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Badger Trust statement on Badger Control Consultation announced today

Badger Trust statement on Badger Control Consultation announced today

The badger control consultation announced by DEFRA today reveals yet another appalling attack on a protected native species.  Rather than focusing on the most effective ‘tools in the toolbox’ that Defra repeatedly states it deploys in the fight against bovine TB, the Government seems intent on using one of the least effective. In one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, the removal of untested, disease-free badgers is one of the biggest threats to local ecosystems. 

Peter Hambly, Executive Director of Badger Trust, said,

“Badger Trust will respond to this consultation and will urge a focus on cattle health and an end to this unnecessary attack on badgers. The UK government needs to protect our native wildlife while focusing on dealing with the scourge of bTB where it matters – within the cattle herd.  This approach is best for cattle, farmers, taxpayers, wildlife and the wider community.

We urge individuals, communities, and stakeholders to work together to tackle this disease, which can only be done by accurate herd management, more rigorous reliable testing and cattle vaccination.  The UK government appears only to listen to stakeholders with vested interests and is fixated instead on a badger-focused policy that affects all of us and our right to nature. We must speak up to protect it.”

The government proposals could lead to 100% of badgers being killed in r areas across England where bovine TB is found in cattle. The policy could come into action from January 2025 and continue for years, with details confirmed after the consultation.  However,  the UK government refuses to deploy widely available accurate bTB testing regimes in English cattle, meaning that up to 50% of the national herd can record a false negative when they are infected. The government bTB policy in England continues to allow poor hygiene and biosecurity on farms yet still provides £millions in compensation to farmers, and the movement of cattle across the country under knowingly unreliable testing and biosecurity regimes.  

If a non-badger cause cannot be easily found for a bTB outbreak in cattle (remembering that up to 50% of cattle can show a false negative when tested), and bTB happens to be found in a single badger within a certain km of the farm – even if the badger cannot transmit bTB, or was first infected by bTB from diseased cattle or other animal – the new policy could allow 100% extermination of entire populations of badgers from cattle disease areas of England. 

The current UK government’s slide into back-tracking on a promise to end the cull seems a political tactic to meet particular interests. Badger Trust urges the public to support us in not allowing our native wildlife to be used in a political game and to stand up for what is right, which is to leave nature where it belongs.

An intensive badger-killing programme is based on the presence of bovine TB in cattle, not in badgers. This approach will lead to local extinction events of one of our most-loved native species, the badger.

  1. Since 2013, badger culling has been part of a series of government measures to tackle bTB eradication in cattle in England. Epidemiological and statistical evaluation of badger culling and trends in bTB transmission, however, has shown that badger culling is frequently neither scientifically supported nor an effective method of controlling bTB in cattle.
  1. This consultation is asking for justification to intensify and prolong badger culling in England to control bTB, despite independent analyses showing that the best way to reduce bTB in cattle is to focus on proven cattle measures:
    1. Enhanced testing for the early detection and removal of infected animals.
    2. Improved hygiene, biosecurity and husbandry practices.
    3. Prioritising cattle vaccination.
    4. Targeting ‘disease hubs’ within the farm network.
    5. Restrictions on cattle movement.  
  1. APHA and independent researchers all conclude that the majority of bTB cases arise due to cattle-to cattle infection, not badgers or other wild species. Cattle remain the single most important disease risk to other cattle. For example, the APHA Year-End bTB Epidemiological Reports for each cull county have shown that “Movements of undetected infected cattle remained the biggest driver for new incidents”. The North East England report went further to say “Only cattle movements were identified as a key driver of the TB epidemic in the NE of England during 2022”. 
  1. In England to March 2023, over 210,000 protected badgers have been culled since the UK government’s intensive badger culling policy began in 2013, up to half the estimated population. Badgers are not routinely tested for bTB before or after culling and scientific advances have shown that bTB is infrequent in the badger population.
  1. In Wales and Scotland, where badgers are not culled, outbreaks are still overwhelmingly tracked back to cattle movements. For example, in Wales, whilst looking at the causes of a recent outbreak in Anglesey, badgers were tested, and not one had bTB.  The outbreak originated from the movement of an infected cattle herd from North Wales.
  1. A five-year-long government-sponsored study in Northern Ireland used bacterial genome data to show that transmission of bTB was 800 times more likely to occur from cattle to badgers than from badgers to cattle. The study also found that transmission rates from badger-to-cattle were negligible, and found no badger-to-badger transmission. 

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 – but not the rest of the report – claims badger culling reduced bTB by 56% in culled areas, a misleading statistic seized upon and widely shared by pro-cull campaigners, and now in this government consultation. However, digging into the data, the study actually refers to the 56% difference between two tiny figures, 0.145 and 0.065 and doesn’t refer to the number or the proportion of English cattle lost to bTB. Instead it refers to the risk of herd incidence per herd year and applies to the High Risk Areas in England where the most stringent cattle control measures are applied.

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 £millions of 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 paid by taxpayers has continued to build throughout this period.

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.  

There also seems to be no consideration of how a possible 100% badger culling will impact badgers on a population level or of the genetic resilience of the species to recover from such a huge and unprecedented attack. To date, the UK government has failed to accurately and correctly monitor badger populations both before and after starting the mass cull in 2013. This lack of monitoring means we have no way of accurately recording just how devastating the cull has been to this species, which is something that Badger Trust plans to rectify with its State of the Badger citizen science research programme.

So the story remains the same – bTB is primarily a cattle-to-cattle disease. The way to reduce it lies with cattle-based measures and, ultimately, a tight cattle movement, testing and vaccine regime and better cattle welfare, especially on mega-farms.  However, the UK government seems intent on ignoring the science followed by the governments in Wales and Scotland, and continues to persecute badgers in England with devastating effects.  

If you feel that badgers deserve the right to live natural wild lives and that future generations deserve the right to enjoy badgers in this country, please sign our petition to End the Cull