Carry on Culling - the fiasco continues

| 28th July 2014
A mother badger with three cubs to feed looks for food in garden in rural Dorset. Photo: Lesley Docksey.

A mother badger with three cubs to feed looks for food in garden in rural Dorset. Photo: Lesley Docksey.

Badger. Photo: Lesley Docksey.

'We need to look at the best scientific evidence' on badgers and bovine TB, says Environment Secretary Liz Truss. But as Lesley Docksey writes, the 'best scientific evidence' appears to mean only that which supports the cull - and there's precious little of it!
All those vets who remember why they went to vet school in the first place should stand up against this travesty.

While all green, wildlife and environmental activists - "the green blob" as Owen Paterson so crudely named us - were glad to see the back of him, we mostly took a 'wait and see' attitude to his successor Liz Truss.

Wisely so as it turned out. It only took the new Environment Secretary 24 hours to stand up in Parliament and announce that the badger culls would continue. She used exactly the same script as Owen Paterson too:

  • "The reality is that bovine TB represents a massive threat to our dairy and beef industries"; (though not nearly as damaging to the much greater number of cattle that suffer pain and get slaughtered before their time due to lameness and mastitis, Ms Truss)
  • "We must use every tool in our toolbox to address this threat to our beef and dairy industries."
  • And, of course, "no country has ever eradicated TB without also tackling the reservoir of the disease in the wildlife population".

She also said: "We need to look at the best scientific evidence." Well - quite.

In the last three weeks the Environment Secretary's office would have seen ...

A letter signed by 19 vets and published in the Veterinary Record on 27 June stating that Defra's policy of killing badgers is "seriously flawed". This letter is well worth a read - the vets don't miss a single scientific trick, and none of it would make welcome reading for the pro-cull lobby.

A very detailed report was published on 2 July in Nature titled "A dynamic model of bovine tuberculosis spread and control in Great Britain", the conclusions of which were:

"Very few of the control options tested have the potential to reverse the observed annual increase, with only intensive strategies such as whole-herd culling or additional national testing proving highly effective."

One of the results of the study was that it highlighted the transmission of bTB through cattle movement, something that the NFU and farmers immediately rejected, cattle movement around the country and import/export movement being a major part of the economics (money-making) of the cattle industry.

As co-author of the Nature paper Matt Keeling wrote in The Ecologist, the model predicted a "limited effect" from focusing on environmental factors. "Even with a 50% fall in the between farm transmission of infection due to the environment (simulating a substantial badger cull, for example), the rise in cattle infections over six years continues, although at a slower rate."

All those vets who remember why they went to vet school in the first place should stand up against this travesty.

Or as The Guardian reported, Robbie MacDonald from the University of Exeter said "The model is unprecedented in its scale, realism and approach", adding that the model showed cutting transmission from the environment, such as badgers, "is likely to yield unimpressive results and contribute little biologically to controlling a national epidemic."

Professor Rosie Woodruffe's opinion was that "This paper predicts that controlling TB in the short and medium term would be more effectively achieved by management targeted at cattle."

Lord Krebs said that the report gave further support to the view that culling badgers was not an effective strategy. "It is to be hoped that Defra takes on board this latest piece of scientific evidence." Vain hope.

Bovine TB is at its lowest rate for 11 years

And on 12 July, Defra published the latest figures for bTB. Not good news - not for the NFU and the culling contractors, that is.

Last year's culls would have had no effect as yet on the TB statistics but the figures show that the incidence of TB is still falling, even if only by small amounts per month. And as the Badger Trust reported:

"Most importantly, and confirmed by Defra in a tweet, the incidence rate for April is at 3.1% - the lowest single monthly incidence rate since Aug 2003."

On top of all that, some members of the Independent Expert Panel complained that they had "been ignored". No attempt had been made by Owen Paterson to meet them after the publication of their report. Well, he wouldn't want to, seeing they had judged the culls to have been a failure.

And the Western Morning News commented, "Farmers in the Westcountry have spoken at their deep frustration at the role of scientists in the process, who they said were now 'playing politics'."

But people like science only when it backs what they believe, and science doesn't back culling.

One would think that Ms Truss has enough 'scientific evidence' sitting on her desk, but as ever Defra and the NFU are going to rubbish science in favour of killing our wildlife. And those who do have a scientific base and should care about animal welfare have again toed Defra's line and given a weak-kneed backing to the next stage of the badger culls.

The BVA climbs off its fence

On 24 July the British Veterinary Association came off the fence they have been perched uncomfortably on for some time and issued a statement saying they now support further culling - even though Defra is not meeting the conditions they initially demanded. Vet & HSI UK Director Mark Jones says:

"The BVA's support for another badger cull this year, after last year's disastrous pilot culls in Gloucestershire and Somerset, is bitterly disappointing for all those vets like myself who believe that animal welfare must be the cornerstone of all we stand for.

"BVA endorsement should symbolise integrity and the highest possible standards of animal care. Instead, it is being given away based on little more than Defra's flimsy promises of improved monitoring and half-baked measures on humaneness.

"The BVA does not speak for all vets in wanting to subject England's badgers to another round of unjustified, unscientific and unethical slaughter, but its support for a cull does paint our profession in a bad light.

"The BVA's determination to see badgers killed also flies squarely in the face of evidence from Wales. In March 2012, the then BVA president Carl Padgett declared that the Welsh Government's decision to abandon badger culling would set back efforts to tackle bovine TB. How wrong he was.

"While a badger cull-free Wales has seen TB in cattle reduced in leaps and bounds, here in England we're set for another round of badger persecution whilst the number of cattle slaughtered remains more-or-less constant. The BVA was wrong about the Welsh decision in 2012. It's wrong again now.

"It fills me with sadness that badgers are going to suffer and die again this year for no good reason, with the British Veterinary Association's stamp of approval. Whatever government ministers might want to do in order to satisfy their political whims, those who purport to represent the veterinary profession should be the ones to urge caution, and when it comes to animal suffering, to say enough is enough.

"All those vets who remember why they went to vet school in the first place should stand up against this travesty."

Liz Truss, take note: the fight to save our badgers from this needless and inhumane slaughter will go on.


More from this author


The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate now.