Can our badgers look forward to a brighter future?

Can our badgers look forward to a brighter future?

Badger © Andrew Parkinson/2020VISION

Last week George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, made an announcement in a written statement to Parliament about the Government’s intentions for badgers as part of their strategy for dealing with bovine TB. Here, Tim Birch, Director of Nature's Recovery for Derbyshire Wildlife Trust shares his thoughts on what it all means for our beleaguered badgers. Will the shooting stop and what does the future hold?

If you were to have read several of the newspaper reports last week on the recent Government announcement, you may be forgiven for thinking that the future for badgers is bright. However, the Government announcement signalled that it is going to end issuing badger cull licences, which does not amount to them ending culling any time soon. In fact, intensive badger cull licences will continue to be issued up to 2022. Given that cull licences run for four years that means that the end date for badger culling will be 2025!

The recent announcement also included the launch of a Government consultation on their exit strategy from intensive badger culling, which includes a transition to badger vaccination, the deployment of a cattle vaccine (in five years) and other cattle disease control measures. This consultation will run up until March 24, 2021. George Eustice used this “good news” story to share the shocking number of badgers that were shot in 2020 across England, which is estimated to be a minimum of 38,642 culled in autumn 2020. This takes the total number of badgers culled since the legal shooting began in 2013 to 140,830 badgers. Last week’s announcement on bringing an end to the cull means that over 100,000 badgers could still be shot up to the date when the cull licences expire in 2025. The overall badger population in England and Wales is estimated at somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 (the most accurate figure puts the number at around 485,000 badgers).

By the time the cull is finished in four years’ time over 50% of the badger population may well have been killed.

What does this mean?

What are the ecological consequences of removing such large numbers of a supposed protected mammal? We really don’t know. How many of the badgers shot ever get tested for bovine TB? The answer is sadly, virtually none.

Given the biodiversity crisis and commitments that our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has made about addressing nature’s decline it is truly shocking that one of the few remaining large mammals we have in the UK – one that is legally protected – has been treated in this way. Allowing another four years of Government sanctioned badger shooting sits at odds with the narrative for nature’s recovery that we are led to believe this Government wants to see happen.

What's the impact on The Wildlife Trusts' badger vaccination programmes?

With intensive badger culling licences still to be issued in 2021 and 2022, we face the real prospect of badgers that we have vaccinated, partly funded through Government vaccination programmes, getting shot over the coming four years. In 2020, we witnessed this in the Nottinghamshire/Leicestershire vaccination area, where landowners switched to culling after previously allowing their badgers to be vaccinated. For those of us working on the vaccination programmes, this was incredibly demoralizing, not to mention a waste of money, time and effort by Wildlife Trust colleagues and volunteers – and for the many thousands of wildlife lovers who have generously donated to support these programmes.

In addition, the opportunity for the expansion of existing cull zones still remains, potentially bringing them closer to areas where badgers are vaccinated, risking more vaccinated badgers getting shot. This in turn undermines our attempts to expand badger vaccination areas.

What's the alternative?

To truly honour the commitment to nature’s recovery, whilst tackling bovine TB, we need the Government to:

  • Stop issuing new cull licences in 2021 and 2022
  • Phase out all existing cull licences as quickly as possible
  • Commit to developing and implementing a comprehensive badger vaccination strategy, which is properly funded and resourced by the Government
  • Publically support badger vaccination and proactively encourage farmers and landowners to get involved in badger vaccination
  • Not permit landowners to switch from vaccination to culling, and therefore undermining badger vaccination programmes that are underway
  • Refocus efforts on the cattle industry as bovine TB is primarily spread by cattle. This would include ensuring that farmers more widely adopt stringent biosecurity measures on their farms, fast tracking deployment of the cattle vaccine for bovine TB and strengthening controls on cattle movements.

We have an opportunity to apply important lessons from the current Covid pandemic to our tackling of bovine TB. Currently, the Government is trying to control the spread of Covid-19 by significantly limiting the movement of people to stop the virus getting passed on. There is the potential to apply this same approach to cattle, and thereby helping to stop the spread of bovine TB. This is something the new consultation looks to explore, with the ongoing widespread movement of cattle continuing across the country. With testing of cattle for bovine TB only 50%-80% accurate, cattle are still being moved often without knowing if they have the disease or not.

Now is the time for George Eustice and the Government to fully back badger vaccination – it’s time for action not just words. We need to urgently help our decimated badger populations across large parts of England recover. That means bringing an end to the badger cull. It does not mean extending it up to 2025.

The Wildlife Trusts are fully committed to working with the Government to assist in the development of a national badger vaccination strategy. We have shown that badger vaccination is possible through the many successful badger vaccination projects run across the country.

As things stand however, there is clearly a long way to go before the end of the badger cull, no matter how the Government try to spin it.

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Tom Marshall

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Bertie Gregory/2020VISION