Number 10's badger cull 'escape plan' - Paterson doomed?

Is the badger cull any more 'scientifically justified' than this?
Is the badger cull any more 'scientifically justified' than this?
Number 10 is seeking an 'escape plan' for a badger cull gone disastrously wrong under Owen Paterson's direction. Lesley Docksey reports on a likely end to the cull - and to Paterson's ministerial role.
Would anybody like to wager that the Government will use Defra's faulty IT programme and ruined statistics as the excuse to halt Paterson's killing spree?

Number 10 is hatching an "escape plan" for the badger cull, The Ecologist has learned. Not only has the cull gone disastrously wrong, but it is also proving a serious electoral liability for many Tory MPs in marginal constituencies.

House of Commons rumours of the 'escape plan' first surfaced in a Parliamentary Question by Barry Gardiner MP on 9th January when he said in a question to Environment Secretary Owen Paterson:

"The Secretary of State has delivered an unscientific cull that has spectacularly failed, that his own Back Benchers are openly questioning, that has weakened the reputation of DEFRA and Natural England for evidence-based policy, and from which the Prime Minister's office is reported to be working up an escape plan."

In his reply Paterson failed to deny that there was such an 'escape plan'. Asked about its existence on Friday, Defra stated:

"This Government is committed to ridding the country of bovine TB through a comprehensive package of measures, including carefully managed and science led policy of badger control in areas with high incidents of the disease in cattle.

"We are awaiting the final independent report on the two pilot badger culls, before a decision on roll out will be made later this year."

The Prime Minister's Press Office also insisted that they "knew nothing about an escape plan" and that they fully supported Defra's policy on the cull.

Ample justification to halt the cull

The Ecologist now understands that the Independent Panel's report - whose release appears to have been delayed - will provide all the justification needed to bring the cull to a hasty end.

Indeed the Panel's conclusion that the pilots were a failure was briefly admitted by Paterson himself under questioning in Parliament on 9th January. "If the Panel finds that the pilots were ineffective, what will the Government do?" asked Andrew George MP, the LibDem MP for St Ives.

"I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We will obviously analyse the reasons the panel puts forth in its report", replied Paterson - before hastily adding: "He asks a hypothetical question ... "

But the main factor guiding the decision to halt the cull programme is the growing political pressure, as a Parliamentary source told The Ecologist:

"Lots of Tory MPs supported the ban initially because they believed in it, or out of loyalty. But as Paterson follows one bungle with another, equivocates on the actualité and refuses to answer questions, that support is draining away. The MPs really feel that they have been left out to dry!"

One of these is Anne Main, Conservative MP for St Albans, who said in Parliament in a recent debate:

Would anybody like to wager that the Government will use Defra's faulty IT programme and ruined statistics as the excuse to halt Paterson's killing spree?

"I have moved from being neutral to being opposed ... I am sure that many hon. Members at the time lent their support to the Bill out of sympathy and a real feeling that something needed to be done, but only if it was science-based, and only if it was a trial. This has all the makings of something that will roll on, regardless of the outcomes of these particular trials."

Gung-ho ministers

Labour MP Huw Irranca-Davies MP, the Shadow Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, commented:

"Increasingly senior Conservative MPs are becoming uneasy over the gung-ho ministerial handling of the badger culls, the failure of the two pilot culls, and the relentless public and scientific opposition. More government MPs are openly questioning the culls in Parliament, due to it becoming a major electoral issue in marginal Tory seats.

The embattled Secretary of State looks increasingly isolated in parliament, with less and less support from No 10 and his own backbenchers. It is now a question of whether the Prime Minister will act under pressure from his own MPs."

The badger cull has also drawn attention to the Government's abysmal record on the wider spectrum of green issues.

Before the election 'hug-a-husky' Cameron promised to form the "greenest government ever". In fact it has the worst environmental record of any British Government in living memory. As for Paterson, he is widely recognised as "the worst environment secretary Britain has ever suffered".

Moving the goalposts

Fresh from misleading Parliament by insisting that the Government's spending on flood defences was at a record high - a claim now retracted - Paterson's record on the badger cull and bovine TB has been even more ignominious.

Remember those pesky badgers "moving the goalposts" by refusing to be killed in the requisite numbers? And Mr Paterson's remarkable half truths, dissimulations and abuse of statistics on the subject?

One has only to read the summary of the Randomised Badger Control Trial Report - heavily depended on by Paterson to justify the cull - to see how he has cherry-picked a tiny piece of misunderstood information, while ignoring its carefully considered conclusions.

In its recommendations on disease control and vaccination it said that "badger culling combined with vaccination is likely to reduce any advantage gained by vaccination."

And it remarked that "Farmers need to take 'ownership' of the TB disease problem in their cattle herds, rather than leaving it largely to Government to resolve."

It also said that "that a significant drop in incidence that was apparent in the South West just after the gassing programme had commenced (and was attributed by many to be an effect of that programme) had also occurred nationally, and had coincided with restrictions on cattle imports from Ireland, along with a change in the tuberculin test which would result in fewer false positives."

A helpful hint for Paterson and his NFU pals there, perhaps?

The first tubercular badger was discovered in 1971

Answering questions on bovine TB in Parliament on 9 January this year, Paterson said: "Having got this disease down to 0.01% in 1972 when we had a bipartisan approach-in those days, there was absolute unity on the need to bear down on the disease ... "

Indeed there was unity but it didn't - at that date - include wholesale slaughter of badgers. The very first time a badger was found to be infected with bTB was in 1971. To quote Defra:

"In 1971 a dead badger infected with bovine TB was discovered on a farm that had suffered a disease outbreak in its cattle herd, and this seemed to give backing to the theory that badgers are a cause of TB in cattle."

Note the careful "seemed to give backing to the theory ... " The reduction in bTB levels to such a minimal amount had been achieved by good farming practice, not by culling badgers.

The entrenched idea that badgers are solely responsible for TB in cattle was some years ahead. In 1973 badgers gained some legal protection (greatly extended in the 1992 Protection of Badgers Act). And it must have seemed then that bTB had been beaten.

Re-stocking after foot-and-mouth disease

Good practice (which costs farmers time and money) lapsed; MAFF (the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) became complacent, a complacency that eventually led to them being criticised for their poor handling of 'mad cow disease' in the 1980s and the devastating 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

It was the frantic restocking of farms whose herds had been slaughtered that is cited as the reason for a surge in TB incidents after this date.

The import of untested cattle, ever larger herds and above all, an explosion in countrywide cattle movements - all these reasons and more led to a steady increase in bTB with a high incidence in the southwest.

And rather than farms returning to the practices that had successfully dealt with the problem in the past, the poor badger took more and more of the blame. Though protected, any farms with TB could apply for a licence to kill the badgers, but none of that escalated into the full-scale killing that Paterson wants to roll out.

Miserable, emaciated sick animals spewing out disease?

Left to themselves, badgers show little evidence of suffering from bTB. Far from Paterson's vision of "these miserable, emaciated sick animals spewing out disease", most badgers appear to be very healthy - and disease free. According to studies carried out in Northern Ireland:

"... the level of infection in badgers appears to decay naturally in line with the reduction of cattle TB levels. This suggests that M. bovis is not self sustaining in the badger population and that badgers are not a persistent reservoir for bovine TB as the disease prevalence in badgers would appear to decrease naturally with time as the chance of re-infection from cattle decreases." (author's emphasis)

The Welsh vaccination programme showed that, of the 1,193 badgers from 'TB hotspot areas' vaccinated in 2012, none showed signs of bTB. The Durham University study showed that of nearly 400 road-kill badger carcasses autopsied, only one was found to have TB.

Yet none of the badgers killed during the pilot badger culls will have been tested to see if they were infected with TB. Might Paterson have feared that these tests would prove that badgers are only a very minor cause of bTB outbreaks in cattle?

Never mind the question - culling is the answer!

And, when questioned about the awaited report from the Independent Panel on the two pilot culls, Paterson's answers on January 9 made it clear that, whatever the panel will have to say, he was determined on more culls.

Look at what other countries have done, he said, using examples of culling that bore little resemblance to the circumstances prevailing here. But don't look at Northern Ireland, which has reduced its bTB incidence without killing badgers!

Where Paterson is really cavalier with the truth is in the statistics, and he has finally admitted that he and Defra have been "overstating" the numbers.

Bovine TB incidence exaggerated

In 2001 the number of cattle slaughtered due to bTB was 6,156. This was the year when cattle were being killed country-wide because of foot and mouth. During this period TB testing was suspended, and farms were restocked with untested cattle.

In 2002 the number of cattle slaughtered due to bTB rocketed to 22,072. By 2008 this had risen to 39,007. Since then the figures have slowly and steadily dropped and the provisional figure for 2013 is 27,474.

More rigorous testing regimes and the return to better biosecurity practices are working, and we may well find that, when Defra has sorted out its data, the situation is not nearly as serious as Paterson has been claiming.

This is not to downplay the disaster that farms hit with a TB infection suffer. But it is more than possible to return to the happy days of 1972 by methods other than needlessly killing our wildlife.

A week after Paterson spoke in Parliament, Defra issued its regular statistical release, which showed that due to a faulty IT programme statistics dating back to September 2011 on the number of farms infected with bTB were being incorrectly recorded.

As yet they do not know how many of those farms are actually free of disease but say that "this data series will be revised significantly downwards for 2012 and 2013."

The Government mysteriously failed to recognise these statistical errors in any press release, ministerial statement, written Parliamentary answer or any other mechanism.

However the dodgy statistics may yet come in useful: on top of a critical Independent Panel report, the Government can use Defra's faulty IT programme and ruined statistics as part of the 'escape plan' to halt Paterson's killing spree.

And with the badger cull out of the way, how much longer can we expect Owen Paterson to remain as Environment Secretary?



Lesley Docksey is a freelance writer who contributes articles to The Ecologist and other news media with international reach on issues of war, peace, politics and the environment.

See her other articles for The Ecologist.



More from this author