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English badgers out in the early evening. Photo: Hugh Warwick / urchin.info.
English badgers out in the early evening. Photo: Hugh Warwick / urchin.info.
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Britain's vets - it's time to oppose the badger cull!

Lesley Docksey

28th April 2014

You would think vets would take animal welfare seriously, writes Lesley Docksey. So why does the British Veterinary Association (BVA) support England's badger cull - when all the science is telling them it's both cruel, and ineffective against Bovine TB?

The number one priority for the Veterinary industry must be animal welfare and this can no longer be pushed aside for the short term economic interests of the livestock industry. - Dominic Dyer

Surely the BVA is not there simply to back farmers who hate badgers - though we shouldn't forget its partner organisation the British Cattle Veterinary Association (BCVA), which does appear to exist for precisely that purpose.

Nor is the BVA there to provide Defra with a fig-leaf of 'science' - not when the Department misuses evidence from the Randomised Badger Culling Trials to prop up its position.

Even now, when last year's culls have been proved ineffective and inhumane, the BVA cannot quite climb down off its fence and withdraw its support for the continued culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire.

How can it justify its awkward position?

BVA: Wales's cull-free success 'a backward step'

In March 2012 Wales took the decision not to cull badgers. This was described by the BVA and the BCVA as a "backward step". Carl Padgett, then BVA President, said:

"This is clearly a political decision, rather than a scientific one, and it will potentially set back our efforts to tackle this devastating disease by many years."

How wrong they were. To the disappointment of wildlife organisations, the BVA and BCVA fully supported Defra's plans to initiate the two pilot culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire, with the intention of supporting wider roll out across the country if the pilots proved humane.

They, and Defra, relied on heavily quoted and misunderstood results of the Randomised Badger Culling Trial, claiming that culling badgers would result in a 16% drop of TB in cattle, a claim rebutted by Lord Krebs.

Another disappointment

On 17 April the BVA, whilst not happy about the failure of the culls in both humaneness and effectiveness, published a statement that yet again disappointed wildlife organisations.

While the BVA "welcomed the Government's decision not to roll out badger culling using controlled shooting to new areas", it also:

"recognises that evidence from the Randomised Badger Culling Trial suggests that if culling in the pilot areas is stopped now there is a significant risk that this will lead to an increase in TB in cattle in those areas."

The data from the RBCT actually showed something very different. Reactive culling - which most closely resembled the pilot culls in terms of patterns and proportions of badgers removed - resulted in significant increases in bTB incidence in cattle in and around the cull areas.

But this effect rapidly diminished once culling was stopped (Para 9, P20, RBCT final report). So the BVA's arguments for supporting any continuation of culling within the pilot zones are not, as they claim, supported by the RBCT.

Extending the cull period created extra risk

Also, most anti-cull campaigners know that extending the period of culling beyond the limit set - six weeks - will increase the risk of more TB in cattle because fleeing badgers could (possibly) infect areas outside the cull area. Yet both pilot culls were extended beyond this limit. The common belief is that this 6-week limit came from the RBCT. Not so.

The RBCT proactive culling was conducted, intensively, for approximately 12 days in most cases. So where did the 6-week limit come from?

It came from advice given by Defra's Science Advisory Council and TB Science Advisory Body formulated in February 2011, and is mentioned in the minutes of a meeting of scientific experts at Defra in April 2011:

" ... the minimum criteria are defined as: covering at least 70% of the land within the culled area (based on RBCT experience), a minimum area of 150 km2 (based on analysis and extrapolation of RBCT data), sustained for a minimum of four years (based on RBCT estimates), and conducted simultaneously as defined as within a six-week period each year"

Did the experts already suspect that shooting, as opposed to the cage-trapping used in the RBCT, would not kill enough badgers?

Much killing, small benefit

Among the evidence in the RBCT report it also says:

"5.39 ... proactive culling would have prevented approximately 116 confirmed breakdowns inside ten circular 100 km2 culling areas over a five-year period."

Note that a 'herd breakdown' refers to a herd's collective loss of immunity to a disease, in this case Bovine TB. The report continues:

"We also estimated that proactive culling would have induced approximately 102 additional confirmed breakdowns within ten 83.5km2 'neighbouring' areas falling up to 2km outside each culling area. This gives an estimated overall benefit of 14 fewer confirmed breakdowns over five years across the ten 183.5km2 combined areas."

Fourteen fewer herd breakdowns after 5 years of killing badgers. Some benefit.

Robust, independent ... oh yeah?

The BVA also "states that BVA could only support further culling in the pilot areas if steps are taken to improve both its effectiveness and the humaneness of controlled shooting and if there is robust monitoring and collation of results, and independent analysis and auditing by a non-governmental body"

In response Mark Jones of the Humane Society International UK said:

"As a vet myself who has long been disappointed by the British Veterinary Association's support for the badger cull, I am heartened to see the BVA recognising concerns about the humaneness and effectiveness of the recent pilot culls, and adopting a more precautionary position.

"However, in light of the shocking evidence of significant badger suffering in the IEP report, and the IEP's conclusion that the pilots failed to deliver an ‘effective' cull, the BVA should have gone further by making it clear it will not support any future culling of badgers."

One could argue that the BVA is giving itself an escape route by demanding robust monitoring and independent analysis before giving its full support - but it knows full well that Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has already confirmed there will be no independent oversight of any future culling.

The NFU, the culling companies and the farmers do not want to be observed while they create mayhem among our wildlife. As CEO of the Badger Trust Dominic Dyer says:

"The BVA are now between a rock and a hard place on this issue and are trying desperately to put pressure on Owen Paterson to put in additional monitoring."

Why no TB testing of the culled badgers?

The Ecologist asked BVA President Robin Hargreaves to clarify the BVA's position on some points. Seeing that the BVA wants a "robust TB eradication programme" what did he think about the fact that none of the culled badgers were tested for TB?

Robin Hargreaves: "Research has already been carried out in the high incidence areas to establish the levels of TB in the badger population and so it was not considered necessary to repeat work that had already been completed, and that would come at additional cost that could be better deployed elsewhere."

Considering the £10 million plus spent so far on culling, to cite costs is a little weak. A study published by Defra in 2003 found that in some hotspot areas for TB in cattle no badgers were infected. Curiously, this study is no longer available online.

A Defra survey from 2002 to 2004 found that six out of seven badgers killed on roads in areas of high infection were also free of the disease.

And what about Wales's no-killing success?

What is the BVA's position on the Welsh results - a 48% drop in the number of cattle slaughtered since 2009, with no badger culling, much stricter TB testing, cattle movement controls and bio-security regime? Should the BVA withdraw support for culling and instead back the Welsh approach?

Robin Hargreaves: "The Welsh results are very interesting and we are learning a lot from the different approaches being taken in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

"We have always argued that tighter cattle measures are a vital part of any TB control strategy and we have supported the additional cattle measures set out in the England TB strategy.

"However, if we are talking about eradication of the disease - as opposed to reduction or containment - then cattle measures will not be enough, and the wildlife reservoir must be addressed. We are watching the badger vaccination project in Wales with interest but at present it is too early to tell whether it is having an impact.

"We do know from the RBCT that badger culling has an effect in reducing incidence of TB in cattle and this is why BVA has supported its use as part of a holistic eradication strategy."

Ignoring the obvious and well-known facts

Hargeaves forgets that TB was almost eradicated in the 1960s and early 70s without killing any badgers (the first badger found carrying bTB was in 1971). Badger vaccination will not necessarily stop the badger-to-cattle infection, but it will stop badgers from being infected by cattle.

He is also ignoring the RBCT summary which said that "careful evaluation of our own and others' data indicates that badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control."

The BVA says it is concerned about the 'humaneness' of the culls. The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency reports for the IEP demonstrated many examples of the guns acting in a very cavalier manner in regard to the conditions of their licences, as did the Natural England Compliance Reports.

Anti-cull groups in Somerset and Gloucester recorded frequent incidents of criminal behaviour - firearms offences, wildlife crimes, trespass and assault committed by the cullers. Their respective police forces are still working on these issues.

No independent oversight

This was all done under at least some official monitoring. One can't begin to imagine how much 'inhumaneness' will be suffered by the badgers if there is no independent oversight. So - is the BVA happy about the level of non-compliance with regulations demonstrated by the culling companies in last year's culls?

Robin Hargreaves: "We do not support any non-compliance or illegal or irresponsible activity by the contractors or protesters. The Independent Expert Panel found that non-compliance was a contributory factor in the pilots failing to meet the targets for effectiveness, along with 'heterogeneous spatial coverage by Contractors of compliant land, variability in Contractor effort or ability, and protestor activity'.

"The IEP has made a number of clear recommendations and BVA is urging Defra to implement them fully, as well as robust, independent monitoring."

Paterson, arm twisted by the NFU, has already stated "no independent oversight", and no amount of better training and tougher regulations will make unmonitored guns humane in their killing when they have already proved their disregard for law. The BVA can call in vain for actions that will allow it to continue to support the culls.

Time for a smart exit

As Professor John Bourne wrote in the RBCT report, "It is unfortunate that agricultural and veterinary leaders continue to believe, in spite of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, that the main approach to cattle TB control must involve some form of badger population control."

This should be where the BVA does a smart exit, before its untenable position becomes even more deeply entrenched.

But there are two main reasons why it may not do so. First it's always hard to admit that you got it wrong, no matter how powerful the evidence against you.

And could it be that the BVA cannot help seeing wildlife as a problem, to which the answer will always be killing?

 


 

Lesley Docksey is a freelance writer who contributes articles to The Ecologist and other news media with international reach on issues of war, peace, politics and the environment.

See her other articles for The Ecologist.

 

 

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