Stop the flawed and failing Badger Cull
Prof Rosie Woodroffe blows holes in the government rebuttal of Simon King OBE e-petion
Petition: End the badger cull instead of expanding to new areas
The government responded to this petition when it received 10,000 signatures. Unfortunately, the government’s response was so inaccurate and selective that it appears to represent a deliberate attempt to mislead the public. There are four key inaccuracies in the government respon The response claims that recent experience in Gloucestershire, Somerset, and Dorset has shown that licensed culling “is safe, humane and effective in reducing the number of badgers needed to bring down disease levels in cattle”. This statement conflicts sharply with the available evidence. An Independent Expert Panel (IEP) established by Defra to evaluate the first year of culling concluded that the free shooting approach did not meet their standards for humaneness.
1. When a second year of culling yielded no evidence of improvement, the British Veterinary Association called for free shooting to be abandonned2. Ministers responded by simply stating that “we don’t agree”3. The government’s claim that licensed culling is “humane” is thus not shared by respected authorities on animal welfare.
Likewise, evidence indicates that the culls have not been “effective in reducing the number of badgers”. Defra has repeatedly stated an intention to reduce badger numbers by at least 70%, relative to their pre-cull levels, acknowledging that failing to do so would risk increasing cattle TB rather than reducing it4. The IEP concluded that the first culls fell far short of that aim1. Since then, Defra has reiterated its aim of reducing badger numbers by “at least 70%”, while quietly setting targets with only a slim possibility of achieving this aim5. Defra’s claim that the culls are “effective” is thus not consistent with available evidence.
2. The government’s claims about the outcomes of the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) are highly selective. Its response refers to many earlier studies, even though it commissioned the RBCT precisely because these earlier studies were inadequate6. The government’s response indicates that the RBCT “confirmed what the previous exercises had shown”, ignoring the unique (and vitally important) insight of the RBCT, namely, that badger culling can increase cattle TB as well as reducing it7,8. Large-scale RBCT culls reduced cattle TB inside the culled areas, but consistently increased it on adjoining land, and in areas where small-scale culling occurred7,8.
In referring to the RBCT, the government cites a maximum reduction in cattle TB of 54%, which it says occurred “when the full benefits began to appear”. In fact, the 54% figure refers to just 18 months in the middle of a ten-year monitoring period, and only to the areas culled and not adjoining land. When the full monitoring period and affected area are taken into account, the estimated net benefit is 12%4.
3. The government claims that its approach “has successfully eradicated bovine TB in Australia and is working in Ireland and New Zealand”. This statement ignores evidence from Britain itself, which shows patterns fundamentally different from those in the three countries mentioned. The major challenge of reducing cattle TB by culling badgers is that culling disrupts badger social behaviour9 in ways that increase TB transmission between badgers10,11 and from badgers to cattle7,8. There are no badgers in Australia or New Zealand; these countries tackled TB in different wildlife species which do not share badgers’ social behaviour. Although badgers are involved in Ireland’s TB problem, baseline densities are much lower than in Britain7, which may explain why culling consistently reduced badger infection rates in Ireland12, but consistently increased them in Britain10. Given these differences, it is not clear why Defra would prioritise evidence from other countries over evidence from Britain itself.
4. Defra’s response claims that vaccination “cannot replace culling” because it “does not provide complete protection and… has no impact on infected badgers”. However, while most vaccines have no impact on individuals which are already infected, they have nevertheless controlled multiple diseases. It was vaccination that eradicated smallpox and rinderpest globally, and vaccination that eradicated rabies from mainland Europe after culling had failed to do so13. Vaccination is far more likely than culling to contribute to TB eradication, because vaccination reduces infection rates in badgers14,15, while culling increases them10.
Defra starts its response by stating that “it is essential that we eradicate bovine TB”. Achieving this aim demands eradicating infection in badgers as well as in cattle. Eradicating a disease demands that either the proportion of infected animals, or the area affected, be reduced over time. Yet, as noted above, culling increases the proportion of badgers infected10,11 and spreads the infection both within and beyond the culled land7,16. It is hard to see, therefore, how badger culling can contribute to TB eradication.
Defra committed to a science-led policy to tackle TB4. Unfortunately, its response to this e-petition undermines all confidence in Defra’s respect for science, and hence in the likely outcome of its TB control strategy.
1 Independent Expert Panel. Pilot badger culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire – Report by the Independent Expert Panel. (https://http://www.gov.uk/government/publications/pilot-badger-culls-in-somerset-and-gloucestershire-report-by-the-independent-expert-panel, 2014).
2 British Veterinary Association. BVA calls for change to badger culling method and wider roll-out in England. (http://www.bva.co.uk/uploadedFiles/Content/News,_campaigns_and_policies/Policies/Farm_animals/Final position on bTB and badger culling AGREED at Council 15 April 2015.pdf, 2015).
3 Bowern, P. Farming minister rejects vets’ call for end to shooting of ‘free-running’ badgers. (http://www.westernmorningnews.co.uk/farming-minister-rejects-vets-end-shooting-free/story-26568952-detail/story.html – fS7jy01tvICXas94.03, 2015).
4 Defra. The goverment’s policy on bovine TB and badger control in England. (http://www.defra.gov.uk/publications/files/pb13691-bovinetb-policy-statement.pdf, 2011).
5 Woodroffe, R. Badger cull didn’t kill enough badgers to be effective. (https://theconversation.com/badger-cull-didnt-kill-enough-badgers-to-be-effective-36388, 2015).
6 Krebs, J. R., Anderson, R. et al. Bovine tuberculosis in cattle and badgers. (H.M.S.O., 1997).
7 Donnelly, C. A., Woodroffe, R. et al. Positive and negative effects of widespread badger culling on cattle tuberculosis. Nature 439, 843-846 (2006).
8 Donnelly, C. A., Woodroffe, R. et al. Impact of localized badger culling on TB incidence in British cattle. Nature 426, 834-837 (2003).
9 Woodroffe, R., Donnelly, C. A. et al. Effects of culling on badger (Meles meles) spatial organization: implications for the control of bovine tuberculosis. Journal of Applied Ecology 43, 1-10 (2006).
10 Woodroffe, R., Donnelly, C. A. et al. Culling and cattle controls influence tuberculosis risk for badgers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 103, 14713-14717 (2006).
11 Woodroffe, R., Donnelly, C. A. et al. Bovine tuberculosis in cattle and badgers in localised culling areas. Journal of Wildlife Diseases 45, 128-143 (2009).
12 Griffin, J. M., Clegg, T. A. et al. in Selected Papers 2002-2003. (eds J.D. Collins & R.F. Hammond) 1-12 (Veterinary Epidemiology and Tuberculosis Investigation Unit, University College Dublin, 2003).
13 Anderson, R. M., Jackson, H. C., May, R. M. & Smith, A. M. Population dynamics of fox rabies in Europe. Nature 289, 765-771 (1981).
14 Chambers, M. A., Rogers, F. et al. Bacillus Calmette-Guérin vaccination reduces the severity and progression of tuberculosis in badgers. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B-Biological Sciences 278, 1913-1920 (2010).
15 Carter, S. P., Chambers, M. A. et al. BCG vaccination reduces risk of tuberculosis infection in vaccinated badgers and unvaccinated badger cubs. PLOS One 7, e49833, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0049833 (2012).
16 Jenkins, H. E., Woodroffe, R. et al. Effects of culling on spatial associations of Mycobacterium bovis infections in badgers and cattle. Journal of Applied Ecology 44, 897-908 (2007).