Proactive badger culling is under way in five new areas in England in a desperate attempt to control bovine tuberculosis (bTB), in spite of even more evidence that it is both inhumane and ineffective.
September brought with it sunny skies, falling leaves, and seven new licences to non-selectively cull the UK’s most iconic carnivore. Over 10,000 badgers are due to be killed by the start of December in extended culls covering parts of Cornwall, Somerset, Devon, Gloucestershire, Dorset, and Herefordshire.
Bovine tuberculosis – a wildlife disease caused by Mycobacterium bovis – is a serious ongoing problem for the British cattle farming industry which has cost the UK taxpayer around £500 million in control efforts over the last 10 years. Although the disease has been successfully eradicated in most of Europe, it persists in UK cattle due to re-infection from an elusive wild reservoir: the badger (Meles meles).
Efforts to control the disease have historically been constrained by a poor understanding of the mechanisms of bTB transmission, and as a result, it has continued to spread north and east from previously isolated areas in the South West of the UK, to as far north as the Peak District and as far east as Oxfordshire. The number of cattle slaughtered through the UK’s stringent test-and-slaughter control method has also increased four-fold since 1998, reaching over 28,000 animals last year.
No effective diagnostic test or widespread vaccination programme is currently available for bTB infection in badgers, therefore, despite being protected under the 1992 Protection of Badgers Act, proactive culling of badgers has been a prominent method of control since 1998. However, a plethora of political decisions, seemingly ignoring the advice of scientists, has resulted in repeated bursts of public outcry and an ongoing debate between environmental and farming organisations.
Below is timeline of key research findings and parliamentary decisions regarding badger culling since 1998.
Over 11,000 badgers were killed in the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT), which initially used both proactive (badgers culled irrespectively of whether bTB had been reported in the area) and reactive (badgers culled only in areas where recent outbreaks had been reported in cattle) culling in 100km2 areas. The RBCT cost almost £50 million of taxpayer investment.
Initial results of the RBCT found an 18.9% increase in bTB outbreaks in areas of reactive culling compared with areas that were not culled. Reactive culling was therefore stopped for the rest of the trial.
Results of the RBCT were published, finding a 23.2% decrease in bTB herd incidence inside proactively culled areas compared with areas that were not culled, but a 24.5% increase in bTB herd incidence in land surrounding culled areas (in a 2km ring). The increase in adjoining land was due to social perturbation of badgers, which roamed further to find new territories after their social groups were disrupted by culling.
The Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB (ISG) concluded that due to the high costs and low effectiveness of the RBCT, badger culling was unlikely to be a sufficient control method of bTB in the UK. Despite this, the former Chief Scientific Advisor to the government, Professor Sir David King, produced a report which encouraged badger culling.
Hilary Benn (former DEFRA Secretary of State) prevented further badger culling, instead allocating £20 million to alternative methods of control such as vaccination.
Final results from the RBCT, measured from the first cull to 5 years after the last cull, showed an overall 28.3% decrease in bTB incidence inside culled areas and a 9% increase in surrounding areas. Scientists concluded that areas of 150km2 would have to be culled for culling to be effective, yet the financial costs of culling such a large area would exceed the savings achieved by reducing bTB.
The Bovine TB Eradication Programme for England (started by new government DEFRA Secretary of State Caroline Spelman) prompted the reinstatement of pilot badger culling in the UK, after multiple court appeals failed.
Pilot culls took place in Somerset and Gloucestershire, now involving farmer-led shooting of free-ranging badgers in an attempt to reduce the costs associated with the cage-trapping method.
Government cull targets were set to 70%, after scientists deemed that near-eradication of badgers was the only way to reduce bTB. The culls were independently monitored for effectiveness and humaneness by the Independent Expert Panel.
Culls failed to achieve targets, reaching just 37-56% badgers, and therefore too few to successfully halt the disease. Figures from the 2013 and 2014 culls found that up to 23% badgers were left alive after being shot, raising questions of humaneness of the shooting method. The British Veterinary Association called for controlled shooting to be abandoned as a culling method.
Despite no evidence in favour of the humaneness or effectiveness of the shooting method, the pilot culls were extended into new areas in Dorset. Almost 1500 badgers were killed, costing over £1.7 million, but cull targets of 70% were still not met.
New evidence from a two-year study by Professor Rosie Woodroffe illustrated that direct contact between badgers and cattle is extremely infrequent and that transmission is most likely to occur through their shared environment. Although M. bovis has been observed to persist in the environment for days to months, environmental transmission is rarely considered and contaminated pasture, slurry and manure are not managed as infectious. She concluded:
“The evidence suggests that licensed badger culling is inhumane and costly, with limited expected benefits for bTB control and a realistic prospect of detrimental effects”.
The Welsh Assembly replaced proposals for a cull in 2011 with a five-year badger vaccination programme, which was suspended in December 2015 due to a global shortage of the BCG vaccine. The vaccination programme has so far cost around £700 per badger (compared with culling estimates of £7000 per badger) and led to a 28% reduction of new bTB cases in Welsh cattle and a 45% reduction in the number of cattle slaughtered (as reported by The Badger Trust). Despite considerable opposition from the Farmer’s Union of Wales, a report by the Animal and Plant Agency commissioned after the suspension concluded that the one-year suspension will not lead to an increase of bTB in Wales.
And so, we arrive at the extension of the badger culls in September. As an environmentalist, it is difficult to understand the logic behind the reinstatement of culling this year. It is expensive, ineffective, and inhumane. However, even environmentalists cannot (and do not) disregard the severe impact bTB has on the livelihoods of British farmers. England should now follow Wales’ example and implement vaccination schemes, allocate more scientific funding to the improvement of diagnostic tests, and focus control methods that prevent transmission through the environment. It is clear that a stronger collaboration between science and policy is duly needed if we are to achieve both a cruelty-free and bTB-free Britain.
Some further reading
Full results of the RBCT:
The Welsh story:
A word from Professor Woodroffe:
Professor Woodroffe’s 2016 study: