As a General Election looms, this government still won’t stop badger culling

In August 2023, Natural England authorised yet more autumn badger culls to add to the supplementary culls it authorised in the spring.  Eleven new intensive badger cull licences for badger culling areas had been approved for “peak cull”  in 2022, with multiple authorisations for pre-existing culling areas to continue. Some substantial extensions of existing areas were also made, in what was the 10th year of culling. At least 33,627 badgers were reported killed in 2022, bringing the total to 210,555 since the cull began in 2013. 2023 culls are expected to have been similar, taking the total towards 250,000. Mostly completely healthy badgers, killed on the premise of a hypothetical disease perturbation effect and supposed average 16% annual reduction in TB infections in cattle. This theoretical reduction has simply failed to materialise, but studies do show increased cattle testing has slowly brought modest improvements since 2010 in the High Risk Area.

Badger culls have been justified thus far using the quite ludicrous guess-based ‘Risk Pathways’ approach of the Animal Plant and Health Agency (APHA) that purports to explain how disease arrives in a herd. Its ‘tick-based’ veterinary questionnaires  implicated badgers as the default primary source of disease when adequate information and investigation was lacking. But with a bTB ‘skin’ test that misses up to 50% of infection in individual cattle, and an industry-contaminated countryside, such assumptions were just ill-conceived guesswork. Following publication of ‘A bovine TB policy conundrum in 2023‘, in April 2023, and with the speculative nature of their approach well exposed, APHA have had no choice but to do what they should have done before badger culling began and abandon Risk Pathways and shift emphasis to the necessary cattle testing and herd management (see here).

Defra continue to refute a study in the journal Veterinary Record (18 March 2022) by Tom Langton and veterinarians Mark Jones and Iain McGill. This paper brought the long-awaited analysis on bovine TB and badger culling. Done in the most logical and clear-cut way using all the data, it shows what happens as unculled areas become culled, from 2013 onwards. It avoids the traps of multiple adjustments to attempt comparisons between completely different areas.

The paper has two main findings. The first is really good news for farmers, cows and badgers. Data suggests that the cattle-based measures implemented from 2010, and particularly the introduction of the annual tuberculin skin (SICCT) test are responsible for the slowing, levelling peaking and decrease in bovine TB in cattle in the High Risk Area (HRA) of England during the study period, all well before badger culling was rolled out in 2016.

The second finding came from a look at the amount of cattle bTB in areas that had undergone a badger cull and compared it with the amount of disease in areas that had not had culling. This was done over a six year period 2013-2019, so before and after culling was rolled out. Multiple statistical models checked the data on herd breakdowns over time and failed to find any association between badger culling and either the incidence or prevalence of bovine TB in cattle herds. Badger culling efforts appear to be to no effect. A summary of this new research is available to read on our 18 March 2022 blog here. You can read an open access copy of the full paper here.

In addition to mudslinging by the Defra press office, it has become clear that Defra’s bovine TB official Eleanor Brown failed in her outrageous and unprofessional attempt to block the publication of the new analysis (here). This was uncovered by Freedom of Information requests. Defra’s most senior scientists made claims based on their own flawed data (here), and have subsequently refused to substantiate those claims, or to provide the data they worked with. It’s a government veterinary total shambles.

There has been no simple explanation of Defra’s concerns about Langton et al, let alone a peer-reviewed rebuttal to that study, and (following the change of DEFRA leadership from Richard Benyon to Robbie Douglas-Miller) Defra still refuse to engage on the matter. They still refuse to release their ‘secret’ and withheld data, and thus-far have not produced published science to show that badger culling is effective in reducing bTB in cattle. This is all evidence for the Public Inquiry that looks increasingly likely.

It is now recognised more widely that Defra know they were mistaken in their bungled letter to Veterinary Record but have nowhere to go. Much as they were not prepared to recognize the increase in bTB in 2018 when publishing data only to 2017, in order to claim a badger culling effect from a small amount of data over a short period. In September 2023 APHA released a highly unconvincing draft manuscript which tries to show badger culling has worked. This was the basis for culling to continue and Natural England obediently embraced it as their truth to carry on the killings.

It’s all gone wrong for Defra and APHA, yet public interest in these matters is still not being served. Defra’s dogma has been repeated by government ministers and NFU, perpetuating government misinformation to stakeholders and to the public, and without acknowledgement of the massive uncertainty and doubt that should accompany it. As for Natural England, are they still just only obeying orders?

NE have been very slow to provide the public with the material on which decisions have been made and do not seem keen to share any full reasoning behind their continued  licensing of mass slaughter of our most enigmatic of protected species. Under pressure of legal challenge, they eventually provided a written rationale for their position. This leans heavily on the original RBCT analyses, effectively disregarding the new Langton et al. analysis because it did not concur with and repeat its results. So much for the reproducibility crisis…they are still relying on a modelled prediction of a disease reduction rather than an analysis of the actual results of 10 years of culling. When in the very first badger cull pilot area in Gloucestershire bTB  breakdowns are higher than in the first year of culling.

As Professor David Macdonald has pointed out in his recently published Oxford University Press book ‘The Badgers of Wytham Woods’, “..one can only wonder if an effect that is so hard to demonstrate has been worth the cost of bringing it about.”

The badger culls have failed and need to stop.