Badger cull facts
Bovine TB is a complex subject and it’s sometimes difficult to get at the facts behind the spin. We’ve gathered together some of the most important, covering everything from the size of the bTB problem to the cost of the government's solutions, both in financial terms and the outcome for badgers and farmers alike.
Badger Trust set out in detail our response to government’s proposals to continue culling badgers as a key focus of their bTB eradication policy in March 2021. You can read our submitted response to the Government consultation.
Badgers are not to blame for bTB in cattle
Bovine TB is a respiratory disease in cattle. The primary transmission source is cattle to cattle. Yet badgers are still the starting point for blame.
There are no examples of any self-sustaining reservoirs of bovine TB among badgers, even among the longest studied APHA research group at Woodchester (though these badgers appear to have been shot during the cull).
Based on Defra monitoring, bovine TB is found in a wide variety of species other than cattle, including alpacas, badgers, cats, deer, dogs, foxes, mice, rats and sheep. It has even been found in single-celled organisms.
The badger cull has made no difference to bTB infections in cattle
The cull isn't working. Since the government's cull policy began in 2013, there has been:
No reduction in bTB cattle disease in England
No independent peer-reviewed scientific research to prove that badger culling is lowering bovine TB in cattle
No reduction in the promised taxpayer-funded farmer compensation bill
Science doesn’t support the badger cull as a way to end bTB
To date, the government has not produced any reliable totally independent peer-reviewed scientific research to prove that badger culling is lowering bovine TB in cattle (2021). Defra's own reports describe disease rates in England as being 'broadly stable', despite slaughtering up to 37% of England’s badger population since 2013 (2021).
The only study to date which looked at culling as the main measure was the RBCT (Randomised Badger Control Trial) which finished in 2005. That study found that culling badgers made no meaningful contribution to disease control in cattle.
The government's argument that badger culling is working is based on the peer-reviewed study published in Nature in October 2019 by Downs et al. Yet the report itself states that “these data alone cannot demonstrate whether the badger control policy is effective in lowering bovine TB in cattle”. The study data show reductions in bovine TB incidents in cattle in Gloucestershire and Somerset between 2013-2017. The data found no change in bTB incidents in cattle in Dorset during the same period. However, outside of the study period (2017-18), bTB incidents in cattle in Gloucestershire increased by 130%.
Any attempt to prove that badger culling alone is responsible for reducing bTB incidents in cattle is misleading. Improved bTB testing, cattle movement controls and biosecurity measures could be key factors in lowering the spread of bTB in and around the cull zones.
Badger Trust compared Defra's quarterly published statistics and looked at the graphs of Wales vs England. The rates of bTB disease in cattle in Wales (no badger culling) continue to fall dramatically, while in England (mass badger culling) the rates of bTB disease in cattle do not.
Over 94% of bovine TB transmission in cattle is cow-to-cow
Cattle spread bovine TB to other cattle in over 94% of all cases of the disease. There is a huge amount of scientific evidence and field studies to show that the vast majority of bTB infection in cattle is a result of cow-to-cow infection.
Bovine TB is largely spread cow-to-cow within intensive dairy and beef production systems. It spills over into the wider environment as a form of industrial pollution through faeces and slurry soil, water, organisms and infecting both wild and domestic animals.
Of the rest, some of the infections may arise from wildlife and some from 'unknown sources'.
The answer to solving bTB in cattle starts and ends with cattle
Cattle continue to account for almost every case of infection cow to cow – over 94%. Yet the government has been reluctant to use the most effective methods to take the steps needed to stop bTB.
The focus needs to be on cattle and cattle-based measures:
UK Government aims to cull between 70% and 90% of all badgers in each cull area
Badgers are being culled to the brink of extinction in vast areas of England. The government’s stated aim is to remove between 70% and 90% of badgers in each cull area and across most of the southwest of the UK. In 'low-risk areas', there is no upper limit:
Actual number of badgers culled 2013-2020: 143,241, 25%-37% of estimated UK badger population
Estimated number of badgers to be culled 2013-2025: 280,000, 48%-72% of estimated UK badger population
Badger Trust, with partners Born Free Foundation and Eurogroup for Animals, submitted a complaint to the Bern Convention in 2019 on the grounds the British Government is failing to gauge the impact of widespread indiscriminate badger culling on the ability of the species to maintain viable population levels in wide parts of England. The complaint is finally due to be heard in 2021, after additional information rounds from both the complainants and the UK Government, with a result by year end.
Up to 72% of UK badgers are estimated to be killed by 2025
It is impossible to accurately determine how many badgers there are without trained surveyors systematically studying each area. The most recent study estimated the number of badgers in the whole of the UK to be only around 485,000 (391,000-581,000). We estimate that 280,000 badgers will be killed, between 48% and 72% of the estimated UK badger population.
We do know that there are repeated overestimates of the badger population when counts are undertaken by well-intentioned but untrained people. For example, badgers often have several setts, but may only occupy one at a time; setts have multiple holes – one hole does not equal one sett; setts are not always actively occupied. So counting holes or individual setts and assuming they equal the number of badgers or clans will always give the wrong number.
Badgers are the scapegoats for a failed government bTB strategy
The government's bTB strategy is a failure on many levels, and any attempt to prove that badger culling alone is responsible for reducing bTB incidents in cattle is misleading at best:
As the vast majority of badgers killed as a result of the cull policy to date will have been bTB free, their removal will have no impact on lowering bTB in cattle.
The government's own data show cattle-to-cattle is the primary transmission source, yet it has been reluctant to use the most effective cattle-based methods to take the steps needed to stop bTB.
Since 2012, there has been almost no change in the numbers of cattle killed because of bTB infection. In the year to March 2021, 0.4% of UK cattle were prematurely slaughtered because of bovine TB. The change in numbers of cattle prematurely slaughtered between 2012 and 2020 is less than a fraction of half of one per cent, despite a significant expansion of the badger cull since 2013. (We use the phrase ‘prematurely slaughtered’ because all cattle are destined for slaughter, whether as cull cattle once their dairy productivity fails, or as beef cattle ready for market. Farmed cattle are rarely destined to live out natural lifespans: the key issue seems to be the timing of their slaughter, is it in line with the farm's schedule or not?)
Since the badger cull began in 2013, the rate of disease among cattle has remained largely stable – and the compensation bill to the taxpayer keeps going up and up.
The cull is inhumane and causes badgers fear and pain
Badgers are sentient and the inhumane cull methods used cause them fear and pain. In 2020 77% of badgers were culled by free shooting, where cull contractors shoot badgers at night from a distance with a high powered rifle. This badger killing method has increased year on year and has risen to be the primary method, from half of badgers culled to over 77% now being subjected to death by free shooting.
The Independent Expert Panel (IEMP), formed by the Government to monitor the efficacy and humaneness of the badger cull during its first two years, found that free shooting was inhumane due to the length of time badgers could take to die*. The IEMP reported that, in the first year of the cull, between 6.4% and 18% of badgers shot took over five minutes to die of bullet wounds, blood loss and organ failure. The IEMP made a number of key recommendations to improve the humaneness of the culling operations, but was disbanded in 2014 preventing any further independent oversight of the cull policy.
The British Veterinary Association (BVA) has withdrawn its support for this method.
*Pilot Badger Culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire Report by the Independent Expert Panel, 2014
Over 99.5% of badgers are killed without animal welfare monitoring
Less than 0.6% of badgers killed are monitored for animal welfare purposes. Although the cull has been significantly expanded since 2014, the level of monitoring by Natural England field operatives for animal welfare purposes has continued to decline.
Monitoring no longer includes the time taken for badgers to die, but does show numbers of ‘missed’, ‘wounded and lost’ and ‘not retrieved’. Self-reporting of these events by cull contractors is much lower than animal welfare monitoring figures.
Almost 25% of England's entire land area covered by badger cull zones
The badger cull has significantly expanded since 2013. The 61 areas of badger cull zones now cover nearly 25% of England’s entire land area across 20 counties stretching from Cornwall to Cumbria.
Badger culling is currently undertaken in 61 areas within the counties of Avon, Berkshire, Cheshire, Cornwall, Cumbria, Derbyshire, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Herefordshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Somerset, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Wiltshire and Worcestershire (2021).
The map shows the extent of the badger cull* in England and includes:
number of badger cull zones in a county
badgers killed per county
percentage of county area culled
where the cull zones encroach upon county borders
* 2020 zones plus 2021 expressions of interest. Seven additional cull areas were licensed by Natural England in August 2021
The majority of culled badgers have been bTB free
Unlike cattle, badgers are not tested for bovine TB before being culled. The vast majority of badgers killed as a result of the cull policy to date will have been bTB free and their removal will have no impact on lowering bTB in cattle.
Of 102,349 badgers killed under cull licences 2013-2019, just over 900 were subject to post mortems and tests for bovine TB. Of this number less than 5% were found to have bovine TB to a degree where they posed a risk of infecting other badgers or possibly cattle.
Cattle testing for bTB is unreliable, leaving infected cattle to spread bTB
The standard bTB skin test – which Defra insists that farmers in England use – is highly unreliable. The test only detects between 50% and 81% of bTB infected cattle, regardless of how careful the vet. This leaves bTB infected cattle undetected in herds that continue to spread bTB. This is not contested.
New forms of bTB testing (Gamma Interferon blood tests and Phage PCR) can significantly improve bTB detection in cattle when combined with the skin test. However, too few farmers are getting access to these improved testing methods and at present, the only mandated use in England of a more reliable test is in the Edge Areas, not in the High Risk areas.
Unreliable testing using a 70+year old skin test (which misses a proportion of infected cattle), means cattle to cattle infection is one of the ways herds become self-sustaining reservoirs of bovine TB. Unless the ‘hidden reservoir’ in the English cattle herd is addressed, no other measures will make any meaningful difference to disease rates, or the costs of compensation and slaughter.
The taxpayer pays most for the badger cull
The badger cull is much more costly to the taxpayer than it is to the farming industry. When the badger cull was implemented in 2013 the Government claimed it would be a farmer-led policy with little cost burden on the public purse. That was untrue.
Badger Trust estimates that the cull policy has cost approximately £60 million of public funds taking into account the cost of administration, training, equipment, monitoring, policing and legal defence costs (2013-2019). We can so far evidence from Treasury accounts that it has cost the taxpayer £48 million to 2019, yet that excludes a number of significant costs which Defra refuses to disclose under Freedom Of Information (e.g. Defra will not disclose the costs of three full-time staff teams, one each in Defra, APHA, and Natural England).
Taxpayer-funded farmer compensation has increased 20% to £34 million
The UK taxpayer pays 100% of the farmer compensation bill. Defra originally justified the badger cull policy on the basis that the compensation bill for bovine TB was rising rapidly and would continue to do so unless badger culling was introduced. They were wrong. The compensation bill was £28 million in the year 2011-2012 (before the cull started). By 2019, it had risen annually until it reached £34 million – an increase of more than 20%.
Had the cull reduced disease among cattle as Defra has repeatedly claimed, we’d expect to see the compensation bill fall or at least level off. That doesn’t seem to be the case – because culling badgers is not the solution to the bTB problem.