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Rise in anti-badger misinformation fuels attacks on nature

Rise in anti-badger misinformation fuels attacks on nature

Parliamentary debates and government-backed studies reveal policymakers’ failure to confront farmed animal disease at its source.

A parliamentary debate on farming in Westminster, a Senedd debate in Wales on bovine TB and a report released last week by researchers from the Animal Health and Plant Agency (APHA), a DEFRA organisation, have fuelled a rise in anti-badger misinformation. 

MPs and MSs consistently misquoted or repeated misleading comments about badgers and badger culling, reflecting the emphasis in policy placed on killing untested badgers rather than on more effective measures to prevent the spread of bTB among cattle, the primary disease spreaders. 

And in a shocking example of increasingly extreme anti-wildlife rhetoric, during this week’s Westminster debate on farming MP Richard Drax called for all wild animals to be culled.

Peter Hambly, Executive Director of Badger Trust, commented:

“The British public wants to protect nature, not attack it. Every public poll shows that culling badgers is very unpopular and isn’t the answer to controlling cattle disease.  

Richard Drax is showing his true colours by attacking wild animals rather than supporting policies that deal with farmed animal diseases where it counts – with the farmed animals.   

It’s these sorts of extreme views that have led to so much nature depletion in our country. It feels like Drax and others won’t be happy until every wild animal is gone and, with them, the collapse of the ecological systems that have existed for thousands of years. 

The message to Drax and people like him must be – protect nature, stop attacking it.”

Perhaps these government-funded anti-badger-focused studies and the repeated misquotes are just a desperate ploy to make the evidence fit a failing bTB policy rather than follow a policy based on evidence. 

Yet, as the debates and the misinformation continue, over 210,000 protected badgers have been shot under government licence, with tens of thousands more slated for death.

Purposefully misleading the public with statistics is unethical and does an injustice to farms that genuinely want to be proactive about removing bTB from their cattle herd. 

As we have shown extensively in our report Tackling Bovine TB Together: Towards Sustainable, Scientific and Effective bTB Solutions, the farming industry needs to focus on better cattle welfare and biosecurity measures and demand the government implements the more stringent and accurate testing methods already available.

A much-repeated statistic comes from a 2018 APHA study (Downs et al.) relating to 66% and 37% drops in bovine TB in cattle in two counties after the introduction of four years of cattle measures and badger culling. Yet the study’s authors were unable to separate whether badger culling or the cattle measures were working, and in the following year, the bTB rates in cattle shot back up by 130%. 

Turning to the recently published APHA study (Birch et al., published in Nature, February 2024), the opening paragraph claims badger culling reduced bTB by 56% in culled areas, a statistic seized upon and widely shared by pro-cull campaigners. However, digging into the data, the study actually refers to the 56% difference between two tiny percentages, 0.145% and 0.065%.

If bTB had been reduced by 56%, we would expect a 56% reduction in the number of cattle prematurely slaughtered due to bTB in this same period and in the taxpayer-funded compensation paid to farmers. As our report explains, the number of cattle slaughtered early due to a positive bTB reactor has mainly remained the same since before the badger cull began, accounting for around 0.5% of the cattle population annually. The farmer compensation bill to taxpayers has continued to build throughout this period. Badger culling has had no impact on reducing the amount of compensation awarded to farmers during this time, with a yearly average of £30 million in compensation paid to farmers due to the loss of cattle from bTB herd breakdowns since the cull began.

Bovine TB rates are influenced by factors such as individual farm biosecurity measures, cattle welfare practices, the extent of cattle movement around the country, and the accuracy of the different bTB tests used. 

Once again, the main limitation of the Birch et al. study is that badger culling cannot be isolated from the many other variables and factors involved in bTB rates in cattle, many of which were introduced during the same period as the badger cull. In addition, the figures and code used are not publicly available for repeat analyses. 

In his preamble to our report, Professor David Macdonald from the University of Oxford commented at length on the preprint of the Birch et al. paper and outlined the flaws in trying to isolate badger culling from the other measures in the culling areas: 

“This is not to diminish the doubtless hundreds of hours of effort Birch’s team put into questing for the answer, nor the doubtless hundreds more that will be devoted to dismembering their findings, but merely to emphasise that they do not claim to have measured the consequences of badger culling, and indeed they have not.”

Professor Macdonald’s commentary shows how this study joins a long line of DEFRA studies desperately trying to prove something that isn’t there. 

With over 94% of bTB spread from cattle to cattle, DEFRA and the government need to focus on cattle measures, including improved testing and introducing a cattle vaccine to prevent the disease at its source – cattle.  

Hambly added:

“Badgers are a distraction from the lack of an effective bTB policy. 

Killing over half the wild population of badgers when they are not the primary cause of disease in the cattle herd is a scandal and an ecological disaster.  

It’s time we demand our policymakers protect nature, not attack it.”