Two weeks ago I wrote a blogpost setting out what I had learned about the pilot badger culls in the preceding few weeks. Previously I had not held a strong view on the subject and my interest had been piqued by a cull objector asking me if I knew that culled badgers were NOT to be tested for bTB. I doubted that this was true but eventually dragged out of Defra that it was in fact the case; there would be NO testing. I found this staggering and resolved to investigate further and the product was my blogpost. It received as many views in a weekend as my blog typically gets in 6 months so it’s clear that plenty of people feel strongly about this. As I say, two weeks have passed and so much new information has dripped out, I felt that a follow-up was required.
So what have we learned since my blogpost? First and foremost, we’ve learned that Defra is completely incapable of holding the line on the justification for the badger culls. Guy Robinson, Special Advisor to Owen Paterson, told me repeatedly that the lack of bTB testing on culled badgers was because the pilot culls are to test the humaneness of free shooting as a method of culling. This is backed up by Defra’s subsequent blogpost. But, as I pointed out in my first post on the subject, this is inconsistent with the requirement to cull 70% of the badgers in the pilot area. Remember, so important is it to do this that the pilot cull was postponed for a year. Many of the badger Twitterati –or the digital badger protection force, as I have come to think of them – have asked the valid question “If, as Defra insist, this cull is about assessing the humaneness of the method of culling, why do they need to kill 5,000 badgers? It doesn’t take 5,000 to work out whether marksmen can aim properly.” It’s a fair question and one I asked in my original blogpost. And herein lies the inherent confusion in Defra’s argument. When people ask Defra this question, “Why kill 5,000 to test the method?” Defra falls back on the argument that “Natural England have licensed culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire to remove badgers from the area to start bringing down the high levels of infection in these areas.” So here they are arguing that the pilot culls are in fact to help reduce bTB. They’ve abandoned the line that they are solely to assess humaneness. We are therefore entitled to ask the question again. “Given that the cull is to test the efficiency of culling badgers in reducing bTB why on earth would you not want to know the incidence of bTB in the local badger population?” The data from the Randomised Badger Cull Trials (RBCT) are now 7 years old. The abiding and overwhelming suspicion remains that the absence of testing is motivated solely by a deep-seated fear that such testing would show minimal infection, perhaps even less than the 16% discovered in the RBCT.
What is also interesting about Defra’s latter blogpost is the appearance of the statement “The cull will be repeated for four years, which is what the science recommends to ensure we achieve a long-term benefit in reducing the level of disease.” No ifs. No buts. It WILL be repeated. Regardless of the results of this supposed pilot. Regardless of whether free-shooting is assessed as humane, the cull will go on. Regardless of the fact that the cull organisers will have no more idea of the incidence of bTB in the badger population that they have just tried to eradicate. Yet more evidence that this cull, its continuation and propagation to new areas has as much to do with science as the Flat Earth Society.
And talking of a lack of scientific rigour, the Government’s Chief Veterinary Officer has now admitted there are “no definitive criteria” for measuring how humane the current pilot operations are. So, again, “What is the point of the cull?”
Since my last blogpost we have also seen a steady trickle of botched kills. Badgers found shot on roads and elsewhere, clearly not in approved kill areas. This would suggest that either free-shooting is not proving to be a particularly humane method of culling, as badgers are running off to die or that there is a sizeable illegal badger cull going on, perhaps using the official cull as cover. The former explanation would be a further nail in the cull’s coffin, the latter requires a Police investigation. Defra insist, each time a shot badger is found away from a kill area, that it is nothing to do with the cull. But the speed of their denials and the fact that they don’t examine the carcasses is far too knee-jerk to be credible. Maybe the marksmen are telling Defra that every kill is clean, that each badger shot dies on the spot. But to swallow such assurances is naive and gullible. I will be enquiring of Avon & Somerset Police whether there are any active investigations into illegal badger shooting. If not, that would strongly suggest that these shot badgers are botched kills from the cull.
Something else I’ve learnt since my first blogpost is that in order to defray the costs of compensating farmers for infected cattle slaughtered due to TB , the meat from those animals is sold into the human food chain. The supermarkets apparently won’t have it but there’s every chance that the meat is getting into hospitals and schools. Now either there’s a major scandal here based on the fact that we are feeding ‘dangerously infected’ meat to some of the most vulnerable people in the country or there’s a major scandal here based on the fact that such a fuss is being made about an animal disease which has no impact on whether the meat can be eaten. Either way, you probably get the impression that I feel that there’s a major scandal here. The essential question is this: “How can it be acceptable to eat meat from cows with TB but not from cows that have been vaccinated against TB?” This is, of course, the line that we keep being fed by Defra, that the EU will not allow vaccinated meat into the foodchain. How long before we see Owen Paterson shoving a TB burger into one of his children’s mouths?
A further issue of concern surrounds the persistent allegations from cull protesters that the Police are acting as the security wing of the NFU. There have been allegations that the Police have been handing out warning leaflets produced by the NFU and that individuals have been temporarily detained on behalf of the NFU. I fully understand that there is likely to be exaggeration on both sides in this action but, if proven, such actions by the Police must be legally questionable and certainly very worrying. And what is all this policing costing? And what are Defra spending on social media monitoring? I feel some FOI requests coming on…..
Also of concern is Defra’s refusal to comply with the Information Commissioner’s ruling that they must release to the Humane Society information on the humaneness of the cull. Once again, we must ask “What have they got to hide?” It all adds to the sense that Defra are fully aware that their case has no scientific basis but that they are determined to press on for reasons that they are not prepared to divulge. I simply don’t accept that it is open to Government to operate in this way. Actions must be able to display sound logic even if we don’t agree with the aims. Government and politics is held in low enough esteem as it is without Government departments heading off on completely unjustified and unjustifiable flights of fancy.
One final thought. The cull has been so badly organised and the case for it is so flimsy, I am left wondering whether Defra has deliberately set it up to fail. This would give them the opportunity to say to the NFU “Look we tried. We set up the legal framework for you to cull badgers and you made a hash of it. So it won’t be rolled out elsewhere.” I wonder this because this shambles cannot possibly be the result of the best efforts of a major Government Department in one of the world’s biggest economies.
As I have said before, my approach to this issue is based on reason and logic. Policy must be based on sound evidence. These pilot badger culls are as far from a sound evidence base as any policy that I have seen. There is no chance that the Somerset and Gloucestershire pilots will be abandoned. They will inevitably be seen through to the end (in time if not numbers of culled badgers). But I think that with the continued application of pressure and careful dissection of Defra’s fatuous arguments, there is a very good chance that they will not be repeated. So, to the ‘Digital Badger Protection Force’, the Injured Badger Patrols and everyone else dedicated to ending this nonsense, keep it up, the direction of travel on this is all one way. Momentum is firmly against the cull.