• Badger Trust Staff Team

Badger Trust remains unconvinced that bTB policy consultation gives any reprieve to badgers

Review of Government statement and consultation approach fails to indicate any significant change to the expected further slaughter of over 100,000 badgers in coming years.

Further to an initial holding reaction to the Government’s announcement of a consultation into their ‘bovine Tuberculosis (bTB) eradication policy’ – the driver for the culling of badgers in England since 2013 – Badger Trust has further reviewed the details provided. This release gives a deeper dive into the matters at hand, and the reasons for our position of remaining unconvinced that there is any reprieve for badgers in sight. The top portion of this release provides the headline overview, and the following section gives the more comprehensive review.

Headline overview:

Whilst Badger Trust would welcome any sign that the badger cull is coming to an end it remains unconvinced that the Government’s recent statement, or the details held in the new consultation, indicate anything other than its continued commitment to the mass killing of badgers.

Despite the Government saying that no new licences will be issued after 2022, this does not mean that badger culling stops at that point. Badgers will continue to be killed for a significant number of years after that date. Whilst it's not possible to know what licences will or won't be issued in 2021 and 2022, or how these – and the licences already in progress – will be extended by supplementary licences, we can take an educated guess based on what has happened to date.

Dawn Varley, Acting CEO, said:

‘The Government has claimed ‘not to want to continue killing badgers indefinitely’ since the culls started in 2013, whilst year-on-year increasing the number of badgers killed and expanding the areas where culling takes place.’

She continued:

‘Badger Trust cannot see in this latest set of proposals that there is any meaningful intention for a reduction in the number of badgers killed over the next four years, with a distinct possibility of 20 new intensive cull licences being issued over the next two years, and the further possibility of 11 new supplementary licences this year. There are already expressions of interest for thirteen new cull zones in 2021 alone.’

Badger Trust believes that culling is likely to continue until 2027, but it could continue to 2030 if the currently permitted five years of supplementary culling post intensive cull (four years) continue as part of the 2021 and 2022 licences.

‘Whilst it is impossible to know with certainty how licencing will unfold in the next two years, we estimate that the number of badgers still to be killed could be between 100,000 - 140,000. This means that the Government is only around half way through killing badgers at this point.’

The recently announced 2020 figures added 38,642 badgers killed, taking the total since 2013 to 140,991. Add the badgers still to be killed, and this could lead to an overall total of 280,000.

A recent survey (1) on badger numbers in England and Wales put the estimated population at 485,000 (95% confidence intervals 391,000 - 581,000). The impact of the badger cull on badger populations is not known in either the short, medium or long term.

Dawn Varley concluded:

‘Badger Trust will, as ever, continue to fight to protect and preserve this most iconic, protected wildlife species. We are working on our full consultation response and encourage other relevant interested parties to fully engage with the process. We truly hope this is the last consultation on a bTB eradication policy that falsely puts badgers in the spotlight.’

Comprehensive review:

The consultation document states, “Government considers that it is important that intensive culls are deployed across as much as possible of the area where there is a reservoir of infection in badgers to ensure progress towards the 2038 eradication goal.” It then goes on to detail a host of circumstances in which culling will continue, even in the bTB Low Risk Area (LRA). There is also a clear indication of a move towards culling in Edge Areas, presumably because it has now run out of new territory in the High Risk Areas (HRA), with the spurious justification of using ‘epidemiological evidence’. This is in fact little more than guesswork based on its already discredited Risk Pathways approach.

However, the consultation document does contain some useful hints about where the Government’s position is changing and, perhaps more importantly, where it is not. The reliance on old justifications and old selectively quoted science is still there along with the glaring anomalies in its position. It continues to rely on hyperbolic claims that bTB is ‘the most pressing and costly’ animal health issue facing the country, and that the apparent suffering this causes cattle and the farming community is the predominant reason for undertaking one of the most egregious and protracted slaughters of a protected wildlife species in the history of the country. It is worth repeating that the most recently published official survey of culled badgers (2) showed that >95% of them were not infected with bTB, and that while the overall incidence of bTB is slightly down, the disease continues to spread.

Nevertheless, there appears to be a genuine effort within the consultation documents to make the case for a switch away from culling badgers to non-lethal methods of controlling bTB (vaccinating cattle and badgers), and a clear acknowledgement that a significant improvement in the application of cattle testing and movement controls is the principal way forward. It is not clear what is really driving this move but there are indications that the Government is losing faith with its previous scientific justifications. For example, it now doubts whether four-year culls are necessary and suggests that two-year culls ‘could’ provide similar if slightly less benefit but – tellingly – at ‘lower cost’. (Section 10.5)

Section 11 indicates there is growing resistance from farmers signing up for the cull, citing potential short duration of culling but more significantly that upfront costs are a key disincentive. 11.3 suggests that cull companies have to rely heavily on face-to-face meetings to persuade some farmers to sign up. We can only speculate on what ‘sales techniques’ or coercion is required to persuade farmers to sign up, but the fact such meetings are necessary at all indicates that the consensus amongst farmers is unclear. We can be confident that public opposition to the culls remains high and that the Government and the farming lobby may now be taking this more seriously.

Whatever the case, Badger Trust will, as it has on all previous occasions, take time to respond to the consultation in detail and in conjunction with other expert advisers and NGOs. Disappointingly, the consultation presents many proposals as ‘new initiatives’ which have in fact been suggested by stakeholders outside of Government (including Badger Trust) on many previous occasions over the last eight years. There has been no shortage of genuine and generously offered expert advice from a wide range of eminently qualified sources, which the Government has resolutely ignored to date.

For example, we note that the Government is suggesting cattle vaccines as a viable solution in the near term but clearly vaccines are not new nor, as Covid has proved, do they take decades to develop if there is a will and sufficient Government money. We hope that this time the intention is sincere.

We must also state that Badger Trust does not accept the continual assertion from Government, repeated several times in the consultation documents, that ‘the culls are working’ and that the reductions in observed cattle TB can in any way be attributed to culling badgers.

A brief look at Defra TB Stats Dashboard (3) shows an obvious correlation between the number of cattle tests conducted and the number of cattle slaughtered and the concomitant reduction in new herd incidents from 2018. It is obvious to any rational observer that more tests identifying more disease will lead to more cattle slaughtered and then less disease within the national herd. This trend is further reinforced by continual improvements in the frequency and quality of testing and more stringent rules on pre- and post-movement testing over the last five years.

The Government cannot, therefore, claim with any credibility that any of the observed reduction in bTB in cattle was the result of culling, not least because it has never undertaken any substantive scientific study to identify and separate the effects of culling from those of all the other measures being taken to reduce bTB. These reductions also need to take into account an 8% reduction in the overall number of herds since 2012.

The Government’s approach to bTB mirrors their approach to the Covid crisis. Their response to both has been too little and too late to be effective. By continually prioritising business and economic interests, and cherry-picking the science to suit their political agenda, they have let both diseases get dangerously out of control, certainly to the point where the UK per capita death rate from Covid is the worst in the world and the UK performance on controlling bTB is the worst in Europe or in any other developed nation.

Badger Trust will, as ever, continue to fight to protect and preserve this most iconic, protected wildlife species. We are working on our full consultation response and encourage other relevant interested parties to fully engage with the process, and contribute further on the areas we have highlighted above. We truly hope this is the last consultation on a bTB eradication policy that falsely puts badgers in the spotlight.


Note 1 - https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-00378-3

Note 2 - 994 badgers culled in 2016 were tested for bTB of which only 46 were found to have bTB (although 1 was found not to have TB known to cattle).

46/994 Cultured samples = 4.5%

40/994 Samples with visible lesions (VL) = 4%

Results published Jan 2018 - https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/787588/tb-surveillance-wildlife-england-2017.pdf

Note 3 - The number of cattle tests rose steadily from 2012 (5.6m) to a peak in 2018 (7.7m) with a drop off to 2020 (6.9m). This is mirrored in the number of cases which rose from 2012 (26,760) to a peak in 2018 (33,266) and then a decline to 2020 (27,339).

Further information:

The Government Consultation

The Government statement announcing the consultation

Badger Trust table of the number of badgers killed since the start of the current cull in 2013 can be found at the bottom of this news release on the 2020 figures

Public strength of feeling on the cull can be gauged by the Wild Justice petition to ban the shooting of badgers, the method of culling used by cull contractors, which passed 100,000 last weekend (6th February 2021) and which now requires the Government to consider the matter for a debate in Westminster Hall

The Badger Trust relies on your support to continue our work to enhance the welfare, conservation and protection of badgers, their setts and their habitats. We are stronger together – join the Badger Trust to help us carry on our vital campaign work, support our local Badger Groups and keep our badger crime reporting centre open.

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