On 5th March, the Government finally published its long-awaited response to the review of bovine TB policy it commissioned two years ago.
The review, undertaken by a team led by Sir Charles Godfray of Oxford University, was published in October 2018. Among its many recommendations, it concluded that “it is wrong... to over-emphasise the role of wildlife”, and that “moving from lethal to non-lethal control of the disease in badgers is highly desirable.”
There are some good proposals in the Government’s response. Ambitions to licence a cattle vaccine against bovine TB within 5 years are encouraging. The focus on improving cattle testing sensitivity to help identify the tens of thousands of infected cattle that are missed by the insensitive skin test every year, thereby remaining in their herds or getting sold on, spreading infection, is long overdue, as is the imposition of stricter risk-based trading and biosecurity measures to ensure cattle farming and trading practices do not result in the spread of infection.
The response also recognises that badgers are an iconic species and that culling cannot go on forever. It talks of the need to identify an exit policy from badger culling, and of its gradual replacement by government-supported badger vaccination and surveillance.
The clear need for government, farmers, vets, local authorities, auction markets, retailers, food manufacturers, and wildlife and conservation groups to rise to the challenge of tackling bovine TB together, is rightly emphasised.
However, in welcoming a long-overdue shift in emphasis by Government, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this means badger culling is about to come to an abrupt end any time soon.
In its response, the Government repeatedly claims that widespread intensive badger culling has produced significant disease control benefits. It misrepresents the outcomes of the studies it commissioned by claiming that culling in the initial cull zones reduced bovine TB incidents in cattle by as much as two thirds over the first four years while ignoring its own up-to-date information showing that the prevalence of bovine TB among cattle herds in the longest-running badger cull zones has changed little since 2013, and that new cases among cattle have actually markedly increased in the Gloucestershire zone. There is little evidence to justify the Government’s claim that badger culls have resulted in “significant disease control benefits”, or that there is anything to “bank” from them.
On 27th March the Government released the badger cull figures for 2019. Over 35,000 badgers were killed under licence last year, bringing the total since 2013 to over 100,000. More than 70% of last year’s victims were killed by ‘controlled shooting’, a method rejected on welfare grounds by both the government’s own Independent Expert Panel and the British Veterinary Association. Yet the Chief Vet remains silent on badger welfare while insisting that badger culling should continue across the 43 current cull areas into the future.
The Government also talks of extending the coverage of intensive badger culls in the High-Risk Area, which could see badgers being targeted across 27,000 square kilometres of England’s countryside (an area bigger than the whole of Wales) in the coming year. And while it speaks of gradually replacing supplementary badger culling with vaccination, the Government continues to indicate that intensive culling will be licenced in the High Risk and Edge areas “where needed over the next few years”.
It seems badgers will continue to be unfairly victimised for some time to come, and wrongly blamed for the continuing spread of a disease problem that has been created by decades of poor farming and trading practices, exacerbated by ill-advised government policy.
Born Free will continue to work with the Badger Trust and other like-minded organisations and individuals to make the case to Government, the veterinary profession, the farming industry and the wider public that there is no justification for the continued targeting of badgers in the control of bovine TB in cattle. We will hold Government to account over the implementation of the positive changes in policy outlined in its response to the Godfray review while continuing to call for an urgent and immediate end to the inhumane, ineffective, expensive and unnecessary badger culls.