Unlawful, ineffective, toxic: the badger cull must end - vaccination is the answer

| 10th October 2014
Never mind the questions, never mind the answers, never mind the evidence. The badgers will be culled. Photo: b/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA.
Never mind the questions, never mind the answers, never mind the evidence. The badgers will be culled. Photo: b/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA.

Never mind the questions, never mind the answers, never mind the evidence. The badgers will be culled. Mural by Argentinian street artist Martin Ron for London Street Art. Photo: b/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA.

The Badger Trust' is in the Court of Appeal today, making its case that the 2014 'trial' badger cull is unlawful, writes Dominic Dyer. But beyond that, the entire culling policy is driven by politics, not science, and is doomed to failure. It's time for Cameron to harness his 'big society' to apply a genuine solution: badger vaccination.
Of all the controversial policies this coalition Government has implemented, the badger cull stands out for one reason, it is based largely on a web of deceit.

After a full day's hearing in the Court of Appeal on 10th September 2014, we are back there today making our case to three senior judges that the Government's failure to re-appoint its expert panel to oversee the 2014 badger cull makes the exercise unlawful.

Without such a Panel, we argue, there can be no proper independent assessment of the safety, effectiveness and humaneness of the culling operation - something that would be needed before any lawful decision could be taken to continue with further culls around the country.

Lord Justice Davis has indicated to us that judgment will be handed down without unnecessary delay, and we keenly await the outcome. And as we do so, let's take stock of where we are, how we got there, and what the future holds.

A catastrophic policy failure

The late Edward Kennedy once said "Integrity is the lifeblood of democracy and deceit is poison in its veins." These words resonate with me when it comes to discussing the disastrous badger cull policy which has done so much to undermine the reputation of our political system over the past few years.

Of all the controversial policies this coalition Government has implemented, the badger cull stands out for one reason, it is based largely on a web of deceit which has been spun by the Prime Minister, Owen Paterson and his replacement as DEFRA Secretary of State Liz Truss.

The badger cull was never about science or indeed effective disease control, it was a desperate attempt by David Cameron to shore up support for the Tory Party in rural communities ahead of the 2010 election, by ensuring strong support for pro badger cull Tory candidates from the National Farmers Union and Countryside Alliance.

The policy could only be delivered by a politician who was closely aligned to both these organisations and comfortable to spin a web of deceit and misinformation to MPs, media and wider public.

Caroline Spelman was not this type of politician, but Owen Paterson was perfect for the job. From his first day in office, he made it clear to his senior officials that the cull policy was to be implemented no matter what the costs or opposition from conservation and wildlife groups.

He put his civil servants to work developing a pro cull propaganda machine to paint a highly inaccurate picture of the scale and cost of the bovine TB crisis and the need to eradicate badgers to get it under control.

Blame the badgers!

To start with DEFRA did all it could to blame badgers as being the prime cause of TB in cattle. In fact the vast majority of TB infections are between cattle, which are often housed in large numbers in sheds and moved around the country (over 13 million a year) with poor biosecurity, control movements and TB testing regimes.

In reality the poor badger has been the victim of industrial pollution on a huge scale from the most intensive livestock industry in Europe.

Of all the controversial policies this coalition Government has implemented, the badger cull stands out for one reason, it is based largely on a web of deceit.

It's the cattle which have infected the badgers with TB. And despite claims from Owen Paterson that the transmission rate from badgers to cattle is 50% (figure based on a mathematical model), the true level of TB transmission is likely to be in the region of 5%.

We were then told by DEFRA that bovine TB is the biggest crisis facing the UK farming industry and unless we kill badgers it will end up costing the tax payer over £1 billion in the next decade.

In reality the level of compensation paid to farmers for cattle prematurely slaughtered due to TB runs to around £40 million a year, over £20 million of which was recovered by the treasury as a result of the sale of TB meat into the food chain in 2013, without labelling or traceability.

Over the last year these costs have started to decline as the number of cattle slaughtered for TB has dropped by almost 10%, as a result of tighter biosecurity, control movements and TB testing systems forced on the UK Government by the European Commission.

Spread false fears

Owen Paterson also made it a key goal to demonise badgers by spreading false fears over the level of TB within the badger population, by regularly talking in the media of super excreters exploding with disease and infecting cattle at a rapid rate.

In reality of over 11,000 badgers killed in the Randomised Badger Cull by the last Labour Government, only 1.65% fell into this category.

A further 15% had low level TB, which would not impact on the health of the badger during its short lifetime, or make it a major risk of disease spread to other badgers or cattle.

This is the key reason why DEFRA has not tested any of the badgers killed during the pilot culls for TB: they know the results would show a very low level of disease, which would not justify their plans to eradicate large numbers of this protected species from many parts of the country.

In Wales where thousands of badgers have now been vaccinated against TB during the past three years, not a single one has needed to be removed and euthanised because they were visibly sick with TB lesions, despite being in a TB hotspot area.

Attempting to undermine Wales's successful policies

Then we come to the cost justification for badger culling over badger vaccination. In the run up to the badger culls in 2013, Owen Paterson did all he could to undermine the Welsh government badger vaccination programme on both cost and effectiveness and grounds.

He claimed that free shooting of badgers at night would be the most effective and humane way of removing large number of badgers at a much lower cost than trapping and vaccination.

However, we have now learned from Freedom of Information Requests that in the initial 6 weeks of the pilot culls in 2013, only 24% of the estimated badger population in Gloucestershire and Somerset were killed by free shooting.

The vast majority of badgers killed in both pilot culls were by government employed trap teams, with higher costs than the Welsh government vaccination programme. Which brings us to the key issue of the overall costs of the pilot culls and a national rollout programme for badger culling.

An England-wide badger cull could cost taxpayers £800 million

On 6 January 2014, Care for Wild released a report based on Freedom of Information Requests, Parliamentary Questions and leaked documents, which estimated an overall cost for the pilot culls of £7.3 million or over £4,000 per dead badger.

In the days that followed, these estimates were backed up by the BBC and the police, who confirmed their costs for the badger cull pilots, exceeded £2.5 million alone.

Any justification that was left for the disastrous badger cull was blown apart by these huge costs.

It is now widely accepted that a 4 year badger cull in Gloucester and Somerset would cost in the region of £20 million, but would only deliver around £2.5 million benefit to the tax payer in terms of reducing the spread of bovine TB.

If - as Owen Paterson boasted to the Sunday Times in 2013 - badger culling was rolled out to 40 new areas of England over the next 4 years, the overall cost could exceed £800 million.

David Cameron's gamble to appoint Owen Paterson as Environment Secretary to deliver the badger cull blew up in his face. He had no choice but to sack him in his recent Cabinet reshuffle as he had become political poison in the party.

In replacing Paterson, the Prime Minister had the opportunity to appoint a new DEFRA Secretary of State who listens to public concerns on protecting wildlife, puts science not politics back at the heart of DEFRA policy making and finds a new way forward in tackling bovine TB, which protects both the future of our wildlife and farming industry.

However, he chose to appoint the inexperienced Liz Truss who has continued on the path of pushing ahead with the disastrous badger cull policy, in the face of huge opposition without any independent monitoring.

An increasingly toxic issue

A recent Mori Poll confirmed that opposition to badger culling was the 5th most common cause for complaint to MPs during the past 12 months, ahead of issues such as education, childcare and taxes.

Over the past 12 months tens of thousands of people have marched against the badger culls in 25 towns and cities across the country, in what has become the largest rolling wildlife protection campaign in Europe.

Over 300,000 people signed a petition against the policy, two debates have taken place in Parliament and the lack of independent monitoring for the cull has been subject to a Judicial Review challenge by the Badger Trust, which went before the Court of Appeal on the 9 October.

The Labour Party can see where public opinion is going on this issue and have made a clear commitment to stop the pilot badger culls and any national rollout should it form a government in May 2015.

The Liberal Democrats have also made it clear they no longer want to be associated with a national badger culling policy, unless it can be proven to effective on scientific, humaneness and safety grounds.

At the Conservative Party conference, a mood of rebellion

Killing badgers has become so sensitive within the Tory Party that David Cameron advised Liz Truss to avoid mentioning the badger cull policy at all in her first speech to the Tory Conference in Birmingham.

But delegates entering the conference hall still had to run the gauntlet of anti- badger cull protesters at the start of the conference.

On the fringe Tory MP's such as Anne Main were calling on David Cameron to accept that badger culling has no scientific, economic or animal welfare justification and will make no significant contribution to lowering bovine TB.

Looking to the next election, many Tory MPs admit to being increasingly concerned by how badly badger culling goes down with their constituents.

Its time David Cameron realised that British people are uniquely caring and compassionate towards wildlife and will not allow a protected species such as badgers be destroyed due to backroom deals with landowning and farming interests.

He should now dust off his plans for the Big Society which still has merit and make badger vaccination a key Big Society Project.

Thousands of people are willing to volunteer to be trained as lay vaccinators and work with farmers and landowners to vaccinate badgers across the country to reduce the spread of the disease in both badgers and cattle.

This will not only prove a more popular policy with voters, but it will the right thing to do for farmers, tax payers and the future of our precious wildlife.



Dominic Dyer is CEO of the Badger Trust & Policy Advisor Care for the Wild.


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