In a recent letter to the Veterinary Record entitled ‘Bovine TB in the pilot badger cull zone in Gloucestershire’ (VR, February 21, 2015, vol 176, p 208), retired cattle vet Roger Blowey some farming colleagues, two of whom are Directors of Gloscon, the company licensed to conduct the pilot badger culls in Gloucestershire, reported dramatic recent reductions in the numbers of cattle testing positive for TB within the Gloucestershire pilot badger culling zone. The authors claimed the pilot badger culls might be the reason behind the reduction, a view they have reiterated in subsequent public proclamations.
A group of 13 vets, outraged by these unfounded and unscientific claims, have signed a response, which was published in the Veterinary Record on 7th March.
The culling of badgers as part of the current Government’s strategy for controlling bovine TB in cattle in England has been surrounded by controversy from theoutset. Badger culling was abandoned by the previous Government in Westminster, following the conclusion of the independent group of scientists charged with overseeing the 10 year, £50 million Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT), that ‘…badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to the future control of cattle TB in Britain’, and that ‘…substantial reductions in cattle TB incidence could be achieved by improving cattle-based control measures’.
The RBCT was an attempt to scientifically evaluate the impact culling badgers might have on cattle TB, after years of indiscriminate killing which generated little if any substantive evidence. To this day, there is no respectable body of science contradicting the RBCT’s conclusions.
What’s more, stricter controls over cattle testing and movement, introduced over the past 7 years in Wales (where badger culling has been abandoned) and more recently in parts of England, have led to substantial reductions in the levels of cattle infection. In Wales, the number of cattle slaughtered because of bovine TB has halved since 2009. Similar, albeit more recent progress has been seen in parts of England, where the numbers of TB infected cattle slaughtered has reduced in the past year by 40% in Somerset, and almost 30% in Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. Other counties such as Dorset and Wiltshire have also seen big reductions.
The pilot badger culls, which were conducted across about 4% of the land area of Somerset and 7% of Gloucestershire, in the autumn of 2013 and 2014, are not responsible for these improvements. The Panel of Experts that examined the data from the first year of culling concluded that the pilot culls had failed to meet their targets on effectiveness (in terms of the numbers of badgers killed), and humaneness. A meeting of experts convened by Defra in 2011 concluded that ‘benefits [from culling] would accrue over time and would be relatively small (if any) in earlier years’. Even the Chief Vet at DEFRA, who has spent much of his time in recent years trying to justify the government’s badger culling policy, has admitted that it’s far too early to see any significant impact on TB in cattle from the pilot culls.
Mark Jones, Programmes Manager at the Born Free Foundation and one of the 13 vets who have signed the response to Mr Blowey et al’s letter, said: “The proclamations by Mr Blowey and his colleagues, who for their own reasons wish to promote the indiscriminate killing of badgers, are based on anecdotal, uncontrolled and incomplete data. They also fly in the face of established scientific evidence and opinion. It is sad to see members of my profession drawing such flawed and dangerous conclusions from such spurious data.
“The coalition government promised a ‘science-led policy of badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of bovine tuberculosis’. The science has shown time and again that Badger culling is ineffective and inhumane. The data presented by Mr Blowey and his colleagues is not scientific and should form no part of any future policy considerations.”