Common Decency Initiative: The Plight of the Badger
There cannot be many ordinary people who read the CDI who will not find something that immediately resonates strongly with their own experience.
When Brian May asked me to contribute something about the Government’s policy that has resulted in the unjust killing of thousands of badgers in Gloucestershire and Somerset, I willingly agreed because this is a story that is revealing and shocking in terms of the political world we live in today. To explain, I need to summarise the results of research that has spanned more than three decades of my scientific career to bring us to the facts that now underpin our understanding of TB in badgers and cattle.
Disrupting the badger population
Pursuing a career in applied science, I was offered an ideal job in the UK investigating the role of our native badgers in the occurrence of bovine TB. It was a broad brief that saw me re-locating to south west England in 1975 where I established a long term study of badger ecology and TB epidemiology in the Cotswold Escarpment region of Gloucestershire – one of the worst affected regions for cattle TB at that time.
During the first few years of research my small team gathered data on population dynamics and the prevalence of TB in a wild badger population. A picture of stability emerged, where badgers were organised into social groups occupying territories of around 30 hectares that were stable in space and time. TB was present in the badger population but contrary to veterinary expectations did not spread rapidly from group to group. Indeed, as long as the badger population was left undisturbed, TB was scattered in small pockets and most social groups remained disease free.
It is not known how badgers in this population became infected with TB but the disease had been present in the local cattle for many decades. Our first big problem arose when fresh TB outbreaks occurred on farms in our study area. The government’s Veterinary Service were aware of our work and insisted that badgers on the infected farms should be killed in line with government policy at the time, their assumption being that the badgers were responsible for the cattle TB. After the third culling operation of this kind, our long term study was in jeopardy. We had to negotiate an agreement with local farmers whereby they were compensated fully for any TB outbreak in return for allowing us access and leaving the badger undisturbed to carry on the long term research.
The culling operations inside the study area did at least give us an opportunity to investigate the effects of removing parts of the badger population on the remaining badgers. The results were striking. Badger movements increased dramatically, with the immigrant individuals moving into the culled areas ranging over areas five or six times larger than their normal home range. They also visited many more setts than normal and encounters with other badgers also increased markedly. The implications of these changes in behaviour were obvious in terms of disease spread.
An ‘unhelpful distraction’?
What reinforced my concern about the potential impacts of a policy of badger culling were reports of clusters of new cattle TB outbreaks on farms around areas where badgers had been culled. Farmers themselves were suggesting that their healthy badgers were now infected and the cattle TB breakdowns were the result.
The first opportunity to voice my concern to government officials came when I attended a meeting of what was called their “Badger Management Group”. I presented the field evidence showing the disruption to a badger population’s social order caused by culling, plus the anecdotal reports of the clusters of new cattle TB outbreaks around officially culled areas. A senior vet who chaired the Group dismissed the idea that badger culling could be making matters worse as “an unhelpful distraction”. I was both worried and depressed at this attitude. Were the government authorities, particularly the Veterinary Service which had overall responsibility for TB management, really interested in applied ecology?
What about vaccination?
At around this time the government commissioned a review of the bovine TB problem, particularly on whether badger culling was having the desired effect, by Lord Zuckerman. His report can only be described as a whitewash and the badger culling programme continued. The only constructive recommendation was that there should be another review in three years’ time. Thoughts of a career change entered my mind but what kept me going was the tremendous challenge that this government attitude presented.
In the early days of our pursuit of solutions to the possibility, and it was always no more than a possibility, that badgers were implicated in the persistence of TB in cattle, vaccination was frequently suggested as a means of tackling the disease in both badgers and cattle. The government vets dismissed this as both unrealistic and unachievable, citing the sometimes poor efficacy of human BCG vaccination against TB and the problems of discriminating between vaccinated and infected cattle during routine testing. It seemed the authorities were locked into a belief that the only way to deal with possible badger involvement was to kill them.
Variations on the culling theme
The long term field studies continued and more and more evidence was accumulated of the potentially negative impacts of badger culling. However, our evidence was based solely on the effects of culling on badger ecology and behaviour and we had no empirical evidence of the impact of badger culling on cattle TB. Things took a distinct turn for the better in the mid-1990s when Professor John Krebs, now Lord Krebs, a highly respected scientist with a sound understanding of applied ecology, was appointed to undertake the third review of the TB issue. He recommended new research to investigate the topic of badger “perturbation”, the disruptive phenomenon that may exacerbate the spread of disease, and crucially, he recommended an experimental trial to evaluate the efficacy of badger culling on TB incidence in cattle. This later became known as the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT).
It took ten more years to complete this trial at a cost to the tax payer of well over £50 million. An Independent Scientific Group (ISG) was appointed to oversee the RBCT. Two forms of culling were experimentally trialled: “Reactive” culling where badgers were removed in a single trapping operation on and around farms where TB outbreaks had occurred, and “Proactive” culling where badgers were removed from whole areas where there was a high historical incidence of TB in cattle. The reactive strategy was halted prematurely when it became clear that TB incidence in cattle was increasing compared with the control areas where there was no badger culling. Was this evidence that “perturbation” of the badger population by culling could exacerbate the spread of disease?
The proactive strategy was completed with each of the ten treatment areas being culled once a year for five consecutive years. Here there was a small reduction in the cattle TB incidence of about 25% in the core of the culled area. However, on the edge of the culled area there was a similar sized increase in cattle TB incidence. The net effect of these positive and negative influences was an overall reduction of just 12 to 16% in the occurrence of new outbreaks of TB in cattle over 9 years. The small “benefits” of culling were not seen until four years after culling had stopped. Additionally, it was found that the culling operations had actually increased the prevalence of TB in the remaining badgers.
Culling abandoned as a policy…
Not surprisingly, the ISG concluded that “badger culling could make no meaningful contribution to the control of TB in cattle in Britain”. To our research team the RBCT results represented a eureka moment after many years of endeavour. The ISG had concluded that there were indeed negative consequences when badgers were culled.
The Labour government of the day eventually embraced the results of this research, although it has to be said that there was much hand wringing, deliberation and debate before this point was reached. When the Labour Government announced that it was going to abandon badger culling as a means of managing TB in cattle, there was considerable discontent in the farming community and both the opposition parties announced that they would reverse this decision if elected. It all came down to winning votes. The matter of whether badgers should be killed, or culled, had become much more political. This wasn’t a sudden change. In the early years it was obvious that Labour were always more inclined to be guided by the science, perhaps conveniently as the majority of the wider electorate has always been opposed to culling. The Conservatives however, with their close affiliation to the farming and land owning communities, were more aligned to culling and it was clear that this had much to do with retaining the rural vote.
…then re-introduced on ‘new terms’
When the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition took office in 2010, a process of consultation began on whether and how badger culling should be reintroduced. Despite firm opposition from independent scientists, the government announced that they were going to introduce new pilot badger culls modelled on the methods used in the RBCT. However, they made three fundamental changes, all of which profoundly altered the conditions used in the RBCT:
1. allowing farmers and their contractors to undertake culling operations,
2. substituting “controlled shooting” (an untried and untested method of killing badgers) for live trapping, and most worryingly of all,
3. allowing six weeks plus possible extensions for the culling to take place.
In the RBCT culling was recommended to take just 12 days and this was a compromise! Rapid removal is essential to minimise the negative impacts. A government scientific advisory committee warned Defra that the more they strayed from the conditions of the RBCT, the less likely was the possibility that the outcome would be the same. Every single badger biologist with specialist experience believed that these changes would increase the negative impacts of culling. However, we will never actually know because the trials are not experimentally controlled and other measures that may impact on cattle TB incidence are being introduced at the same time.
The government pressed on, despite growing public opposition and repeated warnings from scientists that their judgement was flawed.
Badgers suffer a lingering death
The culls were approved by a Minister who was later to be sacked. However, the coalition government remained doggedly committed to the culls. Targets were set on the number of badgers to be killed that would match the estimated 70% removal rate seen in the RBCT. The culls failed to meet these targets in both 2013 and 2014. In 2014, scientists had even warned that the targets themselves were unrealistically low. Badger population density is notoriously hard to estimate reliably.
An Independent Expert Panel, appointed to oversee the culls in 2013, concluded that the culls had failed on both efficacy and welfare grounds. As well as not reaching the required degree of population reduction, more than 5% of badgers shot took longer than five minutes to die. Many were never found after being shot and probably escaped underground where some will have suffered a lingering and inhumane death. Experts warned the government that this would happen but it did not listen.
Failure after failure
They pressed on with the second year of culling despite the failure in the first year, having received the bizarre advice from the Chief Veterinary Officer that continuing the cull was better than stopping. Many people have asked for the evidence base for this advice but none has ever been given. The government even refused to reappoint the Independent Expert Panel in 2014, stating that their own staff would monitor the operations. There is no evidence in the data Defra has released on the second year of culling to suggest that either culling efficacy or humaneness has improved. Despite this, the current DEFRA Minister has stated the intention to continue the pilot culls if the Conservatives are elected and also that they will extend culling to many more areas.
We now have a situation where the Conservatives are isolated in their desire to continue badger culls. Labour has stated unequivocally that it will stop them and the Liberal Democrats seem to have withdrawn their tacit support. Two free votes in debates in the House of Commons on the badger culling policy have resulted in overwhelming defeat for the government. The independent scientific community is united in its opposition to culling. Three open letters to Ministers and the Prime Minister have been written by leading scientists and vets advising that the culls should be stopped. The most recent of these suggested that the government should do more to follow the example set by Wales. There they have introduced a much more rigorous cattle testing regime that has reduced the TB incidence by half in just five years, with no badger culling policy.
Against this background we have to ask why the National Farmers Union and the government is so stubbornly pursuing a badger cull instead of focusing on the cattle problem, improving farm biosecurity and developing vaccines. It is obviously a combination of reasons: the embarrassment of admitting they were wrong and doing a ‘U’ turn, fear of facing up to the alternatives with the cost and inconvenience that this would entail, and a more sinister reason which has to do with the way in which our countryside and native fauna is managed. TB has become a political football. Spin doctors invent catch phrases like “using every tool in the box”, “doing nothing is not an option” and “no other country in the world has managed bovine TB without tackling it in wildlife”. The first two examples are just mantra repeated by those who advocate badger culling and the third is actually untrue. The fact is that no other country has successfully managed bovine TB by culling wildlife.
An absence of political will
The option of vaccination is frequently dismissed out of hand by the pro-cull lobby. We hear statements that in the case of badgers it cannot address the problem of individuals that are already infected. It isn’t meant to. The purpose of a badger vaccination campaign would be to prevent new infections, so driving down the prevalence of TB over time. With cattle vaccination there is now a test to discriminate between vaccinated and infected animals. Despite very good progress on vaccine research, the coalition government cancelled five out of the six badger vaccine trial areas immediately after coming to office. The European Union has given the UK a framework for a ten year programme of cattle vaccine development which the current government has dismissed as being too long, while at the same time talking about a 25 year programme of badger culling. The implementation of vaccination programmes for both badgers and cattle really boils down to whether there is sufficient political will and it must be said that this has been conspicuously lacking with the present administration.
The badger culling story exemplifies why this country needs the Common Decency initiative. The Conservative Party and its wealthy backers in the Establishment, many of whom come from the privileged land owning community and support organisations like the Countryside Alliance, have spun and manipulated the available data in what can only be described as a propaganda campaign. They have deceived the electorate throughout these farcical pilot culling operations simply so that they can achieve their ultimate aim of controlling the way in which we manage and treat our native wildlife. Sadly, political whim has been allowed to trump science and common sense when it comes to dealing with bovine TB.
In conclusion, we need people in government who we can trust to do the right thing for our planet and its wildlife, without ulterior motives or vested interests being allowed to get in the way.
Dr Chris Cheeseman