Representing a rural community, I have heard first-hand from farmers about the hardships associated with bovine TB outbreaks on their farms. Movement bans, below par compensation for slaughtered animals, even the loss of historic bloodlines all seriously impact on farmers’ ability to trade and make a living. I have heard about the anxiety caused waiting for animal test results, hoping to remain clear or return to TB free status after an outbreak. It is clear that the disease has a major impact on farmers, farming and the tax payer with the current impact on the public purse reaching £100m per year. In my view action is needed. The desire for action in the farming community has translated into the Coalition Government’s Pilot Badger Culls. In order to test the efficiency of the potential for a widespread badger cull to reduce TB in cattle, two areas were selected, one in West Somerset, the other in Gloucestershire. Defra, the Government department leading on the cull, initially authorised culling to commence in 2012. The NFU, however, decided that it was too late in the year to be confident of removing 70% of the badger population, a key requirement of the pilot cull. This stipulation was further complicated by the fact that the groups managing the cull had inadequate knowledge of the existing badger populations. In short, you can’t guarantee that you’ve culled 70% of the badgers if you don’t know how many there are at the outset. So the cull was postponed until 2013.
I get the impression from listening to those opposed to the cull that, following 2012’s postponement, many thought that was probably it for the cull; that it wouldn’t then take place. So when rumours began to surface in August that the cull in Somerset would start at the end of the month, there was a sudden upswell in activity by those campaigning against the cull. And then it began. A few days before the cull began I received a message from a protester asking me if I knew that the culled badgers were NOT to be tested for bTB. I thought that they must be mistaken. Why on earth would Government pass up such a unique opportunity to assess the prevalence of the disease in the species? Yes, they must be mistaken. Initially I found it difficult to obtain any confirmation on this point but, being a regular Twitter user, I could see that Defra and the NFU had begun tweeting furiously in support of the cull so I posed them the question on Twitter. The NFU pointed me to a website, which was of no help whatsoever. Defra didn’t respond at all so I called the office of David Heath, Liberal Democrat MP for Somerton & Frome and a Defra minister. They gave me the number of the press office at Defra. I called and left a message saying that as a Councillor in the cull area, I was disappointed that no-one would answer my question. Very quickly I received a call back from Guy Robinson, Special Advisor to the Secretary of State at Defra, Owen Paterson. As we spoke, I did a quick Google on Mr Robinson and discovered that he had recently been drafted into the Department from Crosby Textor, the firm controlled by controversial Conservative Party election campaign manager, Lynton Crosby. In recent times, Mr Crosby has been linked to Government moves to drop plain cigarette packaging and the Government’s promotion of fracking in the UK.
Mr Robinson confirmed that there would indeed be no testing of culled badgers. I was, and remain, incredulous at this omission. I asked him why not. He said that the cull was never designed to assess the prevalence of disease “We already know badgers have TB,” he said. “The cull is designed solely to assess the humaneness of the technique of free-shooting as a means of culling,” he went on. “Yes, but why not test while you’re at it? The protesters will inevitably point up the failure to test as fear on the part of Defra that they won’t find much. Do the testing just to remove that plank of the protesters argument,” I ventured. But he was adamant that they had no interest in doing this. He said that the Randomised Badger Culling Trials (RBCT) showed that badger were a vector for the disease. I pointed out that the data from the RBCT was 7 years old and surely it would be good to use this opportunity to update the science. I then asked whether Defra would allow a third party to test carcasses for bTB. He said he would get back to me. He never did and, despite repeated attempts to get a response, I’ve heard nothing. The failure to test the shot badgers is staggering and opens up the whole programme to the legitimate accusation that Defra are scared that it would show derisory levels of infection. Why else would they not do it? A sensible organisation would do it for political reasons if nothing else; unless they know they wouldn’t find much infection. And Defra’s refusal to allow a third party to do the testing gives the lie to the argument that it’s about a lack of funding.
I hadn’t previously heard this argument; that the pilot cull was solely to test the humaneness of the culling method. This seemed to be new. And then I got to thinking about last year’s postponement. Remember, the delay was based on inadequate data on badger populations in the two proposed cull zones. If the purpose of the cull was solely to test the culling method, why do they need to cull 70% of the badgers? Clearly the idea of the cull was to assess whether the spread of disease could be stopped. So the argument that they won’t test because the cull is just for testing the culling method is nonsense.
Before the cull began I did wonder whether the modest projected impact on bTB was worth the expense and upset it would inevitably cause but the bombshell that culled badgers were not to be tested for TB caused me to investigate further. The more I dug and the more I have learnt, the more flawed the whole programme appears.
The Government has pointed to the RBCT as providing scientific support for the cull but it appears to do no such thing. In fact Lord Krebs who led the research stated that “On the basis of our careful review of all currently available evidence, we conclude that badger culling is unlikely to contribute positively, or cost effectively, to the control of cattle TB in Britain.” It doesn’t seem to get much clearer than that. The RBCT did suggest that where 70% of badgers in a local area are removed, TB in cattle may be reduced by up to 16%. So, that looks like culling may be of some use, doesn’t it, even if marginal? But what these bald figures hide is that this does not represent a 16% reduction in absolute terms but a 16% reduction in the trend increase. And to exacerbate the shakiness of this claim, the RBCT culling was achieved by ‘trap-and-shoot’. In this way, animals could not crawl away injured. Animals could also be removed to a secondary location for dispatch so as not to scare away and disperse other badgers in the locality. Imagine firing at one badger in amongst a group. No matter how clean the kill, the other badgers will scatter and, if Defra are to be believed, may well carry the disease to new locations. Defra may have you believe that the sound moderators fitted to the rifles will prevent other animals being scared away but this is nonsense. I shoot. I have rifles. With sound moderators. The type of rifle required to shoot badgers cannot be moderated to a sufficient extent that the sound would not scatter the remaining animals. It seems quite likely that any reduction in cattle TB achieved by culling badgers by free-shooting will be less than achieved by trap-and-shoot.
A further question that arises from the statistics offered up by Defra is that if the best we can hope for from a near obliteration of local badger populations is a 16% reduction in the rising incidence, what is causing the rest of the cases? The NFU claim that farms have implemented excellent biosecurity to minimise cattle to cattle transmission but if that’s true where on earth is all the TB coming from? The whole issue seems so little understood that the idea of these culls is entirely premature at best and a hopeless waste at worst.
Recent newspaper reports (Western Morning News 12/9/13) suggest that the cull is not going at all well and that, two weeks into a 6 week programme designed to kill 2,081 badgers in Somerset, they have bagged less than a hundred. If, as they now say, the cull is designed to test the efficacy of the method of killing then such pitifully small numbers can surely not provide a statistically meaningful sample. Even if all the planned 5,000 are killed, only 120 are scheduled for examination to assess whether they died quickly and cleanly. And what’s worse, the marksmen are responsible for selecting which carcasses to forward for assessment. They’re hardly going to send in botched jobs for analysis are they? The whole thing is a shambles and I no longer feel able to remain silent about it. On-farm TB clearly has devastating impacts but I am far from convinced that culling badgers will make any meaningful difference and perhaps no difference at all or even make the problem worse.
Having researched the issue extensively over the last 2 weeks it seems clear to me that the badger cull has nothing to do with trying to tackle TB. This would appear to be supported by the fact that many of the cull proponents now seem to be promoting alternative arguments in favour of reducing badger population; they’re eating all the hedgehogs, they kill ground-nesting birds, they undermine our land etc. And there lies the nub of it in my view. Badgers are seen by many farmers as a pain and they would dearly like to have fewer of them digging away on their land. The case for culling to address TB is so weak I can see no other explanation.