Scientists, Disease and Communicating Uncertainty

Retracing the history of the supposed role of badgers in the cattle bTB epidemic shows that this is far from settled science.

by Tom Langton

Uncertainty has surrounded the coronavirus pandemic and its control over the last five months. But over the last fifty years, uncertainty has hindered the tackling of a bovine tuberculosis (bTB) disease epidemic in England. BTB is still spreading across central and northern England and into the east, with recent increase in Scotland too. There is urgent need to review the way in which modelling has been used to make vital decisions of huge cost and consequence.

There is concern that misleading policy-based science has emerged and is being perpetuated as the result of a relatively small group of academics, civil servants and vested interests mishandling uncertainty. On 5 March 2020, new plans to expand badger killing over many more years were announced. With more cull areas than ever in 2020, the need to reconcile the policy with facts has never been more urgent. In May 2020 badger slaughter was again approved, with further mass badger culling in September and October, when up to 50,000 mostly healthy badgers will be killed or injured.

This action is based not on clear factual evidence, but opinion on inscrutable models that are not safe reference. Public access to data has been made difficult, delayed or prevented.  Are applied decisions of great magnitude safe when the science on which they are based has evolved from data heavily adjusted by choices, ideas and assumptions that may or may not be correct?

Uncertainty and the scientist

Many scientists deal with uncertainty for a living. They consider past events and evidence as a way of assessing how best to take forward investigation and experimentation. They must do so with care. They cannot treat weak evidence or hypothesis as fact, or over-reach in ‘grey’ areas, nor cling to convenient theories. Their role is to consider both sides of any argument and constantly assess the risks of pursuing different approaches.

When there is pressure from vested interests, those giving and receiving scientific findings and interpretations can both fall foul of, or take advantage of ambiguity, mistake, misjudgement and manipulations. Scientists must be very careful when being asked to find an answer in order to satisfy a particular paymaster, where ‘pressure to please’ may often be the temptation.

Drawn to a ‘High Impact’ challenge

Some researchers may be drawn to ‘high impact’ work on uncertainty, where the stakes (of life and death) are high and it is here also that well-funded research may be found, (1)  Modellers, who work with complexities of uncertainty by deploying data to find patterns, are in a forum where death and ambiguity often perpetuate. In this often lavishly funded arena, the risks can be high. Get it right and you’re the hero, wrong and detected, you may be the villain.

Generally, most people hate uncertainty and crave certainty. Those in business want a constant background to manufacture, grow and trade. Sometimes people just want uncertainty to be over for good or bad, so they can ‘get on with their lives’. Even if this means arriving at a ‘new normal’ where the rules have changed and with unknown risk. They may be prepared to achieve this by adopting a ‘possible’ truth, hoping for better understanding down the line. So for most, uncertainty can be hated, avoided, or manipulated according to needs and motivations, and sometimes in subtle ways that cannot be detected by the onlooker. It is vital to be alert to how uncertainty is handled and presented, especially when you are a scientist.

Dealing with uncertainty

A good researcher remains open-minded, open to debate, cautious with knowledge and modest in their claims and comments.  They greet being wrong through new discovery or hindsight with good grace and a smile, as an essential occupational hazard, and not as failure. Sometimes in science, incorrect assumptions or findings get lost or swept away after a researcher has retired or passed on. Being wrong can be a legacy that emerges later, and ideally never matters that much. Or one that exposes a tragedy.

Generally, researchers just want to test scientific concepts to advance knowledge. Decision makers and their advisers can cause damage, either through lack of understanding of the data and what to do with it or by having political motives in a particular analysis, to support a specific policy.

Uncertainty and Bovine TB

Researchers need to be the ones who interpret science and help everyone else to travel in the best direction. If they stray, they may be part of a very destructive force. They can be influential and gain the confidence of decision makers, pushed forwards to promote a decision based more on policy than fact. And if they are partial, wrong, or slow to declare oversights and misrepresentations, damage may be deep and long lasting.

The uncertainty in bTB has never been whether badger, deer, cow and many other mammals can contract and pass the bacteria to each other. When kept confined closely together this will happen. The uncertainty is whether it happens frequently outdoors in our rural environment.

The next uncertainty is whether there is adequate evidence that reducing badger (or deer or fox) numbers can contribute to reducing bTB herd breakdowns. There are those who say the modelling of data from the Randomised Badger Culling Trials (RBCT 1998-2005) areas gives signs that with badgers, it might. There are those who find the evidence too uncontrolled and speculative. And there are those in the middle who find that it simply remains inconclusive.

Those in the middle may also have an opinion either way. Either that badger culling is indefensible on the evidence, or that culling might be ‘worth a go’. The compounded uncertainty creates a broad spectrum of views on the use of public funds to kill large numbers of mostly healthy badgers. An iconic protected species that has only partially recovered status in the UK since its protection by law. This is the primary controversy of badger culling in bTB control.

Despite appearances, from a legal standpoint Defra now occupy more of the middle ground than most realise, seeking de-stabilished badger populations at around 30% of a guesstimated starting density. They  have held on to, yet now have substantially drifted away from RBCT science as a guide. Since 2016, Defra have brought in prolonged or “supplementary” badger culling (SBC). This approach perpetuates badger killings to keep numbers down following four years of intensive culls depleting up to 90% of a population, with the hope of ‘keeping’ any theoretical benefit, whether or not it actually exists. Yet this is with recent (2019) senior scientific advice that there is no way of actually detecting any direct evidence of supplementary culling working at all and recognising that science even warns (2) that it might, in reality, increase the rate of herd bTB breakdowns. Poison not medicine.

Much has been revealed in emails and evidence in the High Court during Judicial challenges to SBC since 2017. Defra  now runs the policy predominantly on the personal/individual opinions of government experts  and not on clear referenced science (see below). There is, however, year-on-year growing evidence that the problem is in the cattle herd, with strong evidence of cow to badger transmission. But badger to cow transmission remains circumstantial and based on substantial levels of uncertainty.

Defra has promised a strategy at the High Court to achieve the impossible; that they will ‘adapt to and learn from’ any outcomes with respect to SBC. But only when hundreds of thousands of badgers have been  shot across much of West and Central England and £billions of industry compensation paid out over decades, around the un-checkable approach and the spreading disease. This is a massive gamble.

Current approach is high risk and not evidence-based.

Defra now relies heavily upon the tentative modelling and comparisons of effects by the Animal Plant and Health Agency (APHA) in modelling (Brunton et al 2017, Downs et al 2019) (3. & 4.) and ignoring of real time trends in cull areas.  This adds up to equivocal ‘guesstimating’ in any consideration of policy performance (McGill & Jones 2019) (5). It is not hard to pick up on the small number of studies, the relatively small sample sizes and the variety of uncontrolled and confounding variables in the government-funded models that have been constantly used by Defra Ministers and industry to definitively claim progress  in the face of empirical evidence on the ground.

As the famous British statistician George Box reminds us in his paper published in The Journal of the American Statistical Association in 1976: “All models are wrong, but some are useful”.

“Since all models are wrong the scientist cannot obtain a “correct” one by excessive elaboration. On the contrary following William of Occam he should seek an economical description of natural phenomena. Just as the ability to devise simple but evocative models is the signature of the great scientist so over-elaboration and overparameterization is often the mark of mediocrity.”

Even basic analysis carries elements of simple modelling in its procedure. It is just that as modelling hangs on multiple assumptions or adjustments, especially when dealing with complex biological systems, that any administration  trusting the results is calling upon the opinion of scientists as opposed to the facts. This is where danger lies.

How useful has the badger and bTB modelling work really been, or has its effect been destructive? What we do know about badger cull modelling is that with the levels of ambiguity and uncertainty in its parameters no plane would take off, no ship would sail, no pill would be prescribed and no lockdown safely lifted. Models need careful handling (6).

The making of uncertainty: where it all went wrong?

We now have the long delayed Defra response (7) to the not-so-independent and limited in scope ‘self-assessment’ review by government-funded scientists chaired by Oxford’s Universities Charles Godfray (8). And so it seems reasonable to refresh our memory on the more fundamental points that surround the current bTB controversies. Taking us back some 25 years to views, advice and decisions made surrounding the uncertainty of dealing with bTB in cows.

STAGE 1. The Kreb’s Group; The Independent Scientific  Group on Cattle TB (ISG) of largely Oxford scientists made a crucial statement in its 1997 report (9). It suggested that newly bTB infected calves and young cattle were infrequently infective. At the time there was no real means to prove this – it is now an arguably irresponsible suggestion. It may have been the cattle vet industry view at the time, but this clear and apparently innocent statement has failed both science and the nation for a generation.

The point was not just the shortness or unpredictability of infectiousness at any one time in a calf’s first year. But that the young cows, soon sent to market and moved to new herds might pass it on, before or after leaving and during short, undetected and often transitory bursts of infectiousness. These may be brought on randomly, by being transported, handling by a dealer, mixing with other stock, arrival in new farm conditions or other forms of stress.

A calf or young cow need not exhibit obvious disease symptoms to pass bTB on from non-visible lesions. Yet it can contribute, together with other categories of diseased stock (traded or kept in proximity) for the reproductive R number (that we are now all so familiar with) to rise above 1. How safe might social distancing be for cows with their extremely powerful lungs shooting air and bacteria many metres? The cattle vet suggestion at the time was that a ‘hidden bTB reservoir’ was not in cattle but from another environmental source, and that source must be badgers, causing 90% + of breakdowns. The Kreb’s Group oversight of 1997 is the primary problem from which many onward wrong turns have sprouted. It reinforced the assumption to a generation of researchers, farmers and vets, that badgers were the significant hidden reservoir, when it was unclear if they were involved to any significant degree.

In doing this, the Kreb’s report looked past painstaking volumes of research from the first half of the last century by John Francis and others. Particularly work on the hidden reservoir of infected cows failing to test positive under the skin test in what was, by the 1990’s, an accelerated livestock industry. Anergic cows, those pregnant, under certain medication or carrying other disease, or too young or too old are often not detected by the test. Particularly overlooked was the hazard of passing of bTB from mother to calf and through the mixing and feeding of pooled unpasteurized infected milk to newborns after calving.

STAGE 2. The ISG  presenting RBCT results in 2007 (10) made a decision not to use all cattle skin test Reactor results following SICCT testing in their main study  findings, but just those from cows with Visible Lesions (VL) at slaughter. The lack of significance of the All Reactors results in terms of badger culling reducing new bTB herd breakdowns was put to one side, and the VL  sub-set that offered a significant discovery was pushed forwards. This was even though inconclusive reactors (a now redundant term) were assumed also to have had bTB infection.  

There had, in truth been two results, or one divided in half. Half the results said ‘significant’, but ‘all’ results said ‘not significant’. This partisan selection of data represents a second substantive decision in ‘badger blame’. The issue was reduced to a sense that the dichotomy was ‘strange’ but that was all. The modellers advice was that to choose one result over the other was acceptable, enabling any true uncertainty to disappear in the rear-view mirror. Modellers are in charge, it’s their model not yours.

The result chosen, beyond claiming badger culling was associated with less bTB breakdown was the one that matched one of the main drivers to the study. This was to try to demonstrate a bTB ‘perturbation effect hypothesis’ for bTB and badgers. Put simply badgers moving around and spreading disease. Published before the ISG 2007 report, this may provide an explanation of the above choice of data, selected for drawing conclusions over more uncertainty. It told a neat story, whereas uncertainty might have been wrongly judged  as a failed experiment.

STAGE 3. In 2007 the strength of the RBCT hypothesis of badgers spreading bovine TB during  culling inside and beyond the periphery of cull areas was strongly questioned by Sir David King (the then Government Chief Scientific Adviser) and his study group (11). They concluded that the perturbation effect was  hardly strong enough to show statistical significance. The effect was no more than a theory in need of further validation.

STAGE 4. The RBCT conclusion of involvement of badgers in bTB spread is based upon modelling Visible Lesion-only data in particular ways. An alternative simple and very similar approach (12) suggests that the result of proactive badger culling using VL breakdowns alone is as likely to be insignificant as significant. Such is the uncertainty in modelling. Strong models are reinforced by similar alternative models complementing their conclusions. Further scientific questions arise because of the non-blinded nature of the RBCT- a field trial; any results of such an approach must be handled with extreme caution. Again, uncertainty is an acceptable result of experimentation, even if it does not resolve the question asked.

STAGE 5. Modelling used to justify the start of badger culling in 2013 included two key papers (Donnelly and Hone 2010 and Donnelly and Nouvellet 2013) (13 & 14). The first paper used a model that had been applied to bTB in brushtail possums and cattle in New Zealand. This assumed that infection of badgers from cattle was negligible, something thought then to be highly unlikely and known to be wrong now for many years. This was a substantial oversight. The second paper, with the first paper factored-in, tried to account for the massive disruption of the RBCT by influences from the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) crisis and its aftermath that came along mid-study.

There were two outcomes. In short, one analysis estimated that badgers might be directly responsible for around 5.7 % of bTB herd breakdowns. The other one, this time factoring in the potential FMD distortions, said there was no certainty of an effect (between 0 & 100). It was the 5.7% and not the 0-100% conclusion that was chosen and taken forwards by Defra. The additional modelled leverage here was the assumption that from the modelled 5.7% transmission, there is a 50% effect on onward transmission within cattle herds and hence to breakdowns. This was the tenuous but frequently used 2013 justification that that year unleashed the mass destruction of mostly healthy badgers.

Let’s look at all that in summary:

  • Stage 1: Misleading assumption on calf infectiousness.
  • Stage 2: 50/50 call on results taken forward.
  • Stage 3: Hypothesis as likely to be right as wrong.
  • Stage 4: 50/50 call, on result to take forward.
  • Stage 5: Incorrect assumption in key model and selective use of results.

That badger culling has no effect on bTB levels in cattle is more likely to be the case, with two epidemiological oversights embellishing the uncertainty.

The point here is not that anyone made deliberate errors or was careless. There is no conspiracy. But that simple small statistical and modelling assumptions with wrong turns, compounded to gain momentum upon which followers have trustingly built rather than questioned

There is no certainty at all that killing badgers can form any part of the answer to the bTB in cattle crisis. But publications based on the RBCT report implied that there was certainty in the results. The approaches taken have misinformed the public and non-specialist professionals and administrators and politicians and have cost the badger dearly.

Were badger culls shown as ineffective by 2019?

More recently, with the Brexit debate raging and the December 2019 General Election taking centre stage, the interest in bovine TB slipped down the ratings of national emergencies. BTB was increasing within central England, partly due to boundary changes, but showing signs of stabilising in Wales (no badger culling) and SW England as gradual introduction of more regular and better testing finally started to limit infection. But overall policy stagnation and failure was matched with results from the first year of Supplementary Culling in Gloucestershire. This is the only place where cull boundaries are reasonably well known, and scrutiny showed a 130% increase in breakdowns in 2018 (15).

With the Defra Chief Scientific Advisor Prof Ian Boyd retiring in June 2019, his leaving note on badger culling (16) did not pretend that it would ever be possible to determine any direct link between badger culling and cattle bTB breakdowns. This is the expert adviser whose keenness (with chief vet Nigel Gibbens) to design and promote supplementary badger culling policy also stated (in disclosed internal Defra e-mails and in navigating around badger legal protection), that “modelling hasn’t served us very well.”

Genomics study; facts or fantasy?

Behind the scenes in the second half of 2019, it was possible to detect a new confidence in APHA and Defra’s Exeter ‘TB Hub’ circle, despite the crushing Gloucestershire Pilot Area 1. failure. A new paper (17) with a long, rocky time in review arrived on 17 December, right underneath the general election result.

This eLife online study uses an approach called Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) to identify precise genetic identity of bTB strains or spoligotypes. Using methods called Random Forest and Boosted Regression analysis, it reported on estimates of transmission of bTB between cattle and badgers, at and around the government badger study site of Woodchester in Gloucestershire. This is a wooded valley with high density of badgers but few cattle. So few cattle in fact, that the study reached out over 300 sq. km to find genetic data from 124 breakdown cows, to compare with the badgers examined at Woodchester between 2000 to 2011.

The Guardian launched the research findings for Defra (18) with a slightly off-message headline “TB infection from cow to cow more likely than transmission by badger”. In 2019, the headline not matching the story was increasingly noticeable as a misinformation technique on social media. “Transmission occurred almost 10 times more frequently from badgers to cows than from cows to badgers” wrote a Guardian journalist who eagerly tweeted the finding that such long sought-after evidence was ‘indisputable and direct’. When actually it was not.

The WGS study merely assumed transmissions had occurred in a certain sequence when this was factually unclear. Although the WGS in this study can establish a close genetic relationship between bacterium in infected hosts, it cannot provide a nuanced chain of infection at an individual level. The only ever scientifically proven bTB transmission direction is the Cumbrian case of an imported cow from Ireland passing bTB spoligotype 17z to local cows and badgers.

The Defra technique of giving a journalist an exclusive while also priming other cooperative commentators was to follow. Previously, in  October 2019, for the delayed release of the four-year analysis of intensive badger culling (19)  Defra had coordinated journalists and experts to ‘big up’ yet more dubious APHA modelling. Scientists Krebs, Woodroffe, (Oxford/RBCT) and Woods (Cambridge) commented on how the findings related to their work (20).

Rosie Woodroffe from the Zoological Society of London found merit in carrying on badger culling together with another unblinded field trial. “The really exciting element of the study is the possibility of using its methods to explore whether transmission probabilities vary between areas subjected to vaccination or culling.” Krebs was somewhat more circumspect. The genetic data demonstrate conclusively that TB is transmitted both from badgers to cattle and from cattle to badgers.”

Prof James Wood, Head Vet at University of Cambridge, (& Godfray Group member) now appears to be a key cheer leader for badger culling within government contractors. He earned himself this front seat in controversy in 2017 by saying (to the delight of Defra and the NFU) on National TV’s primetime Sunday slot Countryfile, that the Brunton 2017 paper suggested  that badger culling was working.

Wood thought the genomics was no less than an “elegant piece of science” The results were “interesting in their quantification, albeit with some uncertainty, of what has been generally accepted to be the case scientifically for some time (although not by everyone around the polarised policy space).” So there is his restatement of uncertainty and generality, pushed as a theory that uncertainty is down to policy and people, not the science.

In summary one can observe in public, scientists with uncertain research findings courting endorsement via more uncertain research. An uncertain journalist finding certainty where it does not exist and a scientist giving expert political advice. This is the bTB and badgers showcase of the uses and abuses of uncertainty.

Uncertainty in the perpetuation of uncertain science for decades

In the 1960’s, the UK reduced bovine TB by around 80% over four years. So why do we have the current impasse in control, notably since bTB spread widely with cattle restocking after Foot and Mouth in 2001? When badger culling began in England in 2013, the figure for any anticipated reduction in new bTB herd breakdowns was naturally questioned. A government group that included Krebs, had decided, using the RBCT as reference, there could be a reduction averaging 16% per year and this was written into policy.

However, the 16% figure was based upon the RBCT study of fiercely escalating bTB epidemic hotspots, where bTB testing had been suspended for a year and where levels of bTB were much higher than  average. The lowering in some study areas was the ’modelling-claimed’ slowing of the rate of increase, not an observable decrease at all. All of this was lost on the public.

Given that cattle testing and movement controls are said by cattle vets to be effective, with the supposed net 16% p.a. benefit, after five years bTB would surely be all but gone? Why else would you shoot hundreds of thousands of mostly healthy protected wild animals against the will of the general public and using lots of their money?

Today bTB is embedded in England. It is perpetuating in the High Risk Area of the west of England. Given enhanced testing, some reduction should be expected, as in the Republic of Ireland, who have culled badgers for decades but there is no consistent decline seen. In both countries, bTB languishes at unacceptable levels and despite the high financial, and the (little mentioned) un-monitored animal welfare and environmental cost.

There is still no real measure for what badger or fox or deer culling could contribute, if anything, to bTB control. It’s uncertain. Government policy advisors in England even further covered their backs by saying any ‘benefit’ from removing badgers would vary and might even not happen in many areas. This is how long-term uncertainty in policy becomes self-perpetuating.

So farmers were, and continue to be misled by farming representatives, veterinary bodies, Defra and others pressing-home policy-based modelling as truth. Claiming that an average 16% a year benefit was there to be had. When the true benefit was somewhere between nothing and possibly something. At best, the ‘possible something’ might be less than that modelled from the RBCT pressure-cooker high-density areas. It’s anyone’s guess and undetectable in the manipulation of uncertain science. With a very good chance of not existing at all. Is this any way to proceed?

Finding the disease epidemic exit strategy.

In a crisis, immediate or drawn out, do scientists sometimes let the public down badly or is it always the politicians’ fault? Scientists are human and can be compromised by circumstances and the uncertainties of modelling. Is it just that as human problems get larger, the errors are more noticeable and serious? Are academics more exposed than in the past by modern communications enabling external scrutiny? Hiding things ‘under a carpet’ or college rug is increasingly difficult?

There are today a vast array of farm animal diseases and industries of farm veterinarians and drug suppliers, built up around the intensive meat and dairy production. Much as human densities have rocketed, and livestock movements become cheaper and easier, farm animal numbers have grown with the natural consequence of pathogens finding new opportunities to mutate and proliferate.

How accurately the RBCT model and subsequent modelled extrapolations reflect any reality in bTB control remains a burning biological question. Far from the ‘settled science’ proclaimed by CSA Ian Boyd in 2018, with every twist and turn, the English bovine TB and badgers policy exposes more and more of its weakness, including the runaway train of having no measure of success or failure along the way.

Does Oxbridge hold the solutions and an exit strategy?

Oxford University is at the epicentre of the controversy, having been at the helm of the core work on the role of badgers and bovine TB and judgement around which the mass killing of them has slowly unfolded. Why do universities and related research institutes and agencies playing a role in the UK’s crowded disease investigation businesses ignore science ‘mediocrity’ in the badgers and bTB scandal?

Is it because some players have been bogged down in vaccine investigations that wrongly assumed for decades that bovine TB couldn’t be detected in blood, (which it can in fact) ? Is it because some are close to people who are close to livestock and meat and dairy export interests and lobbying MP’s? Many are funded by Defra who work closely with the NFU, prioritising output and profit.  Interests that value badgers as worthless.

Oxford and Cambridge, not to mention Imperial College need to take a long hard look at what is now a ‘Loxbridge’ tarnished bTB triangle and put things right. These are the institutions that have shaped and moulded the place we are in today with bovine TB. But now the hallowed institutions seem to be ‘in too deep’, unable or unwilling to put things right.

Who might be brave enough to begin such an uncomfortable process? Might this be from others close to and around them, might they become more vocal? As with coronavirus, there is a need to look beyond the economic arguments, to work out what is truly sustainable for the health and survival of people, wild and domesticated animals and their environments, and to build away from uncertainty and wrong turns.

The present human struggle with viral disaster should remind us that not openly dealing with wild and domesticated diseases quickly enough, that taking risks and liberties with science and not paying deference to uncertainty may lead to protracted misery and hardship for all in the long run. We can only hope that for now the greatness and wisdom of nations will be judged by the way that pathogens are treated. With accuracy, caution and all due deference to uncertainty. And not to forget, honesty.

References/LINKS

  1. Bosely Sarah 18th March Neil Ferguson: coronavirus expert who is working on despite symptoms https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/18/neil-ferguson-coronavirus-expert-who-is-working-on-despite-symptoms?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other
  1. Jenkins et al. 2010 https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0009090
  1. Brunton et al. 2017 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ece3.3254
  1. Downs et al 2019 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-49957-6
  1. McGill and Jones 2019 https://veterinaryrecord.bmj.com/content/185/22/699
  1. Ian Sample Coronavirus exposes the problems and pitfalls of modelling https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/mar/25/coronavirus-exposes-the-problems-and-pitfalls-of-modelling?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other
  1. Defra response to Godfray Review 5 March https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/a-strategy-for-achieving-bovine-tuberculosis-free-status-for-england-2018-review-government-response
  1. Godfray Review Nov 2019 https://www.gov.uk/government/news/review-of-governments-bovine-tb-strategy-published
  1. Krebs report 1997 http://www.bovinetb.info/docs/krebs.pdf
  1. ISG Final Report 2007 https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20081108133322/http://www.defra.gov.uk/animalh/tb/isg/pdf/final_report.pdf
  1. David King Group report http://www.bovinetb.info/docs/RBCT_david_%20king_report.pdf
  1. Langton 2019 https://juniperpublishers.com/jdvs/pdf/JDVS.MS.ID.555826.pdf
  1. Donnelly and Hone 2010 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/244933482_Is_There_an_Association_between_Levels_of_Bovine_Tuberculosis_in_Cattle_Herds_and_Badgers
  1. Donnelly and Nouvellet 2013 http://currents.plos.org/outbreaks/index.html%3Fp=22371.html
  1. McGill and Jones 2019 https://veterinaryrecord.bmj.com/content/185/22/699
  1. Ian Boyd note June 2019 https://thebadgercrowd.org/supplementary-badger-culling-sbc-adapting-and-learning-is-impossible-its-official 
  1. Crispell et al 2019 https://elifesciences.org/articles/45833
     
  2. GUARDIAN:  TB infection from cow to cow more likely than transmission by badger https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/dec/17/tb-infection-from-cow-to-cow-more-likely-than-transmission-by-badger?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

  3. https://theecologist.org/2019/nov/05/badger-meddling

  4. Science Media Centre https://www.sciencemediacentre.org/expert-reaction-to-a-study-looking-at-the-transmission-of-tb-between-cattle-and-badgers/   

Update on Fundraiser Progress

Thank you so much for all your kind messages of support and generous donations over the first few days of the appeal. In addition to the Badger Trust’s generous donation to get the challenge started, we have had several ‘offline’ pledges, so we  are now over half way to our preliminary target. The Badger Trust has issued a statement about the two new legal cases, the humaneness challenge from Wild Justice (now fully funded) and the policy challenge from Tom Langton, and emailed it out to its supporters. Hopefully this will reach the attention of more people who care for badgers and wish to support the essential legal work.  However it is really important to also get the appeal out to the public at large. You can help by alerting your friends and contacts to Badger Crowd’s donation page, and by letting any suitable social media networks know too. If you are a member of a nature conservation organisation, you may consider writing to them suggesting they draw the fundraiser to the attention of their members.

Earlier this week we had a lot of ‘Freedom of Information’ material sent to us by Natural England regarding their consideration of the future of badger culling  and their reaction to the ‘Godfray Report’ and ‘Next Steps’ policy guidance. It has been sent to our lawyers as it clearly shows the terrible disarray surrounding the governments approach. There is much uncertainty, and there are many gaps in the evidence regarding this horrible policy.

A team of volunteers is working hard to make these legal challenges possible, as are the lawyers. It is an uphill battle, but we will do all we can to pass the milestones ahead and make our case for a court hearing.

Badger Trust Statement, 9th July 2020

Government faces two new legal challenges as it seeks to expand controversial badger cull policy

Permission for two Judicial Review legal cases is being sought against the government as it seeks to expand its highly controversial badger cull policy in 2020.

 

Wild Justice legal challenge

The first case is being taken by Wild Justice, the non-profit organisation formed in 2018 run by wildlife experts Chris Packham, Mark Avery and Ruth Tingay to ‘fight for wildlife’. The case against Natural England (with Defra as an interested party) concerns the manner in which badgers die from ‘controlled shooting’, whereby individuals are licensed to shoot badgers following a single, short training course.

In 2014, the government’s own Independent Expert Panel advised that badgers should not take more than five minutes to die in more than 5% of cases. Natural England has been observing levels above this yet has taken no action, despite the level of suffering caused. Shooting into the small heart of a badger from a distance can be difficult and the British Veterinary Association has also previously concluded that the method is inhumane.

Funds for this legal challenge have been donated in record time in an outpouring of public disgust and concern over the rapidly expanding badger cull policy. The challenge comes in advance of a further increase in culling with up to ten more licences to be issued by Natural England in September

Wild Justice opposes the entire badger cull policy, but its legal challenge aims to force the government to stop the use of controlled shooting as a culling method on humaneness grounds.

An end to the use of controlled shooting, could also force the government and the farming industry to recognise that now is the time to move towards badger vaccination – a non lethal means of lowering bTB in badgers, on both cost and humaneness grounds.

Tom Langton Legal Challenge

The second case by conservation ecologist Tom Langton, challenges parts of the Next Steps Policy, a response to the government’s bTB policy review in 2018, carried out by Sir Charles Godfray. The key grounds for the legal challenge are as follows :

Supplementary culling and a failure to expand vaccination

‘Supplementary culling’ follows a four year cull licence for a cull area and is usually carried out by ‘controlled shooting’ methods. This means that culling in any area can continue, with little to no monitoring for up to nine years. The grounds for this new legal challenge fall into five areas, including:

The case seeks to show that continuing the supplementary cull policy (which is not supported by the available evidence) is not rational and should be phased out by gradual replacement with vaccination as the government’s own review detailed.

Defra is also failing to apply a two year break in culling or a move to vaccination in 50% of the post intensive cull areas, despite recommendations to do so in the Sir Charles Godfray TB Policy Review and public statements claiming the government is phasing out badger culling in favour of vaccination.

Low Risk Area culling

Low Risk areas form all areas of the country that are not considered to be high risk or edge areas (between the two). The Next Steps policy seeks to cull in these areas, wherever ‘epidemiological evidence’ suggests that there may be a reservoir of the disease in the area. In practice*, this means wherever badgers are present and the source of repeated breakdowns has not been identified. The Godfray Review made clear that poor tests are missing large reservoirs of disease in the cattle herds themselves.

Despite this, evidence from Cumbria suggests that Defra is carrying out proactive type culling in the low risk area that does not even conform to the evidenced approach of the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) and has no basis in veterinary science. A widespread adoption of this type of culling in low risk areas might result in permanent collapse of the badger population across many areas of England.

Environmental Impact Assessment

Defra is failing to carry out an appropriate assessment of the impact of badger culling under the Habitat and Species Regulations 2017.

Over the last three years, Tom Langton has led two legal challenges against the government, supported by The Badger Trust and the Badger Crowd.

His first challenge in 2017 against Defra exposed the fact that supplementary culling may hold no value at all in the fight against bovine TB (bTB) in cattle potentially making eradication of the disease more difficult, with no way of directly measuring whether it works or not. The second case required Natural England to concede a national breach of duty, regarding monitoring the potential impacts of culling on internationally important nature areas where culling has been allowed.

Although failing to bring an end to supplementary culling, the two legal challenges have enabled a deep insight into secretive government planning and have exposed areas of deficiency including the experimental and poorly monitored nature of the government’s interpretation of legislation, protecting badgers and natural communities.

The latest legal challenge in 2020 is again supported by the Badger Trust and the Badger Crowd.

Badger Trust

Dominic Dyer, CEO Badger Trust said: “ In the past, The Badger Trust has taken legal action preventing badger culling in Wales and has fought a number of legal actions in the High Court since 2013 seeking to stop or limit the cruel, destructive and unnecessary killing of our iconic badgers in England.

We welcome the involvement of Wild Justice to the cause of badger welfare and support their efforts. The legal case we have helped to fund this year with Tom Langton is equally important and we hope that they both get permission in the weeks to come so that non-lethal bTB control methods in badgers prevail, as the Sir Charles Godfray bTB policy review expert panel has recommended” .

Wild Justice

Dr Mark Avery from Wild Justice said: “We’re very grateful to over 1100 individual donors who have funded our legal challenge. We wish Tom Langton and the Badger Trust all the best with their separate legal challenge. Badgers are wonderful creatures and they need all the friends they can get these days.

We believe Gandhi was right to say you can judge the greatness of a nation by the way it treats its animals, and by that measure Defra and Natural England are doing a very poor job.”

* Critical evaluation of the Animal and Plant Health Agency report: ‘Year End Descriptive Epidemiology Report: Bovine TB Epidemic in the England Edge Area – Derbyshire 2018’

Further Information:

The Badger Crowd

Crowdfunder link and information on case here:

https://www.crowdjustice.com/case/help-stop-defra-plans-to-extend-badger-culling/

Blogpost here:

https://thebadgercrowd.org/blog

Wild Justice

Extract of Wild Justice pre-action letter to Natural England

https://wildjustice.org.uk/general/extracts-from-our-pre-action-protocol-letter-to-natural-england/

New Legal Challenge Against Badger Culling

First of all, a huge congratulations to Wild Justice for reaching the funding target for their latest legal challenge on the humaneness of the free shooting of badgers as licensed by Natural England. Follow @WildJustice_org on Twitter, or sign up to their newsletter on the Wild Justice web site to receive email updates with the latest news about the case. It is fantastic to see widening support for the fight against badger culling and we will be in regular contact with Wild Justice as the cases develop.

There is no doubt about the intensely cruel aspects of the culls, but they are also flawed for a range of technical and legal reasons. With support from The Badger Trust, Tom Langton is now launching an appeal for a new legal case challenging aspects of failed, incomplete or irrational consideration in Defra’s ‘Next Steps’ 5th March policy guidance. Problems include the ignoring of key recommendations of the 2018 ‘Godfray report’, and the confining to a minor role of badger vaccination, both now and in the future. Additional grounds  relate to unaddressed consideration of ecological impacts of wildlife disturbance upon designated nature reserves.

It is important also to challenge the more recently and newly-invented approaches to badger culling in the Low Risk Area (LRA) of the north and east of England. In Cumbria, cattle brought over from Northern Ireland a few years ago with the bovine TB 17z strain have infected badgers locally. Here there is no restraint to the number of badgers killed. The approach shows the frightening sign of badger massacres to come, as alluded to in the 2020 policy if this approach cannot be stopped.

The poor epidemiology and the speculative ‘risk pathways’ approach of the Animal Plant and Health Agency add up to a policy out of control that must be halted. The licenses issued this June should be revoked and no new licenses issued this year, including for Derbyshire where culling was prevented last year.  The policies should be withdrawn and rethought over a minimum two-year cessation period with advice from stakeholders who have been overlooked.

Otherwise badgers face an unprecedented slaughter over the next two years and beyond, with the door to prolonged mass killing (as in R. o. Ireland since 2004) opening up and no mechanism in place to bring it to an end. These terrible policies must be challenged. Please help us try to help the badgers and promote effective approaches to bovine TB control with a donation if you can. Thank You.

Donate

 

Wild Justice Joins Badger Cull Legal Fight

It is excellent and very welcome news that the formidable force of Wild Justice is today announcing a legal challenge to welfare aspects of the highly controversial English badger culls. The challenge against Natural England and Defra is that the badger cull does not meet acceptable animal welfare standards.

Despite the long term failure of Defra’s Bovine tuberculosis policies to bring about any significant decline in the disease, badger culling has accelerated over the last twelve months. Recently Defra Minister George Eustice confirmed the government’s wish to spend the next two years killing record numbers of our iconic protected species.

The planned Appeal for the new case/s being brought by Tom Langton against the new (March 5th 2020) bTb policy is poised to launch shortly. We encourage everyone in the Badger Crowd to get behind both appeals to ensure they are fully funded and successful.

You can get details of the Wild Justice Appeal here.

What have we learnt from the Supreme Court’s refusal of permission to revisit Judge Cranston’s High Court ruling in 2018?

On 9th June 2020 the Supreme Court turned down a permission request to look again at the long term killing of English badgers by government subsidised cull companies. The application related to a ruling in 2018 on the lawfulness of the 2017 government policy to carry out ‘supplementary’ badger culling (SBC). This is the maintaining of badger culling for periods of five years at a time in places where badger numbers have already been reduced by 70% or more over four years.  Recent scrutiny at the Supreme Court by Lords Kerr and Hamblen with Lady Arden in 2020 found that the application did not ‘raise a point of law worth considering at this time.’, thereby closing the matter.

In 2019, the Court of Appeal (CA) had upheld Judge Cranston’s 2018 High Court ruling that, in introducing SBC, the government had satisfied the purpose of Section 10. of the Protection of Badgers Act 1992,  that otherwise protects badgers from needless persecution. Cranston had decided that “there was a logical and defensible rationale for the licensing of supplementary culling”. But what exactly was that rationale and what does the decision tell us?

In August 2018, Judge Cranston had found that the government’s approach was not unlawful due to “a policy of maintaining a reduced badger population through supplementary culling coupled with the commitment to change tack as evidence became available”. The decision was therefore conditional on the ongoing learning and adapting to results during the process.  Seems reasonable.

The decision was controversial however, firstly because the consultation wording over SBC had been ‘unimpressive’ and had been wrong to say to the Minister and the general public that adopting SBC was ‘necessary’, when the approach was clearly both risky, ‘experimental’ and subject to published warnings that it might not help, might hinder and even make the spread of the disease worse.

What seemed to sway the ruling, as revealed to the court in disclosed email exchanges and meeting notes from Defra in 2016, was the fact that it had been conceived by civil servants and the then Chief Vet Nigel Gibbens and Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) Ian Boyd.  Their advice was based partly upon models and modelling, and court disclosures indicate that they didn’t think they or the modelers around them instilled confidence. The advice was to depart from tentative findings from the study sites of the main reference project (The RBCT 1998-2005) and to keep on culling rather than to stop in the manner that claimed (modelled) benefit in that study. Somewhat sinister importance and weight was given to shooting syndicates preferring to keep on badger culling. Also the non-consultation of wildlife and welfare charities as the plans were decided was noticeable.

The legal challenges were framed around the RBCT reference project by necessity, as challenging decision making has to be done within the context of the original science that Defra and the NFU chose to follow.  This constraint does not allow doubt subsequent to the decision making to be brought to the court room.

In court, SSEFRA argued that the requirements of the PBA are met if the SSEFRA’s subjective intent was to reduce the spread of TB.  However, the CA did not seem to wholly endorse this finding of Cranston. It re-framed the requirement to require the SSEFRA to reach a decision which was lawful on public law terms – i.e. a rational one. But the CA did also accept that a licence could be granted for the purposes of an experiment where the SSEFRA was advised that it was a logical approach to disease control.

In effect, Cranston’s ruling said the SBC approach was lawful. The Secretary of State is entitled to follow the advice of Government advisors (including departing from the published warnings of science), even when public consultation misinforms about the needs and necessities.

In this case, the decision found that any cessation of culling after a four year cull is expendable, but without evidence. The argument provided was informed by an unpublished ‘confidential’ report based upon adjusted, un-peer reviewed modelling, suggesting that after badger culling stops, bTB may return to previous levels over time.

On the face of it, it is possible to see how the judiciary might give the government the benefit of the doubt: difficult decisions and experts doing their best in an information void. Yet as with everything, hindsight is a wonderful thing. Because after the initial ruling, retiring SBC architect Ian Boyd made an important concession in relation to checking any direct measure of badger culling value, over the long term.

He suggested any learning (Cranston’s ‘change of tack’ as evidence became available) could only be the result of regional scale trends, once national depletion of badgers is achieved, at some point in the 2030’s.  Some modelling once data from six cull areas over four years might or might not reflect direction of trend, but that there would never be direct or categoric evidence to go on. Even at the end. Whether bTB is eradicated or not you will never know the contribution from badger culling.

So what do we make of this? Cranston did not ask about timing and perhaps killing all the badgers for decades on the off chance seemed acceptable? Even when it might encourage the spread of disease, something that no one could detect? However the fact that in truth, there is a lack of any ability to ‘change tack’ is telling in the practical outcome of this case, which seems to be for badger culling to be accelerated.

All we can say is, in finding with the government, as is often the natural tendency of Judges, that in the vital area of disease control, trust was placed in the governments pleadings being full and honest. Government is allowed to take risks with badgers, outwith the confines of legislation controlling the normal boundaries and excesses of experimentation and scientific procedure.

This is a worrying position for wildlife protectors and disease professionals. Governments can take risks if their expert says it is worth trying. Even if they go wrong for decades. Unmeasurable risks it later appears, when outcomes are hard or impossible to monitor. The implications of Cranston’s ruling, albeit in hindsight, are as disturbing as they are dangerous.

Can anything more be done? Well, that is now being looked into. This is rough justice and a worrying and disappointing outcome for all of us seeking to defend badgers and to control cattle disease. Badgers can be killed in ways that might increase or decrease the spread of disease or that might actually have no effect at all. That is surely not what the legislation allows or common sense advises. This is not the end, but a new beginning, as the legal action exposes what is really going on behind closed doors.

Please donate towards the crowd fund  here: Donate 

Supreme Court permission application on challenge to the introduction of Supplementary Badger Culling has been refused

The last ten days in the fight to protect badgers from culling in England have been tumultuous.

We have the hugely disappointing news that the Supreme Court will not examine the 2018 rulings by Judge Cranston and those of the Appeal court. In 2019, the Court of Appeal had previously upheld Judge Cranston’s 2018 ruling that the government had satisfied the purpose of the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 and that “there was a logical and defensible rationale for the licensing of supplementary culling”. Judge Cranston had found that the government’s approach was not unlawful due to “a policy of maintaining a reduced badger population through supplementary culling coupled with the commitment to change tack as evidence became available.”

However, in a final twist, information was received as the result of legal enquiries in 2019, showing that ‘changing tack as evidence becomes available’ is not something that can be done according to government advice, which suggests that  it is not possible to determine directly, the extent to which any individual intervention (of which badger culling is one) has worked or not or made things worse. Equally, Defra’s strange approach to modelling falsely suggests sweeping success in the first two pilot cull areas. They have used this as a basis to justify new culling policy in 2020.  Ridiculous if the implications were not so truly horrible. So the battle moves on to new ground as the excuses and dead badgers pile up. The legal fight opens a new chapter.

Further, a fresh legal claim against aspects of the 5th March 2020 policy guidance on badger culling has recently been lodged by Tom Langton, supported by The Badger Trust, against the Secretary of State for EFRA and with Natural England  (NE) as an Interested Party. This follows the refusal of the request that Defra should follow the key Godfray Review report recommendation and tell NE not to issue new Supplementary Badger Culling (SBC) licences in 2020. Also to stop badger culling after four-year culls for a two-year period to enable more badger vaccination.

Raised concern also follows NE holding secret for two years a publicly funded report by the British Trust for Ornithology charity on aspects of potential ecological damage to Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). This report was used by NE in 2018 and 2019; they now say it is obsolete. So what exactly are NE and British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) hiding? Ecological issues will also be pursued in the new claim.

The 2020 supplementary licences started on 1st June 2020 in seven cull areas where the four-year intensive culls have ended; in Cornwall (2), Devon (2), Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. The Godfray report suggested a two-year no-cull period and then badger vaccination in half of them. Defra have now responded saying that they have rejected this Godfray recommendation, having consulted the NFU and cull companies. The May 2020 Defra consultation on culling and badger vaccination ending 26 June shows that prospects for badger vaccination are being heavily suppressed with reactive cull style culling being floated for the future. The Edge area of England is now fully at risk of culling for spurious reasons  using evidence that the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust have recently shown is incompetent, something Defra seem to partly recognise..

It will not have escaped the attention of many that the new 5 March “Next Steps” policy not only rows back on the new government’s commitment, described in court recently by Sir James Eadie QC to ‘tilt’ bTB control away from culling and towards badger vaccination but has now come up with a half-baked options on methods for trapping and shooting  badgers right up to the edge of vaccination areas. This is a betrayal of past commitments, an affront to those who work hard in the countryside for badgers, and it constrains and threatens the current and future prospects of the promised expansion of badger vaccination. The new legal challenge attacks not only the decision to reject specific Godfray report recommendations, but also Defra’s further highly selective use of modelled data since 2017,  including data and maps that unfairly, only it controls. Such sickening misrepresentation of science has become a familiar pattern. Counter arguments have been made in Veterinary Record but have yet to receive a positive response or change of direction. There is no excuse for this animal abuse and events in recent months renew our determination to fight on, no matter how difficult during the Covid 19 crisis, for the sake of badgers and our diminishing wildlife.

A number of related cases were stayed on the back of the Supreme Court decision. These will now be reviewed and regular updates will be made. Please support with whatever you can to help  reach the full target in the current Just Giving crowd fund, and to meet funding obligations. Other cases are being developed, so your help is much appreciated and a little from everyone can help make the difference. Thank you again for all your hard work and donations in support. We are The Badger Crowd. Standing up for Badgers. As and when a new appeal  for  a new case is launched, we will let you know and direct you to the crowd fund page.

A more detailed analysis of what we have learned from the Supreme Court’s refusal of permission to revisit Judge Cranston’s High Court ruling is given in a separate blog here.

Please donate towards our legal fund here: Donate 

Vermin, Victims and Disease

British Debates over Bovine Tuberculosis and Badgers

by Angela Cassidy



Hardcover – 2 Oct 2019, Palgrave Macmillan, 366 pp. Free download at Wiley Online Library

     

 

Book Review by Tom Langton


Writing the history of complex things is challenging. The word Vermin is eye-catching, enticing the reader into what is billed as a history of the controversy over whether to cull wild badgers to control the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in British cattle.

Angela Cassidy is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology at the University of Exeter. Stated up front and then restated is that the book is not comprehensive, but merely ‘scratching the surface’. Also, anticipation that it is should be challenged. At the start as a cautionary note there is reference to Prof. John Krebs at Oxford University observing that the subject of badgers and bovine TB is ‘sticky’. Anyone interested in understanding the subject gets drawn in, making it more sticky. Stuck to the heart of it, Krebs should know.

Ambitiously, the author has tried to understand and explain “all sides of the debate, explaining positions for and against badger culling as well as everything in between.” A very high bar indeed. But does it deliver?

This reference book is crammed with citations and examines a few confined areas of a range of the various issues and time periods in depth. It is a history contribution not a whole history and not all of the surface has been scratched. The struggle to gain access to historic records of organisations was, as others who have tried will know, more than difficult in itself. This is an initial caveat on content. It seems many have a limited ability or wish to look back on bTB and badgers. Equally much information is held by individuals who need to be interviewed. Chapters are divided into three Parts.

The first section ‘Contexts’ is background material, and states the intent to look at ‘knowledge controversies’: “everyday scientific practices involve the continued negotiation of uncertainty, personal rivalries and a deep inter-weaving with other social and political processes” powers the text, heightening the readers sense of anticipation:

Chapter 2 starts in the late 1960s, sumarising events around the finding of a bTB infected badger in 1971. It shows how the 1973 the Badgers Act was constructed as much to enable a legal context for government badger management as to put and end to the traditional depravity of badger digging & baiting with dogs.

The second Part ‘Reframing Bovine TB 1960-1995’ begins with a brief mention of the 1975 badger-cattle transmission experiment (the ‘Little’ experiment) that is described in Richard Meyers (reprinted 2016) book, The Fate of The Badger. This is the study upon which the controversial cause and effect of bTB spread by badgers was incorrectly surmised and the  core controversy from which others have grown.  It was around this time, Cassidy finds, that the State Veterinary Service (SVS) began to follow approaches that would later gain the title of ‘policy led evidence’. Not that it was absent in the ‘behind closed doors’ governments of the past. The SVS considered that their internal reporting systems and the advice of their own experts were an adequate standard of evidence on which to impose government policy. The rot was setting in.

Ch 2. also records the hardships of Lord Solly Zuckerman, then President of the Zoological Society of London who in 1979 took on a review of bovine TB and badgers, including badger gassing for the new Thatcher government. Zuckerman, born in South Africa to Jewish Russian emigrants was a primatologist and WW2 government scientist. He worked on nuclear non-proliferation and was also an early environmental science protagonist. A driving force behind establishment of the Institute of Zoology laboratories in 1961 he championed (not surprisingly for a zoo) lab experimentation over applied field study and reported as antagonistic towards field studies and natural history.

Zuckerman was caught out by what might be described, looking back as a couple of bad decisions in the early application of UK wildlife disease epidemiology. Ending in the extraordinary position of his advocacy for gassing of badgers in their setts, which did not find favour & was not implemented. He received opposition from animal welfare and nature conservation science professionals, badger protectionists with whom he rather unwisely publicly clashed and was sent anti-Semitic hate mail. With new evidence from Porton Down that gassing was largely ineffective and cruel, sett gassing was abandoned.

History-wise, the book now skips time and events. Briefly touching on the 1986 Dunnett report, but not the developments in the Republic of Ireland, (from which many British cows and cull policy (in-part) originate), that shed further light on the British Isles badger & bTB controversies.  The book makes only slight reference to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales which is a shame as they all add important elements to the British story being told.

Chapter 4 provides brief notes on elements of the development of pest control in Britain and some new insight on Ernest Neal, a school teacher & co-founder of the Mammal Society, and his role in the development of badgers and bovine TB policy from the 1960s.

Continuing from the early 1990s, the origin of the Randomised Badger Control Trials (RBCT 1998-2005) is put down to lobbying of government by both government and non-government ecologists. This, was largely zoologists taking advantage of civil servant preference to engage in more research rather become embroiled (and exposed in a career damaging way) in constraining the powerful livestock industry with more frequent testing and movement controls. There was equally strong opposition to a ‘big un-blinded experiment’ from leading scientists and much of the farming lobby was ambivalent, but the civil servants got their way.

Chapter 5 ‘Protecting the badger’ embraces a broad range of subjects. It tries to capture the ‘nature state’ origins of nature conservation in the UK and gives brief coverage to interactions between conservation and animal welfare bodies from the 1970s. It does this without mentioning the sub-committee activities of Wildlife Link and many of the unilateral actions of its members. It doesn’t explore or engage in this interesting subject. Nor the root causes of damaging competition, confusion and duplication that has hampered, even crippled animal charity NGO activity over the last four decades. Another book for this big topic.

There is a useful but not comprehensive description of some of the early stalwarts in badger protection and political lobbying in the early days. Important contribution of badger advocates Ruth Murray, Jane Ratcliffe and Eunice Overend amongst others is duly recognised.

One interesting point is Eunice Overend’s early proposal that gassing badgers made them sick and prone to disperse more, raising the potential for them to spread bTB in the countryside.  The perturbation effect hypothesis was thus invented by her. Oxford university had a growing interest in badger control by the early 1990s (Swinton et al. 1997) with heavy use of modelling. The hypothesis was an idea that the RBCT would be set up to try to demonstrate, also via modelling.

The third and final Part: ‘Contesting animal health (1996-present)’ gives a rapid account of the RBCT and its findings in under eight pages which is quite an achievement. Beyond basic description it leaves alone the science history or the subsequent ‘use and abuse’ of the data generated and the central controversy of the way in which modelling was applied and then used in policy. It covers briefly the findings of the RBCT researchers/Independent Specialist Group in 2007 and the subsequent clashes between the ISG and the then Chief Scientific Adviser David King whose own group rejected key ISG interpretation.

Chapter 7. ‘Building a Public Controversy’ touches lightly on other politico-veterinary scandals-cum-controversies in countryside epidemiology;‘mad cow disease’ – Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), and the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease crisis. It looks at the way these were handled (mistakes, controversies and cover ups) alongside Bovine TB by government and scientists. But overall there is relatively brief description of the governmental and political ups and downs of the period 1995-2010 when the bovine tuberculosis epidemic was allowed to return to much of Britain.

Nor does it look at the extent to which the badger/bTB policy failures and controversies have been driven by partisan self-interest and frailties of human nature in both individuals and stakeholder groups, including academics. There is little indication of, or guidance on how experts, politicians and policy makers should best work together to make sustainable policy as had been hoped. Nor a summary of lessons from abroad. The chapter also includes results from a collation of newspaper coverage on badgers and bTB between 1996-2017 showing the media frenzy around 2013 when mass badger culling was authorised.

There is some useful background information on the institutional approaches of bodies such as the RSPCA and The National Trust to the RBCT. But there is all but no detailed information on sabotage of the RBCT, direct action by Stop The Cull and others, actions of the Hunt Saboteurs Association and non-aligned cage spotting and smashing groups, nor the activities of Wounded Badger Patrols, all part of the public reaction to culling.

There is little regarding the several Information Commissioner Tribunals against the intense and unfounded secrecy under which the planning and post-2013 badger culling has been managed by Defra and Natural England (against the advice of the Krebs Group in 1997), frustrating and sometimes flouting access to information rights and disgracing Natural England.

There is little on farmers and farm representatives’ positions and those of the hunting and ‘blood-sport’ supporters, nor of cull companies, the police role, wildlife rescue centres or many other players sucked into the controversy. These may be largely reactive and symptomatic of the knowledge validation problems but there is a lack of examination of the policy matters behind culling and how these relate to what has unfolded in rural areas of much of England since 2013.

In the final Chapter 8 ‘The Badgers Have Moved the Goalposts’ Cassidy makes a decision that drops her into the controversy of whether the underlying science of the RBCT is reliable or not. Why this is done, albeit tentatively is unclear, moving the author from dispassionate observer to one side of the argument seems odd and unnecessary.

However it is arguably understandable as the large and extremely powerful Defra has increasingly engaged Exeter University as a part of its propaganda messaging outlet. Through a lucrative TB Hub contract https://tbhub.co.uk/ Exeter University sends out messages promoting government policy science. As Exeter’s role as Defra’s propaganda face grew in 2019 this book was being finalised.

At the same time, Exeter was not very quietly disseminating the headlines of a long delayed and rather manuscript-mauled paper on the genomics (whole genome sequencing) of bovine TB at and around the government study site at Woodchester in Gloucestershire. As a ‘get out of jail’ card to prop up government policy, its complexity backfired when yet another convoluted modelling approach was found to simply confuse ‘contact’ between species (badgers and cattle) as ‘transmission’.

This research is referred to obliquely (top of page 287) and shows the likely influence of the authors peers in separate yet proximate Exeter faculties. This is disappointing given Cassidy’s 2015 paper on the RBCT ‘Big science’ in the field: experimenting with badgers and bovine TB, where the frailties of un-blinded Randomised Control Trials were discussed and a more detached and dispassionate approach taken towards the ‘rhetoric of authoritative science’. Some of the material has been used in the book but it is worth reading separately.

So the author risks joining Krebs in his sticky trap alongside a small crowd of other academics, administrators and others by entering the core knowledge debate – between those who believe the RBCT is a sufficiently definitive piece of science and those who believe it is not. And those in the middle who say there is too much uncertainty to be sure about it and to justify mass badger killing with large scale public funds, to try to prop up intensive farming.

The questionable approach was also made at the start of the book with calling the Godfray Group review a “reasonably balanced overview”. This is blessing of a rather vague and generic internal government review that side-stepped key questions such as: is the lack of ability to distinguish the direct effects of badger culling from other interventions a problem? Dealing with the issue that Supplementary Badger Culling may in theory make bTB worse (see Jenkins et al. 2010) it sent vague messages on further research needs, resulting in new policy on 5th March 2020 heading towards another un-blinded field trial with even ‘longer grass’ to kick the policy into for a decade or so, and for another Parliament to worry about. Not very good at all. In what way was that balanced as opposed to cowering and weak?

In terms of its title, this is not a book of any depth about ‘vermin’ although there are some quite interesting aspects of ‘pest control’ history recorded. Nor is it about the disease process and all that goes with it including the main controversies on disease proliferation and spread. The beef and dairy industry and its change and processes are hardly mentioned. Nor is the process of bTB testing and breakdown, the stresses and strains on farming, commercial attitude and behavior of the veterinary industry and role of market forces. No mention on the moods and motivations of farm ‘Unions’, little documentation of the rise of coherent wildlife epidemiology from the late 1980s at the Institute of Zoology and elsewhere.

There is all but nothing on the large and involved aspects of legal challenge to badger culling since the 1970s and particularly the last fourteen years. It does not cover the incredible campaigning and legal challenge In Wales that led to badger culling being stopped there around ten years or so ago. No details on Ministers and Prime Ministers attitudes and party politics. Key names like Jim Paice and Roy Anderson are dropped in for completeness rather than as the key influencers that they were and where a little scratching might have helped to further unravel new controversies.

As the book ends, the author starts to ask questions that have been at the heart of the main controversy. If the primary controversy of whether the RBCT is reliable is put to one side, the secondary controversy over subsequent modelling is raised and that of whether when cattle disease control measures are not working well enough, are other measures a waste of time anyway?

This is where a book could and perhaps should have started, yet it is one upon which a deep understanding of disease control and the history of the veterinarians involved becomes essential. It is a larger surface to scratch and begin to expose motives and actions of those not mentioned in the book. There are other key players in, what is, after misuse of anti-biotics, one of  Britain’s most notorious long running farm scandals.

Despite the lack of analysis that the book promised, this is a useful broad-brushed documentation of several aspects of badger culling and Bovine TB over the last 50 years or so. It is a corner stone that will help make the job possible for others. It contributes to the administrative history but does not capture the science history enough to enable basic understanding of why and how the controversy has flowed over time.

Much as the subject of bovine TB requires multiple disciplines to unfold its complexities, a history of badgers and bovine TB controversies needs that too. It is needed to get to grips with epistemic rivalry, because a history of knowledge validation requires insight into people doing molecular biology, statistics, pathology and epidemiology. Alongside understanding of livestock farming, legal, environmental and ecological issues that make up the deep well of sticky stuff.

A fuller account of how individuals, charities, academics, government officials, farm representatives and even the royal family play a part, lies beneath the surface that Angela Cassidy has very usefully scratched.

References

Cassidy, A. 2015. ‘Big science’ in the field: experimenting with badgers and bovine TB, 1995–2015. HPLS 37, 305–325. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40656-015-0072-z

Jenkins, H.E., Woodroffe, R. and Donnelly, C.A. 2010. The duration of the effects of repeated widespread badger culling on cattle tuberculosis following the cessation of culling. PLoS One. 10;5(2):e9090. PubMed PMID:20161769.

Meyer, R. 2016. The Fate of The Badger Fore-raven

Swinton, J., Tuyttens, F., Macdonald, D., Nokes, D.J., Cheeseman, C.L. and Clifton-Hadley, R. 1997. Comparison of fertility control and lethal control of bovine tuberculosis in badgers: The impact of perturbation induced transmission. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B-Biological Sciences, 352: 619-631.

Supplementary Badger Culling (SBC). Adapting and learning is impossible. It’s official.

Last summer, following the spike of bTB in the first Gloucestershire pilot cull area, a pre-action letter was commented on by the governments chief scientific adviser, Ian L. Boyd.  His June note was sent shortly before his retirement and it offers a bit more insight.  The response related to how much information is needed before measurable benefits from bTB interventions can be seen.  Initially he seemed to believe that it would take four years of Supplementary Badger Culling (SBC) over a six year period to be able to try to examine any effect from new interventions. Thus as SBC began in 2017 with Gloucestershire and Somerset (Areas 1 & 2) , then  Dorset in 2019 (Area 3), and potentially seven more this year, it will be 2024 before theoretical modelling of change can be undertaken. However it is Point 6 that contradicts and startles. Here it states that  “It is not possible to examine any single measure such as supplementary badger culling alone as having a positive or negative effect.” The note goes on to say that only the whole set of interventions can be considered together; what happens from all interventions in a region i.e. the High Risk Area or Edge Area. In other words, the approach taken is to use everything that you think might work including culling badgers everywhere (to 2030 and beyond) and hope that bTB comes down, but whether it does or doesn’t, just carry on.

This reveals the dilemma, in that the unproven and risky SBC may neutralise any hypothetical benefit in terms of new herd bTB breakdowns or make breakdowns worse. This has been confirmed in court. Any ‘comfort’ that Defra could ‘adapt and learn’ as it went along, apparently does not exist. There is no learning and no control, only an end result. The same can presumably be said, therefore, of any tinkering with further small scale trials such as those proposed by the new Defra Policy relating to the Godfray Review. The facts are that this is not just policy out of control. It has no control. There is no way to find out if your interventions are useless or making things worse.

DEFRA RESPONSE TO GODFRAY REVIEW dated 05 March 2020

Many of you will have noticed the publicity surrounding the unexpected release of the above report entitled DEFRA (2020) Next steps for the strategy for achieving bovine tuberculosis free status for England. The government’s response to the strategy review, 2018.

Most of the newspapers ran dramatic stories, talking of a seismic shift and U-turn in government thinking on badger culling and bovine TB. There was also talk of a ‘shift in political emphasis’, a ‘rowing back’ and ‘viable exit strategy’. It was as if they had failed to read and digest properly the details in the 109 pages.

Unsurprisingly, some organisations and individuals stated that the report was to be welcomed and offered hope whilst others were rather more cautious or cynical. Let’s unpick what actually happened and what it might mean for badgers and the efforts to stop badger culling.

  • A shift away from badger culling and towards badger vaccination?

No, not really. Vaccination of badgers was always a part of the strategy, even if a neglected one. The 2018 Godfray review called for a move away from lethal control but only by way of conducting  a comparison between supplementary culling and vaccination. This is something that would be controversial and expensive to carry out, take many years and lead to more speculation and bickering over modelled results. Most would advocate vaccination over culling, but the level of vaccination, up to a few thousand badgers a year, does not make it an acceptable trade-off for continuation of mass culling for another decade. Especially when it will never be possible to attribute changes in bTB herd breakdown rates to badger vaccination, rather than any one of a number of other interventions. This is exactly the same as is happening now with badger culling.

  • But Badger Culling is coming to an end isn’t it?

No, it isn’t; many having been misled by what they were reading or have been told. Nothing could be further from the truth. Somehow the public have been conned into thinking it is because of the generality of the Godfray Group review. The facts are that we are now at ‘peak cull’; over 40 cull areas are in-hand and much of the High Risk Area is being culled. Last year this year and next year will each see around 40,000 or more badgers shot in more futile culls. After that, culling tails off, but only because they are running out of badgers to kill; 70% of badgers across English ‘cattle country’ will have been killed. Nevertheless, don’t expect killings to drop below 15,000 at any time before 2030 by which time up to 300,000 badgers will have died. It could be fewer, (but not much fewer),as culling starts up in the Edge area and potentially becomes more widespread in the Low Risk Area as the failed policy causes more spread eastwards. The fact is, it is business as usual with the government killing machine. This is DEFRA keeping to plan which as reported in Farmers Weekly on 11th March 2020 is to maintain the badger population to one badger/sq.km. or below to reduce the possibility of badger to cattle bTB  transmission.

  • But government accept that badger culling isn’t working, don’t they?

No, quite the opposite.  All Defra offer is deception, cherry picked data and selective use of models. Supplementary Badger Culling (SBC) has been fought in court for three years and whatever you believe about the science, bovine TB went through the roof in Gloucestershire in 2018, the first year of SBC with a 130% increase and in 2019 it remained at the same levels as before culling started. Yet the Defra response repeats time after time only the equivocal study stating reduction in Gloucestershire of 66% by 2017, based on questionable modelling by a small number of government paid scientists. Why do they do this? Claiming success and progress is the Defra justification for continuing culling. This is despite the then Chief Scientific Advisor Ian Boyd confirming in legal papers in June 2019 that there is no way to determine the direct effects of badger culling from individual areas or areas combined after many years. The only stop button is if bTB falls away.

  • Why do Defra mislead us?

Defra are desperate to retain credibility on this issue, and are trapped within their own failed policy and bad epidemiology advice. They surely realise by now that badger culling with other actions is not delivering bTB control and that the problem remains with cattle testing and lax cattle movement controls. Responsibility for bTB policy within the government has changed hands over the last couple of years. Nobody wants to own it. The Defra response shows all the signs of a government refusing to deal with their past oversights and misjudgements. It is bereft of the will to take charge of the immediate measures needed including pre-movement testing with modern blood tests, the only measure that can drive infection rates down in the short term.

  • So the report just repackages old policy with no good outcome?

The sort of cattle measures being promoted are positive, but very long promised and overdue and they don’t go anywhere near far enough. A DIVA test trial to enable cattle vaccination would be welcome, but is it the right technology? Another five year wait to find out. 6 monthly SICCT testing is being expanded in the High Risk Area ‘over the next few years’ in addition to the Edge Area. This was a ‘no-brainer’ in 2012 but now can’t take place all at once because too many bTB positive cattle would be detected.  There is mention of increase in gamma test, introduction of IDEXX testing – this is good but there is no timetable. There is suggestion of compulsory post movement testing in the Low Risk Area and Edge Area only. This should have been mandatory everywhere; it is how Scotland eliminated bTB by 2009 to become TB-Free. There is a suggestion to incentivise biosecurity by a compensation penalty for those who don’t adhere to biosecurity recommendations.  This has been done in Wales for a while and must help. There is talk of improved slurry management – this is good, but large scale applied research is needed not just small scale investigations.

Most noticeable of all the above is a lack of detail as to the extent of any action and clear timetable for implementation.

  • Where does badger protection really stand after this report?

The wait continues regarding permission for the case against SBC in the Supreme Court. A hope for positive news remains. An end to this unscientific experiment has been signalled but it should never have started.

The recently released Defra report reflects more than anything, a stubborn entrenchment of its thinking, their lack of new ideas or acceptance of external criticisms and how badly they are ‘stuck’ in failing policy. There is desperation in them clinging to the 2019 APHA ‘Downs’ modelling paper when they know the conclusions are unreliable. What does this say about Defra’s competence?

Many Badger Groups have worked incredibly hard on badger vaccination which does provide clan immunity, but does not necessarily prevent these badgers being shot if they stray beyond an ownership boundary.  Unfortunately there is no evidence that badger vaccination assists in bTB control and mass vaccination gives life to the ‘finger of blame’ that points to badgers being heavily involved in the transmission of bTB to cows, which is uncertain at best.

Badgers are still being unscientifically blamed for a significant proportion of cattle bTB infection, leading to a nonsensical question on the potential benefit of culling versus vaccination.  Never in a million years will badger vaccination protect cattle from bTB, it can only protect badgers.   Cattle need their own vaccine. The recent suggestion by Defra that badgers should be snared to facilitate vaccination indicates quite clearly their lack of understanding of the physical injuries inflicted by snares. Snare restraints must be opposed at all cost.

I hope this summary is useful. Please let us know your thoughts. These are strange times and coronavirus now dominates our lives. The next few months will be a huge test for many of us and may even take some of us away. Whatever happens, the fight will go on and will not fade. That is a promise.

We are the Badger Crowd and we will continue to fight lies and deceptions relating to the mindless slaughter of badgers in England.

 

Badgers and bovine TB in 2020. Time for Change

With the turning of the year, Badger Crowd takes stock and looks to 2020.  On the face of it, the outcome of the general election has grim implications for badgers; the likely outcome is a continuation of the failing English  bTB policy. This brings an eighth year of increasing misery to farmers, the public and badgers. More premature death and suffering for thousands of cows and badgers in 2020 and more £ millions taxpayers money frittered away on poor policy decisions and flawed implementation. The aim of the work supportedby Badger Crowd, as always, is to focus actions in the right direction and to properly address the bTB disease epidemic.

Legal challenge applications against Supplementary Badger Culling in the Supreme Court and stayed cases brought by Tom Langton, sit in the slow judicial queue. These offer a chink of light in an otherwise dark landscape. But the work of the Badger Crowd extends beyond supporting legal challenges. Behind the scenes, there is a broad network of dozens of experienced, informed and dedicated volunteers, looking at and tackling the endless stream of misinformation and anti-badger propaganda.  Science, messaging, data gathering, monitoring, fundraising and legal issues must all be addressed by the extended professional and volunteer  network. The network is a force for badgers and the fight against bovine TB  that never stops. Many established badger groups and trusts lend support in many ways too.

Another government funded study was published this year using modelling to incorrectly make claims of success for badger culling in the ‘Pilot’ areas, pushed by a government propaganda campaign. This is despite advice from the Defra Chief Scientist in June 2019 that it will never be possible to separate any effects of badger culling from other interventions.  And last week, a genomics paper  has been published making controversial claims about bTB transmission between badgers and cattle at Woodchester Park in Gloucestershire. Experts have been looking hard at this, and have already given insightful advice to challenge the claims. Expect more on this early  in the New Year. Dedicated experts work together against a sea of officialdom, prejudice, poor science  and poor journalism.

We would also like to remember at this time of year particularly, all those who are out in the field, attacking the illegal blocking of badger setts and unlawful hunting of wild mammals. Sabotaging crime. We salute you again for your dedication and perseverance.

If you have donated to the legal funds, you have contributed to assist  important legal work, and we hope that there will be rewards next year. The Crowd fund has slowly moved to 80% and this is an immense achievement considering this gruelling, expensive and protracted battle. This seasonal  message is a huge thank you to all making this work possible in every way.

The Badger Cull Habitat Regulations Assessments Legal  Challenges

Photos courtesy of Richard Bowler

Overview of why the challenges are not being pursued to the Supreme Court

The badger culls are not just hugely controversial because of the large question marks over the validity of the science used by Government to justify them. Concern has also mounted over their potential impacts upon protected species and nature reserves. Complaints to the Bern Convention and early legal challenges in 2014 focused on Natural England’s (NE) duties to prevent such impacts. It emerged that there had been all but complete disregard of the potential impact of the disruption of carnivore communities (Carnivore Release Effects (CRE)) in the west of England following removal of badgers across large areas.

The Badger Crowd has since been at the forefront of efforts to see this and other vital omissions exposed. If NE are going to licence badger culling, they are required by statute to do so in a way that ensures collateral damage to other wildlife is avoided. However the legal challenges since 2014 and particularly since 2017 have exposed countless critical failures of assessment by NE, in clear dereliction of its statutory duties. These are failures that have undoubtedly put sensitive species and protected wildlife sites at genuine risk.

Disappointingly the Courts – while acknowledging that NE has failed in its statutory duties – have repeatedly declined to quash licences. In large part this is because NE have repeatedly moved to try and patch up their procedures under the duress of imminent court hearings, and have been equally quick to promise that they will tackle further flaws that have been exposed in front of judges. In other words, it is the pressure brought to bear by the legal challenges that has forced NE down the road of doing the very assessments they should have been doing in the first place.

This is why the recent decision, not to take this matter to the Supreme Court is the right one and why the application to the Supreme Court regarding Supplementary Culling policy is now the main focus (see previous blog). But while the current challenge to NE’s assessment procedures has run its course, no-one should confuse the lack of an outright legal victory with failure. The Badger Crowd and other donating charities can and should be extremely proud of how far the challenges it has helped fund have dragged NE towards due and proper compliance with its duties towards wildlife protection. The agency responsible for nature conservation was clearly giving little or no thought to this prior to the harsh light of legal proceedings being shone on them. By the same token it has to be a matter of acute shame and embarrassment for NE that its failures have been so great, that their magnitude is on permanent record and that it is only the duress of legal challenge that has forced it to make concerted efforts towards doing its job properly.

Further detail

On the basis of the earliest assessments that have been seen, the impact of, for example doubling fox numbers (as prior studies indicated could happen) on birds, roosting or nesting on or close to the ground, seemed hardly to matter to NE. Other un-researched disturbances were also quite likely to occur but remained unaddressed by them or those to whom they granted licences. Under legal scrutiny, NE brought out a range of excuses. Firstly it didn’t think it happened much, then OK perhaps it could inside cull areas, but we will have it covered next year with a new approach. Then came denial that cullers could harm reserves by driving over habitats: digging in traps and shooting with lamps and shotguns. Then, OK it could do harm; we will check and stop that on some SSSI’s.

Over the last five years, NE have repeatedly retracted their position regarding Habitat Regulations Assessments, following detailed legal challenge and engagement by ecological experts Dominic Woodfield and Tom Langton. Then, in July 2018, after Sir Ross Cranston formally found NE in breach of their statutory duty on certain aspects in the High Court hearing, NE caved-in. As a result, vast areas of England outside cull zones became immediately subject to scrutiny and protective analysis, exactly as the legal challenge had said they must, and indeed should have been since 2013. 

Within weeks of the 2018 ruling, which was also appealed for not going further and quashing cull licences, a set of guidelines on how to address CRE  issues were produced by NE, borrowing heavily from the claimant’s witness evidence. Basically NE’s formal recognition of the potential problems was fully established for the first time.

Guidelines to address the problems had been forced out of NE, enabling regional NE staff to express concerns that evidence suggests had previously been ignored, dismissed or overruled. However on the one hand guidelines were saying safeguards from disrupted ecosystems were mostly  ‘ultra-precautionary’, while on the other hand they said that they needed detailed consideration and monitoring.

In fact screening of SSSI damage went from minimal effort to large spreadsheets containing ‘screening matrices’, and eventually all European Sites (e.g. SPA, SAC, RAMSAR) within range of effects were required to have what is called an Appropriate Assessment. This extensive exercise includes wider undertakings to examine what happens if predatory  mammal numbers shift in response to  long-term forced change to wild mammals.

As a result of these more detailed assessments, some sites had badger culling withdrawn (e.g. where Stone Curlew nest on Salisbury Plain) and some smaller SSSIs were excluded. But underlying NE’s case that culling should be allowed within or adjacent to other sensitive sites was an untruth pledged by NE that its operational capacity is able to monitor and address carnivore release effects or other negative implications arising from badger culling.

However, monitoring CRE for just a single site would take an extensive and time-consuming research project to identify and quantify any effects and isolate them from other sources; something NE has no capacity to implement at all yet seemed unwilling to place as a duty upon the cull licensees. Further NE kept and still keeps cull areas secret, and SSSI’s under threat secret too. So any precautionary approach to checking sensitive species numbers before during and after culling was deliberately and unfairly frustrated as exposed by the Information Commissioners at a tribunal in 2017.

Some have pointed out that the lack of seriousness with which the government considered the issue from the start  parallels what we see with the annual mass release of millions game birds in the countryside on and next to SSSI’s, that also bolsters carnivore numbers artificially. Also all but ignored, until recently. 

NE’s new chairman Tony Juniper tried to achieve a sleight of hand by on the one hand complaining NE was so hollowed out as to be unable to monitor most SSSI’s, yet on the other pretending it was on top of monitoring of species and habitats at risk from change brought about by badger culling. How? Through a range of fanciful NE positions. These days, game bird release is commonplace near nature reserves and wildlife sites of all kinds. Local gamekeepers armed with expensive night-vision rifle scopes (that suddenly NE thinks they all had or would have) would spot any increase in foxes (stoats, weasels and even hedgehogs) and deal with them instinctively to restore some kind of notional ‘balance’.

Not necessary to do anything then? Not quite. This year NE wrote to cull companies saying there was now, in effect, a legal obligation on cull companies to provide baseline fox control information (read more here and here) and asking them to make and keep a note of past and present fox control effort. But this was resisted. So is that it?  So much for NE ensuring monitoring is in place to capture changes to sensitive bird numbers.  A  shocking proxy approach to monitoring potential impacts. So poor is the data on changing bird numbers in badger cull areas that NE and British Trust for Ornithology have kept secret the single monitoring exercise undertaken. This attempt to mask the truth reflects badly on NE and BTO. 

Frankly this is all as farcical as it is damning. Nature conservation is being handled with contempt by the agency we help, pay and expect to look after it with the care it requires. It has taken The Badger Crowd many tens of thousands of pounds to help the claimant force the government to take this seriously and they still haven’t. They don’t actually seem to want to recognise the issue and research likely impacts. They have delayed, squirmed and argued denial all the way through the courts. They have just managed to get away with preventing the quashing of cull licences by delay, secrecy and by changing the licences every time they are challenged.  To cap it all, NE even claimed they had lost highly sensitive information and evidence just when it was getting difficult, and they got away with it.

All this shows just how deeply standards have slipped in Natural England over the last ten years.  Yet now the legal advice is that no matter how incisive the challenge, NE have got to a position where it is unlikely that legal action will prevent the issuing  of any badger cull licence. All that can be done is to continue to chase them to protect nature properly as they should have done from the start. 

What remains at stake is the unknown, unmeasured level of potential disruption to declining species and nature reserves from the known primary and secondary effects of badger culling, something everyone should still be very concerned about.  As the government technical reports warned back in 2007 and when Wales decided CRE risks were real and threatening before deciding not to cull.

Badger protectionists don’t just care about badgers but also the places where they live. Over the last five years, one of the largest legal actions ever to defend badgers has, and still is being conducted through the courts. The legal challenges also draw awareness to threats to internationally protected birds and other wildlife on SSSIs. This has been done so as to highlight the shortfalls of government policy in relation to the side effects of the cruel unnecessary killing of badgers.

Legal action has in effect changed the requirements for badger cull licensing, although it was not successful in being awarded legal ‘relief‘ (quashing of cull licences) and getting the claimant’s money back.  Natural England were mauled but survived the legal challenge, but only by doing a complete volte-face with their advice, and by obstructing the release of information that would make initial analysis of the effects of badger culling possible.

There are plenty of new lines of enquiry into the Natural England position and these are being looked at now, so NE, that has always refused to communicate in any helpful way to concerned stakeholders on the subject, could soon be in receipt of more letters and perhaps another five years of legal action.