Why did the badger cross the road? Maybe to get away from an Environment Secretary on a personal mission of death and destruction to Britain's wildlife. Photo: Badger in the Quantock Hills of Somerset by Mark Robinson via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
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Truss's decision: badger culling will continue, with no evidence it works
5th January 2015
Sneaked out shortly before MP's Christmas recess, the Government's decision to 'carry on culling' badgers with no evidence that the slaughter is reducing the incidence of bovine TB is a travesty of process, writes Lesley Docksey. But it does have one useful outcome - it has exposed Defra's claims that the cull is 'science-led' as arrant nonsense. Science never even got a look in.
These culls are no longer pretending to be 'pilots', due to run for four years before being rolled out across the country. Until they are completed there can be no properly assessed scientific evidence that culling badgers will result in less bovine TB.
Roll badger culls out across the country, with far fewer criteria to control the gunmen - that's what Liz Truss wants.
The Environment Secretary's statement to Parliament on the 2015 badger culls in Somerset, Gloucester and Dorset - made just as MPs were about to go home for their Christmas jollifications - would have been laughable if it wasn't such a dire repeat of the previous two years' misinformation and bad science.
She cites the Chief Veterinary Officer as saying that "industry-led badger control" - a chilling term - will achieve disease control benefits. She says the government's approach to dealing with bTB has worked in other countries.
It hasn't. The only country that has seriously culled its badger population is Ireland, and the facts from there are very dodgy.
The one welcome announcement was that they are finally going to introduce statutory post-movement testing for cattle, something many farmers have been crying out for. But even that only goes so far.
An unsubstantiated claim by Truss
Answering MPs' questions , Truss claimed that more than half of England (the Low Risk Area) will officially bTB free by 2020, but ignored the fact that:
- Scotland has been officially bTB free for quite some years, without culling badgers.
- Wales took the decision in 2009 NOT to cull badgers but to have strict bio-security measures, cattle movement controls and annual testing for all cattle. This has almost halved their cattle slaughter rate and they are on the way to becoming bTB free without killing badgers.
- The Low Risk northern and eastern regions, although they currently have little bTB, have also not benefited from annual testing and tighter cattle movement controls. The incidence of TB is rising.
Asked by Labour MP David Hanson how many of the thousands of killed badgers had been tested for bTB, she first blamed Labour for creating the problem of bTB and then said,
"I am following the advice of the Chief Veterinary Officer, who says that culling is an important part of dealing with it. Why do Labour Members not congratulate the hard-working farmers in Somerset, Gloucestershire and Dorset who have delivered this year, and who are helping us to deal with this terrible disease?"
Untested badgers were not mentioned (bar one in the first year of culling, none have been tested).
Neil Parrish, the pro-culling Devon Tory MP said: "In Gloucestershire and Somerset, there has been a very beneficial reduction in the number of cattle suffering from TB in the badger culling areas." He then asked, "When will the Secretary of State be able to release the figures that will show what is happening?"
Maybe when the moon turns blue, because if there genuinely were figures to suport his statement Liz Truss would have been touting them around every media outlet she could find.
Let's use some facts
Truss claims that the badger culls in Somerset and Gloucester (their third year of culling) and Dorset (experiencing its first) have been successful. What does that mean? Successful in killing lots of badgers? Or successful in lowering the incidence of bovine TB among cattle?
The culls are being carried out in very small areas of each county (Somerset approx. 4% of the total land mass, Gloucester approx. 7% and Dorset approx. 8%). One really cannot claim that culling badgers in such a small%age of land is affecting the TB rates enough to be counted as 'successful'.
Defra's own statistics show that annual testing of cattle and other bTB control measures in Dorset was reducing TB without culling. And there is evidence, slight it is true, that perturbation of badger populations in Somerset has resulted in new incidents of bTB around the edge of the culling area.
This evidence comes from a website that maps bTB outbreaks in England for the last 5 years. It is worth noting that according to this map there was a total of 9-10 farms in the North Dorset culling area that had bTB breakdowns in 2015, only three of which were still under restrictions at the time of the badger cull. Compared to the spread of incidents in parts of Devon and Cornwall, this looks pretty sparse, and makes one wonder just why Dorset was allowed to have a cull.
The NFU was not happy when campaigners found and used this site. But it is factual, unlike claims based on hearsay rather than figures.
In 2014 the then Environment Secretary Owen Paterson was foolish enough to repeat to a farming journalist, as fact, something a Gloucester farmer had claimed; that since badger culling had started there had been a huge increase in ground-nesting birds (dead badgers don't eat birds, and it's not a staple food for live ones). This was news to the RSPB and embarrassing for Defra when they were queried about it.
This is, if course, a 'science-led' control of badgers
These culls are no longer pretending to be 'pilot badger culls', due to run for four years before being rolled out across the country. Until they are completed there can be no properly assessed scientific evidence that culling badgers will result in less bTB. To have any roll-out without that evidence is utterly unscientific. Nor is it bovine TB control. It is just 'badger control'.
Defra launched a consultation on 28 August 2015 on their plans to 'update' the criteria for culling even more badgers. The 2015 culls started just three days later, on the August Bank Holiday.
They solicited responses by emailing over 300 'interested parties'. Others had to find out for themselves, which meant that some badger groups only had a few days to send in their responses before the month-long consultation closed.
There were 1378 responses, 90% of them from the public. Farmers and farming organisations accounted for just 3%. The fact that the 2010 consultation on badger culling elicited over 59,000 responses demonstrates how unpublicised government consultations can be, particularly when they don't want to hear the answers.
Three proposals were offered:
- The length of the culls should not be limited to the current 6 weeks;
- Allowing culling in a much smaller area (100 sq.km rather than the current 200 sq.km plus);
- Providing more flexibility (or 'anything goes') for licensing of new areas of culling.
Having dismissed those who were against badger culling in principle ("many responses appeared to have been submitted in response to campaigns ... "), it must have been clear to Defra what the majority opinion was:
All three proposals could increase the perturbation of badger populations, leading to increases of TB in cattle (as proved by the Randomised Badger Culling Trials). All three proposals were moving away from the criteria set by the RBCT - a legitimate argument seeing that the government relied heavily on the RBCT to justify culling badgers, while happily misquoting its findings.
There were also worries on welfare issues and the possibility that local populations could be wiped out. Of the several hundred responses to each question, only 40-46 people broadly supported the proposals mostly, judging from the reasons given, because they would hamper those trying to protect badgers.
To all of which Defra replied that the responses "have helped inform the Secretary of State's decision to implement the proposals", which is a horrifying prospect for England's badgers. It will almost amount to badgers being shot wherever and whenever the gunmen choose.
And, seeing that the government has refused to release the true costs of culling badgers, it will cost unknown sums in policing. On only one thing have they given way - they have apparently agreed to test culled badgers for bovine TB.
And what will they do if it is found that too few badgers have bTB? Apart from staying very, very silent. Or make use of that statement (attributed to Truss) about failing defences in last month's disastrous floods:
"Our defences worked really well right up to the point at which they failed."
Lesley Docksey is a freelance writer who writes for The Ecologist and other media on the badger cull and other environmental topics.
Also on The Ecologist: 'So badger culls are working? Liz Truss, produce your evidence!' by Oliver Tickell.
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