Posted: Monday 10th March 2014 by TheWildlifeTrustsBlogger
Badger (credit: Elliott Neep)
No one doubts the huge emotional and financial hardship that bovine TB causes to those directly affected, writes Stephen Trotter, The Wildlife Trusts' Director, England.
It also costs the tax payer a huge amount in compensation despite the fact that many of the infected cattle that are slaughtered still end up in the human food chain. We are all determined to see the back of this disease; the question is how.
On Thursday 13 March a key debate is taking place in parliament where MPs are due to vote on a motion ‘to halt the existing culls and granting of any further licences’.
One of the main planks of the Government approach is to cull badgers in areas where the disease is apparently rife and to ‘bear down on the disease in wildlife’. No one doubts that badgers can transmit TB to cattle (and vice versa) but according to scientific evidence, even if all the badgers in an area were killed, there would still be a significant bovine TB problem caused by cattle-to-cattle transmission. Regardless of the scientific evidence, the Government, under intense pressure from the NFU, is being urged to extend the cull into new areas. The rumours suggest that Dorset and Devon may be next.
However, confidence in the Government’s approach has been shaken to the core by a series of bad news announcements.
First, there was the embarrassment surrounding some fundamental mistakes in the official bTB statistics, revealed in the last few weeks. As a result of a computer error, Defra had significantly overstated and over-reported the incidence of TB in cattle, raising serious questions about the quality of official record-keeping. The revised bTB statistics now show that the overall number of UK cattle herds infected with bTB in 2012-13 actually fell by 3.4%, rather than increasing by 18% as previously stated. The greatest reduction in bTB in 2012-13 was seen in Wales, where an independent strategy of strict cattle measures coupled with badger vaccination has achieved a significant 23.6% decrease in the number of infected cattle herds – without culling badgers. In contrast, bTB incidence in England increased by 1.7% during the same period.
The second round of bad news came with the leaking of the headline findings from the Government’s own Independent Expert Panel. This is reported to state that the two pilot culls in Gloucestershire and Somerset were inhumane and ineffective. The BBC reports that the Panel found that “the number of badgers killed fell well short of the target deemed necessary.” And “more than five per cent of badgers culled took longer than five minutes to die, failing the test for humaneness”.
The Panel’s report is still to be published but its leaked findings need to be considered in the context of unofficial estimates of the costs of the pilot culls – at over £4,000 per badger killed.
It is therefore hard to reach any other conclusion than the pilot culls have overwhelmingly failed and should be abandoned.
5 reasons why MPs should vote to abandon the cull
MPs are voting in Parliament this Thursday. Here are five reasons why they should vote to abandon the cull as part of the English strategy to eradicate bTB:
- Culls won’t work; the pilots show that culling is ineffective – at least 70% of badgers would need to be culled within six weeks and the actual rates have been far lower (Somerset – 58% and Gloucestershire – 39%). There is a high risk that removing fewer badgers may make the TB situation worse not better through perturbation.
- It’s inhumane: the methods used have apparently been shown to be inhumane. Some are now arguing that gassing of badgers should be introduced as a more effective technique. Gassing was abandoned in the 1970s and it would be an unacceptable way to kill a much-loved wild animal in the 21st Century.
- Cost: it’s more expensive than other methods of disease control such as vaccination, cattle movement restrictions, improved biosecurity and better TB testing.
- Evidence: it’s not supported by the scientific evidence. Following the largest study of bTB in badgers ever undertaken (the Government-funded Randomised Badger Culling Trial, which ran from 1998 – 2006), the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB concluded that ‘badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain.’
- Culling is a red herring: it’s distracting everyone from getting on with the measures that will work - as shown by the evidence in Wales; namely vaccination (of badgers and cattle), keeping up the pressure on cattle movements, better TB testing and improved biosecurity.
We should all remember that bTB is the enemy, not badgers. Now would be a good time to step-back, review the policy and consider a change in the strategy. Setting up an independent expert review of policy would be a good way to take the emotional heat out of the situation and start to find more constructive and practical solutions to a problem we all want to solve.
MPs can make a start on Thursday by voting against a badger cull. Find out how you can contact your MP here: www.wildlifetrusts.org/badgers
Steve Trotter is The Wildlife Trusts' Director of England. He helped to initiate a badger vaccination programme in Warwickshire whilst Chief Executive of Warwickshire Wildlife Trust.