So badger culls are working? Liz Truss, produce your evidence!

| 18th December 2015
Badger at the British Wildlife Centre, Newchapel, Surrey. Photo: Peter Trimming via Flickr (CC BY).
Badger at the British Wildlife Centre, Newchapel, Surrey. Photo: Peter Trimming via Flickr (CC BY).
Environment Secretary Liz Truss told Parliament yesterday that England's badger cull is 'working', and needs to be extended into new areas, writes Oliver Tickell. Yet she and the NFU have refused to release the evidence to back up her claims. Now MPs and NGOs are joining the cry: 'publish or be damned!'
Claims that badger culling is delivering a significant reduction in bovine TB are looking increasingly bogus. £20 million of taxpayers' money has been spent killing thousands of badgers and yet cattle TB in Somerset is on the rise.

"Our strategy to eradicate bovine TB is working. I am pleased to report that all three badger control areas - Somerset, Gloucestershire and Dorset - hit their targets this year.

"The Chief Veterinary Officer has made it clear that the strategy is delivering disease control benefits, and that it will help us to eradicate this terrible disease ...

"Thanks to our strategy, more than half the country is on track to be officially free of the disease by the end of the current Parliament. The Chief Veterinary Officer has made it clear that licensing of future areas is needed to realise the disease control benefits, and I am determined to pursue that recommendation."

These are the words in Parliament yesterday of Liz Truss, Environment Secretary, And it can't get much more certain than that, can it? Just to make sure you didn't miss it in first reading:

"Our strategy to eradicate bovine TB is working ... the strategy is delivering disease control benefits ... it will help us to eradicate this terrible disease ... more than half the country is on track to be officially free of the disease ..."

So first, exactly what does Truss mean when she says the strategy is 'working'? Is there a reduction in cattle TB infections in and near the cull zones, for example? She's not telling us. All that is 'working' is the killing of badgers. This is reflected in the 'efficacy summaries' released yesterday for the three cull areas, West Somerset, West Gloucestershire and Dorset.

They are concerned only with the number of badgers despatched by trappers and marksmen. There's no information at all as to the effectiveness of the culls in achieving their objective - a reduction in bovine TB.

Trust Truss? MPs demand: give us the evidence!

Now it so happens that the environment department, Defra, released UK figures for cattle TB on 9th December. But as the Badger Trust complains, the figures are not broken down into the geographical detail needed to assess what effects the culls are having.

But here's what we do know in the two counties where the cull has been taking place for three years. Gloucestershire saw no change in new TB infections between 2014 and 2015. And in Somerset the level of new TB incidents in cattle jumped from 297 to 320 - a 7.75% increase.

But it's not just the likes of the Badger Trust that are reluctant to believe Truss's assurances that everything is going so well. Members of the EFRA parliamentary select committee that has oversight of Defra matters are also getting a bit antsy. Here's what they recently stated:

Claims that badger culling is delivering a significant reduction in bovine TB are looking increasingly bogus. £20 million of taxpayers' money has been spent killing thousands of badgers and yet cattle TB in Somerset is on the rise.

"Opinions differ strongly over how best to manage threats from diseases such as bovine tuberculosis (bTB). Defra must establish a thorough evidence base for underpinning policy formulation and communicate it in a fully transparent manner to set out clearly the reasons for the policy decisions it takes.

"Defra must publish full data on bTB incidence in areas where badgers have been culled.

"Tackling diseases such as bTB require a holistic approach and we recommend that the Government rolls out at the earliest opportunity all aspects of its strategy which are underpinned by a strong evidence base.

"We further recommend that Defra takes into account approaches by devolved administrations and the evidence as to the effectiveness or otherwise of the different nations' approaches to managing bTB."

But that adds up to, all expressed in the most parliamentary of language, is this: "Do the science, and give us the evidence!"

The NFU's best answer: anecdote

Early risers may have been treated to an interview on the BBC's Farming Today programme this morning that appeared to come from an parallel universe.

No one from Defra wanted to be grilled by the programme's incisive presenter Charlotte Smith - so instead they got the National Farmers Union's animal health and welfare advisor Catherine McLaughlin. Smith went straight to the heart of the matter: where's the evidence that the badger cull is working?

"It was very clear at the start that it would take a least four years to be able to clearly marry both cattle measures and badger culling together and be able to work out where the effects were", McLaughlin replied.

"Anectdotally we are getting farmers in those areas that have been restricted with TB for years, for 10, 20, 30 years, have suddenly gone clear. So anecdotally we are getting good stories - but it is just anecdote. The scientific evidence will take a lot longer."

But if it's just anecdote, pressed Smith, how did McLaughlin know that it's working? "We do know that it works now. We are getting very clear comments coming through from the Chief Veterinary Officer and the RBCT that badger culling, wildlife control as part of a comprehensive strategy will actually control TB and that is what we are doing."

McLaughlin's answers come down to this. She has had chatted with a few farmers who say it's all fine and dandy. And she has a some five year old results from the 2010 Randomised Badger Culling Trial that tell her that it must be working. Beyond that, she just knows it's working, because ... she knows.

And given that the NFU is working hand in glove with the government on this, if that's the best the NFU can come up with, Defra and Liz Truss can't do any better.

Badger Trust: we back EFRA's demand

Dominic Dyer, CEO of the Badger Trust, is deeply sceptical that there's any reduction in TB at all in the cull zones. In fact, he suggests, the refusal to release the information indicates that the results are at best neutral, and may even show a deterioration:

"The claims by the NFU and pro-cull politicians that badger culling is delivering a significant reduction in bovine TB are looking increasingly bogus and the exact opposite of the truth. £20 million of taxpayers' money has been spent killing thousands of badgers and yet cattle TB in Somerset is on the rise.

"To put this in context, TB rates in cattle outside of the cull zones have been dropping consistently for five years due to improved testing, bio-security and movement controls." 

Likewise Peter Martin, Badger Trust Chairman: "The government's own risk assessments stated before the culls began that there was a high probability that cattle TB rates would rise following the badger culls and this was backed up by the country's top scientists in the field. The EFRA Select Committee is absolutely right to call on DEFRA to take greater account of the alternative TB reduction strategies of the devolved administrations.

"The Welsh Government's approach has been far more successful by focusing on improved testing and movement controls in cattle. New incidents of bovine TB in cattle are now down by 28% in Wales with a 45% cut in the number of cattle being slaughtered. This now leaves 94% of the Welsh heard TB free, without killing any badgers.

"Unless the government can prove the culling of badgers is working in terms of lowering TB in cattle, this cruel, ineffective and hugely costly policy must be stopped immediately."


What about TB in the badgers?

But there is another way to look at this: what about the badgers? First, only badgers that have TB can transmit the disease to cattle. So it's well worth knowing the extent of TB infection in a population of badgers. Moreover it's an easy thing to measure. All you have to do is to autopsy the dead badgers for signs of the disease.

And indeed, Truss was asked about this yesterday in Parliament by David Hanson, the labour MP for Delyn: "Given that £20 million has been spent on the badger cull so far, and that hundreds, possibly thousands, of badgers have been killed, will the Secretary of State tell the House how many of those that have been killed had been tested for bovine TB?"

To which Truss responded: "If we do not get a grip on this terrible disease, we shall end up spending £1 billion on dealing with it over the next 10 years. The fact is that it was the Labour party, in 2010, that left us with the worst levels of the disease in Europe.

"That is why we are having to deal with it now, and I am following the advice of the Chief Veterinary Officer, who says that culling is an important part of dealing with it. Why do Labour Members not congratulate the hard-working farmers in Somerset, Gloucestershire and Dorset who have delivered this year, and who are helping us to deal with this terrible disease?"

Did you spot what was missing there? Yes, she didn't answer the question. In fact, she did not even acknowledge the question. She just went off on some demented rant of her own that was entirely unconnected with what she was asked.

And here's why. None of the culled badgers have been autopsied for TB. Not one. Not in three years of badger culling. And that is a disgrace: because if the badgers are healthy, there is no point in culling them. They cannot be transmitting TB they do not carry.

This failure goes beyond merely refusing to release important evidence. It is, rather, the deliberate refusal to gather evidence in the first place - evidence that is of huge scientific importance in developing any 'comprehensive strategy' for tackling bovine TB in cattle and badgers.

What this shows us is simple. Truss, Defra and the NFU do not want evidence. They do not like evidence. They do not need evidence. Because they already have the answer. And that answer is to kill badgers, kill more badgers, extend the killing of badgers into new areas, and just keep on killing, killing, killing.

As for evidence, well, that can only get in the way of the real purpose.



Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.

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