Culling Badgers: Veterinary Debate

Veterinarian Dr Mark Jones, Associate Director at the Born Free Foundation, explains why vets have no business supporting badger culls.

Dr Mark Jones with badger placard protesting outside the UK Parliament

Bovine tuberculosis (bTB), or at least the way we go about trying to control it, is undoubtedly a massive problem for the dairy and beef industries in parts of the UK. In 2016 alone, nearly 10 million individual cattle tests for bTB were conducted, and some 40,000 infected cattle and close contacts were prematurely slaughtered. Many farmers bore high costs and had their businesses disrupted, and the test-and-slaughter programme is estimated to be costing the British taxpayer close to £100 million each year.

However, killing large numbers of badgers will only add to the cost, and will not help struggling farmers or their businesses. Since licensed badger culling began in 2013, close to 15,000 badgers have been killed across ten licensed cull zones in six counties in the West and South West of England for the purpose of “preventing the spread of disease”. But after four years of culling in the two so-called ‘pilot zones’ in Gloucestershire and Somerset, there is no evidence whatsoever that the spread of bovine TB has been prevented, and the costs of the culls to the taxpayer may have topped £40 million.

Yet the Government intends to roll out the culls to more new areas and extend the licenses in those areas that have completed their initial 4 years of culling. Back in 2011, Natural England estimated that if rolled out to its fullest extent, culling could result in the deaths of as many as 130,000 badgers or about half the population in the West and South West of England. These are massive numbers and the impacts on individual badgers, badger society and the wider ecology will be huge, something that should be of great concern to the veterinary profession.

Highland Cattle ©Wix

However, the Government’s badger culling policy continues to enjoy the support of its Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO) and the British Veterinary Association (BVA, which counts around half of the UK’s roughly 20,000 registered vets among its members). In an article that appeared in Vet Times in August 2016, the then BVA President reiterated the organisation’s support for “the wider roll-out of culling to carefully selected areas where badgers are regarded as a significant contributor to the high incidence of bTB in cattle.”

Veterinary support for the culls has been crucial to the Government in the face of fierce criticism from scientists, wildlife protectionists, and the wider public; indeed the majority of scientific opinion continues to suggest that culling badgers can make no meaningful contribution to the control of bTB in cattle in Britain. The BVA has also failed to condemn the issuing of licenses that continue to allow the use of ‘controlled shooting’ (the targeting of free-roaming badgers using rifles at night), even though the BVA rejected the method following its failure to achieve minimum welfare criteria developed by an Independent Expert Panel set up by DEFRA to evaluate the effectiveness, humaneness and safety of ‘controlled shooting’ during the first year of culling in Somerset and Dorset.

The BVA and the CVO have also failed to provide any explanation of how it has been established that badgers within licensed cull zones are a “significant contributor” to the spread of infection to cattle, and how the culling zones have been “carefully selected”. The criteria that farmers and landowners have to meet in order to obtain a culling licence seem to have little to do with cattle or badger distribution or density or for that matter the level of bTB in either cattle or badgers within the zones. Hardly any of the culled badgers have been tested for bovine TB. Recent scientific studies have suggested that badgers and cattle tend to actively avoid direct contact in areas where they coexist and that cattle tend to avoid areas frequented by badgers and used as latrines, raising serious questions about the mechanism by which badgers are supposed to transmit the infection to cattle.

While bTB continues to reap havoc for farmers and their cattle in the West of England, the government in Wales has been far more successful in bringing down TB in cattle without killing a single badger, through targeted, evidence-based cattle testing measures and cattle trading restrictions. As a result, since 2008 New Herd Incidents of bovine TB in Wales have fallen by 41% and the number of herds under restriction has declined by over a third, whereas in the High-Risk Area in the west and south-west of England no real improvement in these indicators has been seen over the same period. The reasons for this are complex, but early recognition by the Welsh Government that the cattle skin test typically misses as many as half of the infected cattle under standard interpretation, and the use of severe interpretation and supplementary tests to mitigate this failure and identify more infected cattle which can then be removed from herds, has been a crucial factor. In England, the Government has been slow to introduce these kinds of measures and has instead continued to promote the culling of badgers with veterinary support.