Across the west of England, culls are happening across a larger and larger area, in a programme that Natural England itself described as “reducing the badger population to the extent and on the scale… not previously… sanctioned for any protected native mammal species in modern times”.
If you began at Defra headquarters in central London, and started laying dead badgers nose to tail, the numbers killed by the end of 2017 would take you as far as Heathrow Airport. Add the number that could legally be killed over the next few weeks and you would find yourself on the outskirts of Reading. The areas being culled now encompass the agricultural lands of entire counties. Protected Areas are not exempt: cull companies are permitted to kill Britain’s largest remaining terrestrial carnivore, itself a protected species, across hundreds of Sites of Special Scientific Interest, plus European Protected Sites and RAMSAR sites, with little more restriction than a caution to avoid off-road driving.
The environmental impact of badger culling is not the only concern. Over half of the badgers killed so far have been shot using a method judged by government advisors to cause “marked suffering” in an unacceptably high proportion of animals. The British Veterinary Association called – without success – for this method to be discontinued on welfare grounds.
Such slaughter of protected wildlife is lawful only for very strong reasons. Badger culls have been licensed with the aim of reducing the risks of bovine tuberculosis (TB) in cattle, as part of a 25-year strategy to eradicate a livestock disease which formerly killed thousands of people each year. A review of that strategy, chaired by Prof Sir Charles Godfray, is due to report its findings by the end of September. To inform the public and policy debates that will surely follow publication of the Godfray Report, ZSL has produced its own, completely independent, review of badger management relating to TB control in the UK. You can download ZSL’s report here.
ZSL’s review reaches three key conclusions.
First, while badgers can and do transmit TB to cattle, most cattle herds acquire TB from other cattle. The widespread idea that TB persists in badger populations, occasionally “spilling over” into cattle, doesn’t fit the facts. Badgers and cattle are better viewed as two hosts of the same disease, each able to transmit to their own species, and to the other. The greatest potential for TB control lies in improved cattle testing. However, the government’s aim of eradicating TB in the next 20 years is likely to require managing infection in badgers as well as cattle.
Second, there are major problems with badger culling as a tool for TB eradication. Culling increases TB transmission within badger populations, and spreads the disease to new areas, so any local benefits it may have for TB control are unsustainable. Moreover, while a previous randomised controlled trial of badger culling consistently reduced cattle TB inside culled areas, it is still too early to be confident of such benefits from the current policy. The most recent figures suggest that cattle TB may be falling in two areas but rising in a third, with government scientists cautioning that “these data alone cannot demonstrate whether the badger control policy is effective in reducing bovine TB in cattle”. Government claims that its badger culls are “delivering results” appear premature.
Third, badger vaccination appears much more promising as a tool for TB eradication. While data are limited, this approach has the potential to reduce the density of infected badgers as rapidly as culling, but without the environmental and welfare costs. Better still, vaccination can be dramatically cheaper than culling. Indeed, ZSL calculations suggest that the government could conduct a full-scale field trial of badger vaccination as a tool for tackling cattle TB, for less money that it invests in a single average-sized cull zone.
The evidence supporting these three conclusions is presented, in detail, in ZSL’s report. ZSL will share the report with policymakers and key stakeholders, as it seeks to inform the debate, and to help achieve a sustainable TB policy which frees farmers from the burden of TB while also conserving the UK’s valued native wildlife.
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