western media, 25 of these applications are for areas within Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset. Which leaves just 4 covering the other 5 counties!

Consult and ignore

When the government held a public consultation on badger culling, the previous Labour government having decided, as a result of the Randomised Badger Culling Trials, not to implement a cull, it received 59,000 responses, very many of them raising serious scientific concerns.

Regardless, the government announced in 2010 that ‘a carefully managed and science-led policy of badger control’ would be introduced; their ‘rules’ stated that culling must take place over a minimum area of 150km2 so ‘we can be confident it will have a net beneficial effect’. This despite the Randomised Badger Culling Trials having concluded culling badgers would ‘have no meaningful effect’ in preventing the spread of bovine TB.   Goodbye, science.

In the autumn of 2015 another public consultation was held about proposed changes to the criteria governing culling. Those results were ignored too, Liz Truss happily announcing that ‘further statistical analysis’ of the RBCT (whose results have been constantly misquoted by the government) and ‘post-trial analysis’ allowed for the minimum culling area to come down from 150 km2 to 100 km2 .

The RSPCA, in its response to the government’s 2010 consultation (a must read), pointed out that the post-trial analysis had already been considered by the previous government when taking the decision not to engage in badger culling. Yet again, the Environment Secretary is misrepresenting the facts.

Even worse and despite the firm recommendation of the RBCT to confine culling to a 6-week period (causing the least pertubation of badger populations possibly spreading the disease), she made it far more convenient for the farmers. Basically, apart from the closed season when cubs are being reared, it’s now almost open season.

Cullers don’t like small areas

However, culling contractors prefer large areas, hoping that the sheer miles involved will discourage those people trying to defend badgers from the guns. According to NE, the applications cover areas ranging from from 135 km2 to 655 km2, with the average area being approximately 330 km2. (For those who walk, drive and think in miles, those figures are 52.1, 253.8 and 127.4 square miles respectively.)

How can one achieve an even half-accurate estimate of the badger population in an area of 127 or 252 square miles that could contain major differences in geology, soil and landscape? Yet it is on this dodgy estimate that the number of badgers to be culled per year is decided by Natural England. But NE doesn’t have the staff to cover the ground and farmers consistently overestimate how many badgers a sett holds.

Many do not understand that a single group of badgers may have more than one sett. Or that a long established sett may have over 30 entrances/holes yet no more than 5 or 6 badgers in residence, the average family group being 5.9 badgers. One farmer’s over-estimate for the number of badgers on his land amounted to three badgers per acre. Rabbits maybe. Badgers no.

Is culling badgers the only option?

No. In 2011 the European Commission carried out an audit on the UK’s efforts in controlling bTB in cattle. The report was damning, highlighting many areas where testing, cattle movement controls and biosecurity measures were quite simply inadequate.

The UK produced some defensive comments on the report (the word ‘wildlife’ appeared just once, and badgers not at all) and then a proposed plan to deal with the situation, implemented in 2013. But until England follows the route taken by Wales (e.g. annual TB testing on all cattle, not just in selected areas), England’s farmers will still struggle to gain control over bTB.

Biosecurity on farms is an absolute must if one is serious about controlling any form of disease (bird or swine flu for example) that might be transmitted by wildlife or stock on neighbouring farms, particularly when one considers that intensive farming methods compromise the immune systems of the animals, making them more vulnerable to infection.

But how many farms do you have to see with your eyes wide shut before noticing that too many are still lax in their biosecurity controls, putting not just themselves at risk, but also those farms in the area that do take matters seriously. And easy as it is to blame the wildlife, the far greater risk comes from herds where bTB is endemic. The farming industry, not badgers, needs to bite the bullet.

Infected Badger Populations’

Defra talks about ‘infected badger populations’, but in all this pseudo science there is no effort to investigate how much bTB really is present among badgers. During the first two years of culling in Somerset and Gloucester, no badgers were tested for bTB. Rumour has it that an independent laboratory is now thinking of doing such a study on badgers in one of the Western Region counties but surely, if the government wants to go on claiming this is a ‘science-led policy’, it must conduct its own rigorous, unbiased and transparent investigation.

It won’t, of course.   Such a study would only demonstrate that badgers are nowhere near being a major part of the problem. Further, any government-funded reports that don’t agree with its policies may be muzzled. One can expect neither sense nor science from a government that appears to be allowing the closure of the National Wildlife Crime Agency.   For the majority of us, culling badgers is one of those crimes.

Lesley Docksey © 22/02/16

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