“Next Steps” Defra consultation expires

Revised 27th April

Defra closed the 27th January consultation without allowing time to consider the implications of the 10th March data release. They have said they will respond to points raised by 6th April and the matter is now being considered by legal experts. Here are extracts from a consultation response by Tom Langton, based upon use of government data to show what has really been happening in the High Risk Area since 2010.

As further analysis is done, the results will be sent to Defra and Natural England and published. Meanwhile we expect the government to correct its mistaken view that badger cull is working and not to issue any further badger cull licences in 2021.


Bovine tuberculosis: consultation on proposals to help eradicate the disease in England. A consultation exercise contributing to the delivery of the government’s strategy for achieving bovine tuberculosis free status for England. “Next Steps” (March 2020) Policy Consultation.

The SSEFRA Minister’s statement of 27th January 2021

There is a fundamentally misleading and erroneous statement which features in, and indeed underpins, the consultation proposals. The Secretary of State’s Parliamentary statement of 27 January 20213 states that badger culling “…has played a critical role in helping to start turn the tide on this terrible disease.”

This is the justification for continued use of ‘intensive’ and ‘supplementary’ badger culling, as described in the current consultation. This statement has been widely repeated in the media in recent months and also by a range of government officials including the Chief Veterinary Officer. It underpins, and influences, the current consultation. The consultation itself asserts that “the current cull policy has been effective” (8.1) and refers in Figure 1. to Gloucestershire, Somerset and Dorset.

The consultation proposes that new rounds of badger cull licences will be issued authorising the culling of badgers for the next six years and beyond. It is estimated that a further 150,000 badgers may be culled under these proposals: as many or more, as have been killed to date. The risk of serious consequences to the farming & nature conservation stakeholders and to the public purse of getting the policy wrong and perpetuating the disease are obvious.

Recent communications on fair time for consideration.

Promptly after release of data on 10th march and while the consultation was still running, my representatives wrote to Defra and Natural England to ask that they postpone it and re-consult once the information and the Ministers view provided (as above)  have been corrected. This was both to ensure that a fair and lawful consultation is concluded and to ensure that the Secretary of State’s proposals are based on a proper understanding and articulation of the evidence. In light of the matters set out below, a decision to adopt badger culling policy without reviewing these matters would be liable to be quashed on an application for judicial review.

Specifically I refer to release of key information on bovine TB (bTB) statistics on 10th March 2021, just ten working days before the closure of the consultation that showed significant variance from the Ministers position. This is unreasonable, and an initial look at the data released in the time allowing shows it to be both extremely important and to lead to conclusions that contradict the wording of the Ministerial statement on 27th January.

More reasonably, a minimum of 6-8 weeks should be allowed in order to consider the data properly. It’s use, I believe would result in a very different conclusion to the Ministerial statement and one of sufficient substance that would otherwise make the consultation unfair and invalid, should the current basis for the consultation be retained.

Further key points

1. Whilst the proposal to cease supplementary badger culling  (SBC) is in principle welcomed, its continuance for a further five years, to February 2026, alongside intensive badger culling is completely unjustified and unacceptable given the new information.

2. Our letters to Natural England in relation to the licensing of SBC dated 8 March 2019 and 29 May 2019 refer to Prof. Boyd (CSA) describing the need for an ‘adaptive approach to policy development’. According to Prof. Boyd, badger culling will “often not work as predicted” and so an “operational control” method is needed, based upon “outcomes”.

3. Natural England, in its internal deliberations on the uncertainties of evidence when licensing culling, (Paper by Dr Tim Hill to Natural England Board meeting of 6 November 2019, released to Mr Langton under FoI in August 2020. RFI 5049) has noted:

“7.1. As implementation of the culling policy has progressed a series of evidence needs and gaps have emerged. Culling is taking place over an expanding area of England and, as we advised in 2010 and 2011, it means the Government is increasingly less able to rely on the evidence base provided by the RBCT. Implementation of the policy has also identified operational challenges for which the existing evidence base is proving unsatisfactory. Finally, intensive culling was never proposed as the long-term solution to controlling TB in badgers and – particularly in light of the Godfray Review – we need to revisit the available evidence to inform future strategies.”

4. Further, Natural England has identified in a letter dated 18 June 2019 the need for results from six badger cull areas, for at least four years in order to gain any initial insight into disease control trends. That requirement was achieved in respect of intensive culling, once the 2016 four-year intensive culls concluded in 2019, with a further year observation period of herd breakdowns to 2020. It was, in part upon the above clarifications, that the matters raised in my 2019 pre-action protocol letter were not pursued.

5. It follows that the real time outcomes in bTB control as measured in ‘cases per area, per year’ have become the definitive point of reference since the scale and nature of culling has moved well beyond that assessed in the RBCT. Such data tells farmers and vets in each cull area and across intervention areas what is actually happening, with an increase or decrease in bTB herd incidence and residual prevalence.

Preliminary view relating to available data 

6. Difference between confirmed breakdowns of bTB in cattle herds,  within and outside of the badger cull areas over the badger cull duration: 2013-2019 in the HRA are consistent with relatively small background fluctuations. They do not support the public claims by the Minister of an “effective” cull policy, using theoretical modelling (consultation paras 8.1-8.3) relating to 2017 and before.

7. At the county level, breakdowns began to level off  after 2010 when the HRA was placed on annual bTB testing. Other measures were progressively introduced from 2012. Importantly, in 2016 the interpretation of the SICCT test was changed too, to detect more disease. A raft of other measures to slow the incidence of bovine TB in cattle were slowly introduced within the HRA and are also relevant.

8.  Changes to the rate of confirmed breakdowns in the HRA will have been brought about by cattle measures beginning to have an influence, commencing well before the badger culling roll-out started. For the government to use the average figure for herd breakdowns for the four years prior to culling commencing as a benchmark is wholly inappropriate. It fails to have regard to the relevance of factors other than culling, in the same period, affecting the chosen measure. Any realistic comparison should be from the point at which badger culling commenced. Using the four-year average prior to the start of culling is wholly misleading. The figures have been misused to present a positive view of the culling when effectiveness is clearly open to question when: (a) a comparison is made with unculled areas, and (b) the effect of other changes in bTB control have been contemplated.

9. This is further demonstrated by additional observations of how the trend in bTB herd incidence is almost exactly the same in places where herd measures have been applied and where they have been applied together with badger culling at the County scale. 

10. Other counties are being looked at carefully and hence the need for more time prior to consultation ending and the request in my letter of 18th March 2021 and subsequent clarifications.

11.The reality of these trends  is in stark contradiction to key findings of the now out of date modelling of badger cull efficacy: the publications Brunton et al. 2017 and Downs et al. 2019 (using data only up to 2017) . This is the basis upon which SSEFRA has previously relied to imply progress in 2017, albeit on heavily modelled results, with caveats as to the reliability of the findings.

12. For these reasons, there is grave concern not just that theoretical modelling has not reflected the subsequent long term face-value evidence, but that the real time data on the full period 2013-2020 has been misrepresented to the public by the Secretary of State, both in public statements and in the current consultation process.

13. This is of very significant concern because of the manner in which the consultation has been worded to imply that badger culling has had a substantial positive effect in real terms. The only fair analysis from the existing data is that it remains uncertain as to whether there has been any benefit from badger culling at all. The consultation fails to grapple with this uncertainty and the evidence that it has been of no value at all.

14. This finding  is consistent also with previous considerations of the CSA (in June 2019) that any contribution of badger culling to bTB new herd incidence will never be measurable in any event. That doubt, from the CSA, is also not alluded to in the consultation document.

15. The assumed effectiveness of culling as a means of bTB control is central to the consultation proposals. It is both put forward as an explanation of the Government’s proposed approach to licensing, and it purports to inform consultees of a factual basis upon which they should respond to the consultation. Once that proposition is put into doubt, it is apparent that the Government’s proposed approach is undermined and that the consultation process has been rendered unfair by the false claim.

16. Further, the present state of the evidence cannot conceivably support the grant of further intensive culling licences. Licences granted on the false assumption presented in the consultation paper would not be lawfully granted in accordance with Section 10 of the Protection of Badgers Act 1992.

Steps that Defra should take

In light of the above, the following steps should be taken:

  • Correction of the misleading information in Paras 8.1 – 8.3 and elsewhere of the consultation in relation to the effectiveness of culling from the evidence held to date. That correction should include an explanation of the comparison with non-culled areas, and an explanation of the factors other than lethal badger control which might have affected bTB incidence in the study periods;
  • The Secretary of State should extend the consultation period by sufficient time to correct the current information and to make public statements to reflect the position in (a) above;
  • That there is a further consultation period on such amended proposals as the Secretary of State makes having properly directed himself on the matters set out above;
  • That no further badger cull licence applications are processed until a public position is set out by the Secretary of State on the effectiveness of such licensing, having regard to the matters set out above.

Tom Langton 24th March 2021.

References:

https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-statements/detail/2021-01-27/hcws738     

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/bovine-tb-incidence-of-tb-in-cattle-in-licenced-badger-control-areas-in-2013-to-2019               

https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/tuberculosis-tb-in-cattle-in-great-britain;

https://www.tbknowledgeexchange.co.uk/        

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/944414/bovinetb-statsnotice-Q3-quarterly-16dec20.pdf   

https://ec.europa.eu/food/sites/food/files/safety/docs/cff_animal_vet-progs_2013_dec-2012-761-ec_bovine-tuberculosis_gbr.pdf     

Brunton LA, Donnelly CA, O’Connor H, Prosser A, Ashfield S, et al. (2017) Assessing the effects of the first 2 years of industry-led badger culling in England on the incidence of bovine tuberculosis in cattle in 2013-2015. Ecol Evol p. 1-18.

Downs, S.H., Prosser, A., Ashton, A. et al Assessing effects from four years of industry-led badger culling in England on the incidence of bovine tuberculosis in cattle, 2013–2017. Sci Rep 9, 14666 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-49957-6

Annex 1. Further information on relevant cattle measures responsible for changing leftes of new herd incidence.

Area 32 Cumbria

Recent published raw data shows encouraging trends of reduced incidence and prevalence across the first 32 cull areas compared with the years before culling began. Compared with the average of the four years before culling started, OTFW incidence has dropped by an average of 27% after 2 years, 51% after 4 years and 53% after 6 years in the first twenty-one, three and two areas respectively.

Area 32 Cumbria had achieved OTF status before the onset of culling 2018 and so Cumbria has been wrongly included in the above calculations. Furthermore, having removed almost the entire badger population from the extended Area 32, ibtb mapping shows there are currently 5 ongoing breakdowns in the area, all of which became restricted between 8/10/20 – 29/10/20. The epidemiology history of Area 32 does not provide support for wildlife being drivers of disease.

European (EU) undertakings

In order to understand the effects and benefits of cattle controls newly introduced into the High Risk Area from 2012 to-date and there is need to examine a report submitted by Defra to the European Commission

The submitted Eradication Programme for Bovine Tb provided a whole raft of measures to improve the control of disease. The most notable of which was the introduction of annual testing in England from January 1st 2013.

  • January 2010:

In England, a core annual testing area was established, spanning entire counties in the South West and West Midlands (the ‘high risk area’) and surrounded by a ‘buffer’ of two- yearly testing parishes. Most of the rest of England remains on background four-year testing.

  • January 2013

Herd testing intervals are determined on a county basis and England is split into annual testing and four-yearly testing counties.

  • 2014:

Enhanced measures were introduced in 2014 to address the problem of persistent herd incidents. Mandatory IFN-γ tests are also used in persistent incidents where herds have been under restriction for more than 18 months.  

Published the joint government-industry Bovine TB Biosecurity Action Plan. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/cattle-biosecurity-action-plan-for-improving-herd-resilience-to-bovine-tb

Stopped the practice of de-restricting parts of some TB-restricted (non-OTF) holdings.

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/bovine-tb-information-note-ending-the-practice-of-de-restricting-parts-of-tb-restricted-holdings

Tightened pre-movement testing rules by removing remaining exemption for cattle moved between holdings that are part of the same Sole Occupancy Authority(SOA).

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/bovine-tb-information-note-changes-to-tb-cattle-movement-controls-exemptions

Tightened pre-movement testing rules by removing exemption for movements to and from common land.

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/bovine-tb-information-note-changes-to-tb-cattle-movement-controls

Introduced an enhanced approach for dealing with persistent bTB breakdowns.

 http://apha.defra.gov.uk/documents/ov/Briefing-Note-0214.pdf

2015

Further measures were adopted in the HRA during 2015 which sustained the reduction of incidents following the success of previous measures:

-Introduced improved IT data capture system for epidemiological investigation outcomes to support targeted enhancement of more sensitive testing regimes in the HRA.

-Promoted new guidance to cattle farmers (agreed with key industry groups) on how to protect their herd from bTB through implementing improved bio-security on farm – the Five Point Plan.

-Extended reduced CAP Scheme payments (cross-compliance penalties) for overdue bTB tests to include all types of TB tests with very few exceptions.

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/bovine-tb-information-note-tb-testing-changes-for-cross-compliance-penalties-and-surveillance-tests

2016

Improved testing and cattle controls:  In the HRA: introduced requirement for two consecutive clear short interval tests at severe interpretation by default for all bTB breakdown herds before they can regain OTF status.

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/506575/tbin-0216-breakdowns-high-risk-area.pdf

Phased out SOAs and Cattle Tracing System Links between summer 2016 and summer 2017 and reviewed controls on cattle movements within a 10-mile radius of home premises (‘CPH England’ project).

2017

Tighter controls on cattle movements were introduced, together with severe interpretation extended to cattle traced from breakdown herds.

  • Increased the sensitivity of skin testing of cattle traced from lesion/culture positive bTB breakdown herds by applying the severe interpretation of the SICCT test.
  • Tightened rules for licensed movements of cattle between two bTB breakdown herds.
  • Harmonised the timing of short interval skin tests in bTB breakdown herds, so that tests are scheduled at least 60 days from the date of reactor removal, rather than the date of detection.

Is the Badger Cull Consultation unlawful?

Revised 27th April 2021

George Eustice’s Badger Cull consultation misrepresents reality. Tony Juniper should prevent Natural England processing further licences based on the flawed Ministerial claim.

On the 18th March, the Badger Crowd was pleased to see a solicitor’s letter being sent to the Government Legal Department and Natural England raising serious concerns over Defra’s “Next Steps” (March 2020) Policy consultation that ended on 24th March 2021. This relates to attempts to deliver the government’s strategy for achieving bovine tuberculosis (bTB) free status for England.

Fundamentally misleading and erroneous…

The main concern is a fundamentally misleading and erroneous statement by the Secretary of State on 27th January 2021 which underpins the consultation proposals. It  states that badger culling “…has played a critical role in helping to start turn the tide on this terrible disease.” This is an extremely serious matter in many regards. Up to a further 150,000 badgers may be culled under these proposals over the next six years. This will be as many or more as have been killed to-date, involving huge use of public funds, police time and other government resources.

The legal letter asks that the consultation is postponed until mistakes have been corrected, to ensure  a fair and lawful consultation, based on a proper understanding and articulation of the evidence.

In recent years both the Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) and Natural England have expressed concerns over the scale of badger culling (see here) and the ability to link any changes in bTB levels in cattle to badger culling. Prior to his retirement  CSA  Prof. Ian Boyd described the problem as badger culling ‘often not working as predicted’ and needing an operational control approach based upon face value outcomes.

Natural England’s internal deliberations on the uncertainties of evidence when licensing culling were shown in Dr Tim Hill’s note to Natural England Board meeting of 6 November 2019, as released under Freedom of information, see here.

“7.1. As implementation of the culling policy has progressed a series of evidence needs and gaps have emerged. Culling is taking place over an expanding area of England and, as we advised in 2010 and 2011, it means the Government is increasingly less able to rely on the evidence base provided by the RBCT. Implementation of the policy has also identified operational challenges for which the existing evidence base is proving unsatisfactory. Finally, intensive culling was never proposed as the long-term solution to controlling TB in badgers and – particularly in light of the Godfray Review – we need to revisit the available evidence to inform future strategies.”

The 2021 statement and consultation

The statement that badger culling has played a critical role in helping to start turn the tide on bovine tuberculosis has been widely repeated in the media in recent months, including by the chief veterinary officer and by government officials. It underpins and hugely influences the current consultation.

Data on bTB herd breakdown for the High Risk Area (HRA) has become available online in recent months, both in the APHA bTB monitoring reports and bTB statistical data for Great Britain.  That data has not been properly presented in the consultation. It contradicts the public statements surrounding the consultation and the terms of the consultation document itself. On proper scrutiny, the data is telling a different story. We are analysing the latest data at the moment, and will be publishing an analysis of the ‘real world’ results of the bTB policy soon.

Cattle measures beginning to have an influence, well before badger culling started

Results  are suggesting that any changes in bTB incidence in the HRA have been brought about by cattle measures beginning to have an influence, well before any mass badger culling started. For the government to use the average figure for herd breakdowns for the four years prior to culling commencing is wholly misleading. All the signs are that the previous modelling has been inaccurate in reflecting what can now be shown to have actually happened.

For these reasons, there is grave concern not just that past theoretical modelling simply has not  reflected reality and the face-value evidence of outcomes, but that the real time data on the period 2013-2019 has been repeatedly misrepresented to the public by the Secretary of State, both in public statements and in the current consultation process.

The demand now is for proper correction of the misleading information within the consultation in relation to the effectiveness of culling from the evidence held to date. The Secretary of State George Eustice must correct his public statement accordingly. Any further consultation must take the real situation into account and not articulate false information to influence stakeholders in a misleading way.

Tony Juniper at Natural England should instruct his staff to allow no further badger cull licence applications to be processed. A new position should be  set out by the Secretary of State based upon the effectiveness of such licensing, as is required by the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 and other legislation and Natural England’s wider duties to protected species, habitats and designated nature conservation sites.

We ask that the costly, cruel, failed and pointless badger culls are brought to an end right now. Emphasis should be switched towards more comprehensive cattle measures that are known to be effective. These could make deep inroads in disease control in four years if carried out properly. This is in line with aspects of the Godfray review and the current government’s stated wish to tilt the policy away from badger culling. Hopefully for good.

We are the Badger Crowd and our fight is to seek justice for badgers, cows and for sustainable farming & wildlife management.

 

 

 

Supplementary Culling in retreat, but the war against English badgers continues

On 27th January 2021, Defra published a new consultation on parts of its March 2020 “Next Steps” Bovine TB eradication policy for England. This aims to continue to mass kill badgers in the last 30% or so of badger strongholds in the High Risk Area of the West of England and across parts of the Edge and Low Risk Areas for the foreseeable future.

Defra intends to make small changes over the next six years as it moves towards ramping up more localised badger culling and apparently some badger vaccination, once populations have been freshly decimated. The final twenty, up to 4-year intensive culls starting in 2021 and 2022 may, with existing kills, shoot up to around a further 150,000 badgers between this Autumn and February 2026. A sickening ‘keep to plan’ commitment with ‘killing as usual’.

The new consultation does not address the policy expansion of ‘reactive’ (localised) culling of 100% of badgers taking place in the Low Risk Area (as e.g. already in parts of Cumbria & Lincs) and potentially across the entire English countryside from the mid-2020’s. Like the March 2020 policy, the recent consultation was unfathomably branded in the media as a major ‘shift in policy’ and ‘badger culling coming to an end’ or ‘banned’.

However, the 6-year phasing out of Supplementary badger culling (SBC), both as a long term sustained killing policy and as a post-intensive cull option, is one of the more notable decisions. As the method for keeping badger numbers low in High Risk bTB Areas, its overdue departure is more than welcome.

This is a victory for those who have funded and supported the Badger Crowd coalition of Badger Groups, Trusts and charities plus many individuals, who enabled legal action against SBC when it was introduced in 2017, based on secret un-reviewed modelling.  The High Court challenges unearthed internal government rationales and they unpeeled the policy decisions. Finally High Court judges only just found favour in government using the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 to introduce SBC, despite the exposure of it as a risk-laden experiment.

Government has spent up to £2 Million over the last 5 years responding, defending and reacting to Judicial Reviews brought by the Badger Crowd and has now made huge concessions in the two cases that went to trial. So a moment of thanks, to all those challenging the policy in a wide variety of ways and to the legal team and experts who have combined so ably to help bring about these significant shifts. It is not unusual for government policy documents, considerations and briefings to now make reference to legal constraints and challenges.

Government giving up on Supplementary culling is a logical reaction to what is being seen on the ground by vets and farmers – no tangible benefits in bTB reduction after huge effort and expenditure killing badgers.  At time of writing, two further Badger Crowd Judicial Review applications are still extant, seeking change to the government’s badger culling policy, including the 2020 policy for which this consultation applies.

The inevitable reduction and plateauing of the rate of increase of bTB breakdowns in the English HRA is not unlike the pattern in the Republic of Ireland. (Figure 1), where the futile killing of badgers now sees bTB herd incidence levels that are similar to those of ten years ago, with cattle testing and movement controls still very poorly addressed.

Figure 1. Bovine TB herd incidence in the Republic of Ireland.

Source: most recent DAFM stats (NI Badger Group)

Likewise, the rate of spread of bTB in the Welsh and English countryside starts to level off (England), with a clear downward trend in Wales since 2012. But it offers no evidence that badger culling plays any part.  Defra can see that Wales is out-performing England, without culling badgers (Figure 2.)

Figure 2. New herd incidents per 100 herd years at risk of infection during the year, GB, per quarter.

Source:https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/944414/bovinetb-statsnotice-Q3-quarterly-16dec20.pdf

Defra also know that the former chief scientist supporting the culls has said in legal exchanges that a first look at cull efficacy would require six cull areas to be studied for four years, plus the following year as an observation period. This might give enough data for a tentative indication of efficacy to be seen, but even then not a very strong one. So the results might not be that reliable and any true contribution (from badger culling) to bTB eradication will always remain obscure. 

It is likely that an analysis of the outcomes of four years of culling using the ‘new in 2016’ badger cull cohort data, plus one observation period (to Sept 2020) has now been completed but not disclosed.

Government scientists following policy science (the RBCT and RBCT-derived work) might say the lack of any substantial change in bTB prevalence is either because the conditions of the RBCT don’t apply to real-time control effort, or/and that cattle measures are inadequate. Or it could be that Supplementary Culling is removing any putative bovine TB benefits. This was predicted as a distinct possibility within peer-reviewed science a few years before badger culling started.

Defra should know its modelling projections are more than dubious. In addition to George Eustice’s usual reading-out of the government position script, the Chief Veterinary Officer Christine Middlemiss has also disgracefully again promoted on BBC Farming Today, the fantasy of badger culling working, to try to mislead farmers and the public. Why the government bare-faced lies?

The new consultation: details on badger measures

Table 1. Summary of what the new consultation is proposing in relation to intensive and supplementary culling only.

The new Consultation includes (proposal 6.) restriction of Supplementary Badger Culling (SBC) licenses for those four year intensive culls commencing on and after 2017, to two years duration (rather than five) and to cease the re-issuing of SBC licenses for the first three areas in Gloucestershire, Somerset and Dorset after completion of 5 years of SBC.  This is a phasing out of Supplementary Culling over six years and by the end of January 2026.

The general effect of the proposals is to reduce current culling durations from 9 to 6 years and new intensive four year culls to possibly a 2-yr duration, according to  decisions by the Chief Veterinary Officer. There is some rather tortured Defra speculation (rehearsed in court in 2018/19) on why theoretical bTB breakdown reduction can be achieved from just two years of Intensive Culling. As usual this guesswork rests heavily upon multiple uncertainties.

Badger Crowd supporters have helped  take-on the government for three years now, to some good effect and the work is far from over. Thanks to all who have contributed generously so far. We will not rest until we have justice for badgers and proper science-based solutions for farming and wildlife that are not simply a ruinous waste of public funds and wild animal lives.

 

High Court says Minister George Eustice may reject science advice and choose the science he needs, as a ‘political’ decision.

Case CO/2062/2020, Wednesday, 14th October, 2020

The High Court held a Judicial Review permission hearing in Court 16  at the Royal Courts of Justice in London last week; The Queen on the application of Langton v Secretary Of State For Environment Food And Rural Affairs. The matter was before Mr Justice Cavanagh and the requirement was for parties  to attend in person as opposed to via video conferencing.

The application for Judicial Review had been made earlier this year in response to the Defra policy guidance of 5th March 2020, signed off by Minister George Eustice  “Next steps for the strategy for achieving bovine tuberculosis free status for England – The government’s response to the strategy review, 2018”. ‘Next Steps’ is the response to the expert review in 2018 by the Group chaired by Sir Charles Godfray. The claim was about Defra not taking up the main finding of the Godfray  Report (GR) in respect of badger-related interventions. The report had very clearly identified a ‘more promising’ strategy of ‘periodic culling’;  that is allowing for a two-year badger cull cessation period (to mirror conditions of the RBCT outcome) after four years of intensive badger culling and then  applying a combination of badger vaccination and intensive culling, should bTB herd breakdowns persist. 

The GR advice was also highlighted by the recent government position in another court case; a fresh decision to move away from  badger culling in the essential actions to reduce bovine TB. This was something that FOI papers show both the Chief Vet and Natural England were anticipating last year, to begin in 2020.

During the hearing, and after both sides had outlined their points, Justice Cavanagh read out a lengthy judgement with just a few embellishments. His view mirrored the governments  defence almost exactly.  He said that the Secretary of State must ‘have regard’ to the GR, but was not obliged to accept its expert advice. He said that it would be wrong to characterise the GR as  giving ‘recommendations’. This is quite extraordinary give the specific content of the text and the plain language of the overview summary at the start.

Referring specifically to paragraphs 6.51- 6.54 in the GR, he agreed with Defra that the  difference between supplementary culling and periodic culling was merely one of ‘cost and convenience’. This is a misreading of paragraph 6.52 where the text implies periodic culling might bring about the same benefit as was seen in the RBCT, whereas Defra and the judge seemed to imply that the comparison was between periodic culling and  supplementary culling, which it is not. Another extraordinary development.

A full hearing should have been granted but was rejected. The judge questioned whether a requirement to rework policy was worthwhile, as ‘relief’ (from a win for us) would not prevent the further use of supplementary culling licences. This rather missed the point that a continuation of the confused and unmeasurable approaches currently in place may do as much harm as good in the bTB fight; destroying the cattle industry.

It was also depressing to see Defra ‘s argument that  cull area data needed to be analysed (modelled in comparison to non-intervention areas) for the value of badger culling to be appreciated. To Defra, raw data is no good, because it only tells you what is happening with disease levels in an area and not why, which is an absolute nonsense. Direct evidence of herd breakdown levels were said to be somehow insufficient, despite obvious face value performance of ‘all measures’ in cull zones, year-on-year being the rational measuring-stick for stakeholders and practitioners; not least farmers and vets.

What is the point of being told that badger culling is working when there is no change or an increase overall of herd breakdown incidence and prevalence in an area? Defra have created a policy where failure doesn’t exist. We maintain that it is dangerous and unlawful.

Acceptance and normalisation of a policy that has no stop button, has always been the problem with supplementary culling,  with no capacity to ‘adapt and learn’ of any direct value of badger culling. This was made clear by the Chief Scientific Advisor in 2019 following the 130% hike in herd breakdowns in Gloucestershire and legal pre-action at that time. It seems we are locked into a system  that is failing, yet pays people to model data to say it is a huge success, when it isn’t or cannot be said to be so. While keeping the ability to check secret from the public. Defra and now the courts say this a lawful approach when protected badgers are being shot in ever-growing numbers.

Finally, within the judgement there was a moment that was deeply disturbing, distracting even from the above considerations. It was that the government is entitled to make the decision not to adopt the findings of an expert review, for political purposes. These are the same words used in the ruling earlier this year by Justice Andrews with respect to a case brought by the NFU against the Secretary of State. In that case, the government’s decision to hold back for a year on culling in Derbyshire in  2019 was because it wanted to find ways to help to ‘tilt’ the bTB eradication policy in favour of badger vaccination. Something that the 2020 bloodbath of tens of thousands of mostly healthy badgers over the last six weeks shows has not happened either.

The ecological impacts part of the case was dismissed with brevity, a matter that will need taking up again soon once BTO and Natural England’s secret reports are exposed.

The government approach to badger culling is not just ineffective, it is  indiscriminate and  unaccountable. It treats wild animals as worthless pests and the protected designated  sites where they live and roam as disposable.  This at a time when wider awareness of  the way in which we treat wild animals and wild places defines our ability to manage our countryside and climate successfully and against wider environmental catastrophe. Aspects of the decision made  in this case will be further appealed.

 

Does Natural England care for Badgers, Hen Harriers and other wildlife?

In recent days, Natural England has released its Habitat Regulations Assessments (HRA) for the disgusting and incompetent 2020 licensed badger culls, currently underway as a part of the wider  failed bovine TB strategy. This follows release recently too, under FOI of the updated (July 2019) NE “Guidance on evaluating the ecological consequences of badger culling on European Sites.” Legal challenges since 2017 have forced NE’s to accept as real the potential impacts resulting from removing badgers from large parts of the English countryside and to try to develop a system that reflects just a few of the issues; those related to SSSIs and internationally designated sites. While HRAs improve in extent and detail, they remain reliant on conditions which are loaded with points of potential failure and which may not be effective in protecting the integrity of European Sites.

This matter has just become even more important as the Council of Europe’s Bern Convention in Strasbourg has formally adopted, at its Bureau meeting of 15 – 16 September, a complaint against the UK for its mass badger killing in England. This includes the extent of unknown ecological change and damage, and placed the compliant on ‘stand-by’ for future scrutiny. This requires, straight away, new communications and reporting by the UK government with a report next summer.

This is a huge international embarrassment for Westminster, as knowledge of the potential UK infraction becomes more widely recognised across Europe and the world. The UK claims there is no evidence of any ecosystem damage, yet, in accepting the possibility, have failed to undertake any credible measurement of this at all. Other than in a 2018 report that is (probably for legal reasons as it exposes them) being kept secret between NE and the British Trust  for Ornithology. They think controlling information upon which public decision making has been done is acceptable behaviour. Would the UK ever consider breaking international law?

There is no evidence at all that shows that conditions to safeguard internationally important sites and their rare species have actually taken place.  Where is the monitoring (annual monitoring reports?) promised to the High Court in 2017 and 2018? NE have a duty to establish the extent that the conditions imposed on these licences are actually adhered to on the ground. Are the conditions easily understandable and accessible to the shooter on the ground? Who has been checking? Might shooting contractors possibly overlook the conditions on these licences?

One  example is the condition to protect Hen Harrier on Salisbury Plain. This states:  Before commencing licensed activities each season, operators must confirm with the owner/occupier the location of any communal roost locations supporting significant numbers of Hen harrier. Except on existing roads and tracks, there shall be no access within 500 metres of any such locations from 1st November to 30th April, inclusive“. Now the cull should normally be over by 1st November but what if an extension is allowed or in time supplementary culling extends into January? The workability of this condition assumes a) that the operator asks this question, b) that the owner/occupier answers it, c) that the owner/occupier is in a position of knowledge about hen harrier roosts on their land, d) that they convey this information to the shooting contractor fully (what if they want their badgers ‘gone’ ?), e) monitoring is good enough to be able to pinpoint roost sites and define a 500m radius from them and lastly f) if all of the aforementioned happens, shooters duly obey the 500m standoff restriction.

Further, this condition only bites in respect of “communal roost locations supporting significant numbers of Hen harrier” (emphasis added). What does this mean? Presumably a communal roost must be more than one hen harrier, but at what point does ‘significant’ bite? That this is a flawed approach is rendered obvious by two considerations: firstly, the wintering population of hen harrier at this site (five year peak mean =15.2 between 2010-2015) is so low that a single bird would represent >1% of the site population and would therefore be significant. Secondly, the SPA is cited as representing 1% of the UK population therefore any reduction from that 1% (which could be displacement of a single bird, or a single roost) would represent a significant effect on integrity.

It would be a huge undertaking to check what Natural England are sanctioning and is actually secretly happening in the countryside. There seems to be little or no intention by them to look at what might be happening beyond the secret studies of one or two sample areas. So nobody will ever know how many Hen Harriers or other sensitive animals have been disturbed by people killing badgers. That’s the way NE has handled it and the way that it wants it to remain.

 

Is DIVA bovine TB test a breakthrough?

Is Defra serious about vaccinating cattle against bTB?  If they were, they would need a DIVA test to distinguish between infected & vaccinated animals.

Over £20 million has been invested in research to find an accurate DIVA test over the last 20 years. So is the latest Defra hype about their new specific peptide antigen in a skin-test (called DST) going be the solution to the elimination of bTb, or not? Read the new article by Tom Langton in The Ecologist to find out more.

 

Freedom of (some) Information – recent release by Natural England in full

Here are the recent FOI releases from Natural England, provided in 4 Zip files, responding to a query regarding the following Twitter post by Tony Juniper. We asked what the mentioned Natural England ‘advice’ regarding the badger cull was.

In their reply, NE said:

“You asked for:

  1. Please make available to me a copy of advice given by Natural England and Tony Juniper to Ministers, Defra and others, relating to Tony Juniper’s response to a tweet (copied below) by Badgergate, regarding a ‘shift in policy towards vaccination’ Specifically this should include a copy of all communications, memos, notes, comments, reports and formal and incidental advice regarding ‘the shift in policy’ and Natural England’s role in its development, including but not limited to badger culling, supplementary badger culling, Edge Area badger culling, reactive culling, badger & cattle vaccination and cull efficacy.

You appear to have misinterpreted Mr Juniper’s tweet, which was making two separate points. The first sentence was a general comment relating to the relationship between Natural England as the Government’s Nature Conservation adviser and its sponsoring department. The second sentence queried whether “Badgergate” was happy with DEFRA’s shift in policy toward a greater role for vaccination. Mr Juniper was not, in his second sentence, making any claim that Natural England was responsible for, or had provided advice giving rise to, a shift in DEFRA’s policy.

  1. Please include any other material that relates to the Defra response to the Godfray Review of 05 March.

Please find in the attached zip file (here, here, here and here). Please note that in the email of 25 September 2019 there is a statement regarding ‘…our response to the Godfray review’. This statement is incorrect as no such response was provided.

We have withheld, under regulation 12(4)(d), an email exchange between DEFRA and Natural England in which Natural England was provided with advance sight of a draft of DEFRA’s response to the Godfray Review and provided a number of comments on that draft.”

We are not allowed to see NE’s comments. Wonder what they said?

 

Fundraising Target Reached, Thank You

The Crowd Justice fundraiser for Badger Crowd’s legal action has seen a flurry of donations over the last few days. And so it  is very pleasing to be able to tell you that, together with a number of offline donations, we have now reached the £18,000 target necessary to enable our lawyers to complete the required work. A huge thank you to all have donated.

If permission is granted for Judicial Review, we will launch a further appeal according to the stages and procedures.

We must hold Defra and Natural England to account for the cruel, unscientific,  damaging and wasteful badger cull. With your help we will try to do that.

Killing badgers is a scandal. It can do nothing to address inadequate cattle testing and movement control, and the regular spread of bTB by cattle, between farms and into the far corners of England.

Renewal required for “Next Steps” High Court challenge

There has been a flurry of activity in recent days. Following notice from the High Court and detailed considerations by the legal team this week,  representatives will today apply for a ‘renewal’ hearing. This is in order fulfil the aim of progressing to a full Judicial Review hearing as soon as possible. Other aspects of the case, against culling outside the High Risk Area – in the Edge and Low Risk Areas – are being worked on too.

There is a little over a week to go on the Crowd Justice crowd funder, which is ticking along quite nicely. We have had some very generous online and offline donations, including several from Badger Groups around England and Wales, and Born Free.  Lots of individual members have given generous personal donations. Several Badger Group members continue to help with the backroom work and Badger Trust support has been essential too. Many people have phoned, texted  and emailed with support and it is fantastic to find that despite all the pressures of the lockdown, there is still a very strong and powerful mood within the badger and wildlife conservation world that the cruel, unscientific and failing  government policy must be fought.

A huge thank you again to all of you making this possible. We get the sense  that the public at large are overwhelmingly outraged against a bovine TB  and badgers policy that is effectively out of control and counter-productive. Many people are shocked to learn that the government spin implying that culling has ended or will end any time soon is false. We are united to try to improve the situation for badgers, our wildlife, countryside and rural economy. I sincerely hope that we can help to bring about change and an end to badger culling as soon as possible.

 

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/