Time to stop playing the badger blame game
by Dominic Dyer, CEO Badger Trust
The badger cull is a political fig for a British farming industry which refuses to address the underlying causes of the spread of bovine TB in cattle herds.
Since 2013, the government has sanctioned the killing of over 102,000 badgers under this policy, across a geographical area stretching from Cornwall to Cumbria that is larger than Wales.
Less than 1% of the badgers killed have been tested for bovine TB (bTB) and of this small number, only around 5% showed a level of bTB infection that could lead to disease spread to other badgers and possibly cattle.
Over 60% of the badgers have been killed by a controlled shooting method, which can result in animals taking over five minutes to die of bullet wounds, blood loss and organ failure. Even though this culling method has been condemned as inhumane and ineffective by the government's Independent Expert Panel (2014) and the British Veterinary Association (2015), it continues to be widely used by cull contractors to save costs.
Despite the huge number of badgers killed since 2013, the government has produced no reliable peer-reviewed scientific evidence to prove that badger culling alone is making any contribution to lowering bovine TB in or around the cull zones. In some cull areas bovine TB rates have fallen, but this could be attributed to improved bTB testing and tighter cattle movement controls, rather than killing badgers. In other cull zones, cattle TB rates have remained static or even increased, despite widespread badger shooting.
When the badger cull policy was rolled out, the government claimed that it would be a farmer-led policy with limited cost exposure to the taxpayer. Seven years later, the policy is estimated to have cost the public purse over £60 million, taking into account equipment, monitoring, training, legal defence and policing costs. This figure could rise to £70 million by the end of 2020.
In March 2020, the government finally produced its long-awaited verdict on the Sir Charles Godfray TB Strategy Review and appeared to confirm that badger culling would be phased out in next few years, to be replaced by both badger and cattle vaccination.
The resulting headlines across the print and broadcast media, supported by the Defra press office, talked of a seismic shift in policy and an imminent end to badger killing, a view now largely accepted by the public and politicians alike.
In reality, the government has been working closely with the farming and livestock veterinary industry to shelve key aspects of the Sir Charles Godfray TB Review and to press ahead with a significant expansion of badger culling this year.
In May 2020, Natural England approved seven new supplementary cull licences, without even considering moving to badger vaccination in any of the areas concerned.
In the last few weeks, a leaked list of badger cull licences from Natural England, (which the Badger Trust believes to be authentic) shows the government is planning to approve eleven new culling zones in 2020, including for the first time in Derbyshire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Shropshire, Leicestershire and the low risk bTB area of Lincolnshire.
This will bring the total number of cull licences in place to 54 (both 4 year and supplementary licences) and could result in the death of up to 62,000 more badgers by the end of November 2020, bringing the total badgers killed since 2013 to over 164,000. This will be the largest destruction of a protected species in living memory and could result in population collapse of badgers in many parts of England.
Badgers get bTB from cattle and, despite the huge costs and cruelty of the badger cull policy, there is little evidence to prove that badgers can easily spread bTB back to cattle.
The real tragedy of the badger cull policy is that the Government could kill every badger in England, but bovine TB will still remain in cattle herds as it’s a disease which is primarily passed from cow to cow.
If the government is serious about reducing bovine TB in cattle in a way that benefits, farmers, taxpayers and wildlife, it needs to stop playing the badger blame game and push the farming industry to take its disease control responsibilities more seriously.
As has been proven in Wales, a combination of improved bTB testing, cattle movement controls, risk based trading and biosecurity measures (including tighter controls on the use of slurry), can deliver significant and lasting reductions in bovine TB in cattle. Introducing bTB cattle vaccination would go even further to eradicate the disease from farms.
Rather than waste tens of millions of public money on killing badgers, the government should come forward with a national badger vaccination strategy that provides more funding and training for badger vaccination teams, and better communication of the scientific effectiveness of this humane wildlife intervention policy to farmers and landowners.
During his time as Prime Minister, David Cameron talked boldly of building a ‘Big Society’ that would create a climate to empower local people and communities to tackle social and economic problems more effectively than central government.
Bovine TB is a problem badly in need of a ‘Big Society Approach’. Britain could have the largest and most effective badger vaccination programme anywhere in the world at a fraction of the cost of the culling policy. At a time of rising youth unemployment as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government could change all cull companies to vaccination companies and put hundreds of young people to work helping these businesses as well as Wildlife Trust and Badger Groups across England to trap and vaccinate thousands of badgers.
Rather than pursuing a cull policy that divides wildlife conservation groups and farmers, a national badger vaccination strategy with young people at its heart would build much needed bridges between the two sides based on mutual respect and confidence. It would also offer the next generation a valuable opportunity to put their time and energy into helping farmers and protecting wildlife at a time of a national economic crisis.
For many young people such an opportunity could open the door for them to become the naturalists or farmers of the future. This could be a hugely positive legacy from ending this cruel, costly and ineffective badger cull.