Badger Cull Q & A

Why is this cull taking place?

The badger culls in 2013 were just a ‘trial’ cull, with the aim of killing around 5000 badgers in two areas (within Somerset and Gloucestershire). It was not a trial to see if a cull works, though,but a trial to test free-shooting as a method of culling the badgers. A full-scale cull is likely to be rolled out over large parts of the country in 2014..

There seems to be a lot of arguments as to whether a cull would work?

There are.  Those who are pro-cull believe that removing badgers from areas near cattle would reduce the incidences of Bovine TB (bTB) in their cattle. This is a disease which is having devastating effects on farms, and has led to thousands of cattle being slaughtered. Everyone agrees that something must be done about bTB – the arguments are about how best to do it.

“Badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control.” ISG Report

Do badgers give cattle TB?

BTB passes between cattle and some wildlife, including badgers, yes. It could be debated as to which animal first passed it onto the other, but that doesn’t really matter now. Some believe that having badgers near farms  can potentially increase the rate of bTB in those herds. Other believe that the rate of bTB in badgers simply mirrors that of the rate in nearby cows, but doesn’t impact on the cattle.

I can see why farmers want to shoot them then.

Yes, but it’s not quite as simple as that. Firstly, badgers are by no means the only cause of bTB in cattle – in fact, many say that they only contribute to the disease in a small way. Most of the UK’s independent scientists are against the cull, including the authors of the crucial ISG report (see below). In 2012, a Parliamentary vote on the cull saw a 147-28 vote against it. Several farmers have also come out against the cull, and opinion polls invariably show that public opinion is against it.

“There is a fragmented system of controls, involving a number of responsible bodies. This combined with a lack of co-ordination (particularly with Local Authorities) makes it difficult to ensure that basic practices to prevent infection/spread of disease (such as effective cleaning and disinfection of vehicles and markets) are carried out in a satisfactory way.” EC Report

Is shooting the best method?

The plan is to shoot the badgers, a mainly black animal, at night, potentially with protesters in the vicinity. What can possibly go wrong? Aside from the danger to humans, shooting several thousand badgers in this way is going inevitably going to lead to many animals being wounded rather than killed. These animals could suffer long and painful deaths; pregnant and nursing badgers could be killed leading to the starvation of young. Care for the Wild revealed, via a Freedom of Information request, that only around 3% of the number of badgers being shot would be tested to ensure they were killed humanely. Scientists say that the rate should be nearer 50% if they really wanted to ensure the cull was humane. Read more here.

An alternative would be to trap the badgers first, then kill them. However, this is a more expensive method – and many would say that if you are going to trap the badgers anyway, then why not vaccinate instead of shooting them.

What else causes bTB?

Unfortunately, a lot of blame can be put on poor farming practices. Modern methods of keeping herds within small areas, for example, can cause the disease to spread. Moving cattle around the country without ensuring that the herds are bTB-free – and thus spreading the disease wider – also contributes greatly. Other issues like cleanliness, essential when dealing with disease, and basic security (there are videos showing badgers getting easy access to cattle sheds) need to looked at urgently.

“Scientific findings indicate that the rising incidence of disease can be reversed, and geographical spread contained, by the rigid application of cattle-based control measures alone.” ISG Report

Okay, it’s not just the badgers, but culling them could help a bit?

Some people think so, and they will quote examples where they feel badger culling has led to a reduction in the disease. In any of these cases, however, any reduction in the disease may well be caused by other facts, such as changes in farming practices as above.A key example is the Republic of Ireland, which the government says has achieved a big cut in the rate of bTB after years of culling badgers. But Northern Ireland has achieved the same (or better) results, without killing a single badger.

“When people start talking about possums in NZ, how phenomenally ignorant can you get? Possums are an invasive species that doesn’t hold territory or a clan. This is completely irrelevant but it’s used as a big guiding light as to what we should do. No it shouldn’t, it’s completely irrelevant.” Simon King, OBE

We must rely on scientific studies on which to base decisions, and the most relevant, recent and comprehensive was a ten year trial called the Randomised Badger Culling Trial, carried out by the Independent Scientific Group (ISG).

This began in 1997, took 10 years, cost £50 million and involved 11,000 badgers being caged and shot, probably the biggest scientific badger cull study ever carried out.

So what did this report say?

Among other things, it showed that cattle do transmit bTB to badgers; and that cattle-based control methods were vital. It showed that around 16% of the badgers killed had TB, however, it is believed only severely ill badgers can pass on the disease – less than 2% of the badgers fitted into this category.

The study said that a cull could potentially reduce incidences of bTB in a herd by 16% over a period of nine years. This is a very small impact, and would also depend on several factors, including at least 70% of local badger populations being killed. Unfortunately, if this number wasn’t achieved, or if other infected badgers moved into the area after the cull (called ‘perturbation’), then the rate of bTB could actually increase.

The report summarised that a cull ‘can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control’.

But if culling won’t work, why is it going ahead?

Some people disagree with the findings of the ISG. Also, it’s fair to say that farmers are desperate to stop this disease, so are willing to try anything that could help. We understand that point of view, but ultimately if this cull is rolled out to the rest of the country, it could lead to the deaths of up to 130,000 badgers – roughly half the total UK population. As the cull must target 70% of local populations, it will be impossible to accurately know how many are killed – meaning it is very likely that either not enough will be killed leading to no impact on the disease, or the whole local population will be wiped out.

There is also a valid argument to say that this cull is politically motivated. The strongest advocates for the cull are the National Farmers Union, and Owen Patterson, the Environment Minister. The NFU leadership, naturally, wants to be seen to be taking a lead on this; and the government has a lot of support from the farming community, which it would not want to lose.

But what else can be done?

Rigorous implementation of better farm biosecurity and movement controls is absolutely vital, and will have the biggest impact.

In terms of badgers, vaccination has been proved to be effective in reducing bTB transmission to cattle. Badger vaccination has been seen as an expensive and impractical option, and cull advocates claim it won’t be an option for several years. Disappointingly, when the current government came to power, there were six on-going projects looking at the validity of badger vaccination: all but one were cut.

However, Care for the Wild along with other members of Team Badger have been working on a project called the Badger Vaccination Initiative, which we believe is both feasible and cost-worthy. With government backing, the scheme could be rolled out very soon and provide a viable alternative.

Ultimately, the real solution to bTB is likely to be a vaccination for cattle. This actually exists, but EU rules regarding the sale of meat and dairy products from vaccinated cows means that we are not able to use it. This is an extremely disappointing situation. We need the government to work out an answer to this problem with utmost urgency. Team Badger itself has been to Brussels to discuss this.

Any other arguments?

Care for the Wild objects to this cull on several grounds. Firstly, the science clearly indicates that it will not have the desired effect of meaningfully reducing bTB in cattle. Secondly, we believe that alternative ways of reducing the disease are available, including more rigorous farming practices, and badger vaccination; furthermore, had these alternatives been applied/investigated appropriately in the past, we wouldn’t be in such a dire situation now.

Thirdly, even if wiping out half of the UK’s badgers (a protected species, by the way) could have a meaningful impact on the disease, is this actually the right way of going about things? Farming and wildlife need to co-exist, and many farmers have worked hard to do this successfully. Problems may be solved by killing anything that gets in our way, or by covering nature with concrete, but that’s not a world we want to see.

 Read more

Please see below for links to references for the above answers, and further reading.

Badger Trust summary of the ISG report

EC Report putting blame on cattle movement failures

Badger Trust rebuttal of NFU pro-cull arguments

University of Exeter report showing that the cost of a cull will be more than the financial benefits

Report on Parliamentary vote against the cull