Badgers back in court in July

Who tampered with the data when examining potential ecosystem impacts?

In the last week of July 2022, the Court of Appeal in London will reconsider the 2021 Judicial Review findings of Defra’s alleged failures, under their NERC Act (2006) duty in relation to badger culling. The original claim was that of a failure of government to adequately consider the potential ecological impacts of mass badger removal upon priority species and habitats in badger cull areas under the Act, and to take adequate steps to deal with them.

Now is an appropriate time to report on one important aspect of the case. It relates to a scientific paper published in February 2021 in the journal Bird Study, published by the British Trust for Ornithology, entitled “A comparison of breeding bird populations inside and outside of European Badger (Meles meles) control areas”.

A forerunner of this paper was an unpublished report using BTO volunteer data, that was used in decision making, yet labelled by Defra agency Natural England (NE) as ‘secret’. It had been referred to in NE ecological impacts guidelines, having been cobbled together to try to show the judiciary that Natural England had not completely overlooked the subject after all, and were treating it seriously. NE needed to show something, having been found by a High Court judge as being in breach of duty in respect of SSSI protection.

Why then was this earlier report, prepared in 2018 and cited in government advice, not available publicly until 2021 and despite multiple requests for access to it, as is normal?  It is now a story that is worthy of close scrutiny. It is a story that the main expert witness in the case, Dominic Woodfield, a professional in ecological impact assessment, has devoted much time and energy to in support of the legal challenges. He tells clearly and concisely the story of what has happened in his new guest blog for Mark Avery.

We think it sheds more than a little light on the way Natural England, and their handlers Defra, are managing information with the aim of providing the messaging that they are looking for, to facilitate the continuation of badger culling policy. Policy-lead evidence if ever you saw it?

You can find the full story here on Mark Avery’s blog..

See also: https://thebadgercrowd.org/badgers-back-in-in-court

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Defra in Denial?

A new peer reviewed scientific analysis (Langton et al.) of the effects of the current badger cull was published in Veterinary Record on March 18th this year. Alongside the summary of the paper, Defra published a rebuttal of the science. There followed a conversation in Vet Record over the Langton et al. data versus the Defra data, and six weeks later Defra admitted that they’d got their data wrong. This is very worrying as it suggests that they have not been accurately monitoring the effects of culling as they should be, and as they assured  a High Court Judge that they would back in 2018. Importantly, however, Defra maintained that although they had got their calculations wrong, this didn’t change their overall conclusion that the Langton et al. paper was ‘wrong’.

So what have Defra said is ‘wrong’ about the Langton et al. analysis? Let’s take a look……

Their main argument seems to be that data has been ‘inappropriately grouped’ because the impact of culling on cattle takes some time to appear. They claim this because Langton et al. add culled areas into  the analysis in the years following commencement of culling. However, since Defra originally forecast an average annual 16% benefit from badger culling starting from year one, this is an appropriate approach. Indeed their own graph shows substantive declines in bTB herd breakdown incidence in year 1 and year 2. It is not clear how Defra’s argument can be valid on its own presentation. And even if there was some ‘dilution’ or ‘masking’ effect created by having early-year cull data in the analysis, if badger culling was, as claimed by Defra, ‘working’, it would still be possible to pick up a signal of any so-called ‘benefit’ from culling.  But there is no detectable effect. None. Twenty-six statistical models failed to find any effect. Four independent peer reviewers, including epidemiological statistician specialists agreed and found the analyses robust.

OK, so actually there is nothing ‘flawed’ or ‘inappropriate’ or ‘wrong’ about the methodology as used in the paper, but Defra seem to carry on in denial, not wanting a conversation about it. How about the data analysis that Defra’s Christine Middlemiss and Gideon Henderson present in Vet Record, and which is also presented by Chief Vet Middlemiss in her 18th March blog?

Well, their graph starts in September 2015, not 2013 when the current badger culling policy began. Why might they do this? bTB had been rising in the High Risk Area for years, with the same trend being observed in nearly all areas. By starting their graph in 2015, Defra is obscuring the fact that bTB had already peaked before badger culling was rolled out to any extent, and has subsequently been declining in all areas. The Defra approach is called ‘selective use of data’, and it conceals the bigger picture of what is more likely happening, as shown in the published paper.

Again, Defra selected a subset of ‘never culled’ badger cull areas to compare with ‘culled’ areas. Why have they done this? Because if you compare ‘all’ the unculled areas  with ‘all’ the culled areas, those 26 different statistical models used in Langton et al. fail to find any difference in levels of bTB between them. What is the difference between Defra’s ‘never culled’ data area & Langton et al.’s unculled data area? Well for a start Defra’s never culled area is very much smaller  than Langton et al’s unculled area (see figure), about 30% of it in fact. Defra are are comparing only the blue (unculled) and red (culled) area data, but none of the green unculled area data; all area data were used in the Langton et al. analysis. The weakness of Defra’s analysis is their use of a smaller dataset. This could potentially exaggerate any difference between the compared areas. Again, Defra is selectively using data and adding uncertainty to claim a benefit, when impartial analysis using all suitable and available data shows there to be none. Defra’s approach is arguably less appropriate than that of Langton et al.. And of course their analysis is not peer reviewed, i.e. properly checked by independent experts. It is disappointing to see it being published.

What Defra are doing is picking pieces of data from areas of their choosing, using data from years of their choosing, holding them up, and saying, ‘look, we can see a difference’. It’s simply not acceptable to try to criticize a  piece of peer-reviewed science like this, using hastily cobbled together snippets, to get your calculations wrong, and still claim that you are right.

What Middlemiss, Henderson and a few paid Defra contractors seem unable to accept, is that the analysis in Langton et al. points very convincingly to  cattle testing initiating a reduction in bTB in Englands High Risk Area. Of all the statistical models used in Langton et al., it is the the one in which the cull is excluded that gave the greatest support i.e. a model that did not include culling as a covariate. So without the cull as an effect in the decline in bTB rates, it is cattle measures that are likely to be the driver and this is the best scientific evidence of that to-date.

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Christine Middlemiss, Gideon Henderson and the Defra bovine TB data fiasco

In March 2022 the Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO) Christine Middlemiss & Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) Gideon Henderson joined Defra Media Centre in attacking a peer-reviewed, freshly published scientific paper on bovine TB control (Langton et al.), stating that they thought it was flawed, and had ‘inappropriate’ analysis, see here.

The graph the CVO & CSA produced (top right) looked odd, and the authors of the original paper immediately suspected an error in the data, and wrote to Defra with an enquiry to this effect.  In addition, much of their written rebuttal seemed invalid. Further, the CVO wrote a personal blog highlighting her criticisms of the new paper. The blog then received a number of posted comments from external observers and academics which reiterated the papers’ authors’ concerns about potential errors in Defra’s analysis and incorrect conclusions. A response to the CVO & CSA from the authors of the paper was printed in Vet Record on 02 April, see here.

It took more than six weeks before Defra admitted that it had got it wrong and published a new graph of data (above, bottom right). But they maintained that this did not change their overall conclusions about the new paper; basically that it was ‘wrong’. They did not respond to the rebuttal arguments that the authors put forward in the 02 April issue of the journal Veterinary Record. On this there is still strange silence.

The authors of the paper had a further letter published in Vet Record on May 21st responding to Defra’s admission of data errors and their replacement graph. You can read this here

This week, CVO Christine Middlemiss made a small adjustment to her blog, but did not change her faulty graph. She added some wording to the following paragraph (in bold).

“Our analysis indicates a clear reduction in OTFw cattle breakdowns, relative to unculled areas, in culled areas from cull year 2 onwards (Fig 1). For example, TB incidence in the areas where culling started in 2016 has dropped from 17.2 OTFw breakdowns per 100 herd years at risk in 2016/17, to 8.7 in 2019/20.

Similarly in the areas where culling started in 2017 it has dropped from 15.3 in 2017/18 to 8.4 in 2019/20.

In contrast, in the parts of the high-risk area (HRA) where no culling took place, incidence has only fluctuated slightly from year to year, from 10.9 in 2015/16 rising to 12.8 in 2016/17 before returning to 10.9 in 2019/20.”


It is a shame that the CVO does not seem to have grasped that the first bar in the graph represents the first year data after culling and not pre-cull incidence. Incidence levels before culling began are missed off, and these better shows the pattern of change in the first two years that they focus on.

The CVO & CSA’s main criticism of the new paper is that (they imply) bTB does not come down enough in the first two years for those years to be grouped with later years of culling. Looking at their graph, this is clearly not the case and the CVO and CSA’s position is a paradox and nonsense. There is a drop in culled and unculled areas if you examine all the culled and unculled data, and not just a sample of unculled (never-culled) area. The steady decline in incidence, as shown in the Langton, Jones and McGill paper, is attributable to cattle testing and movement control measures. Defra’s attempt to show otherwise falls at the first hurdle. It is something Middlemiss and Henderson seem reluctant to address. It is understood that Defra intend to ignore their own faulty response, and endorse an APHA study at a disease conference in July in Canada as justification to carry on culling in September.

Christine Middlesmiss doubled down on her position in an interview on Farming Today on 26th May (the focus of which was Defra’s badger vaccination licensing scheme), using very strong language and stating that in the Langton, Jones and McGill paper, “the whole methodology was wrong and so the conclusion was wrong.” Again, she claimed that the authors had not used a robust methodology to examine and assess it and therefore the conclusions are wrong, they’re not scientifically valid.”

This is a bold claim about a rigorously peer reviewed paper in a leading scientific journal, and one that it could be said she should be able to clearly and concisely articulate in a debate, or at least to the authors. It is not good enough for the CVO to just claim, as she did in her interview, that “it is complex“.

Further she said we believe that culling is effective, apparently relying on faith rather than understanding of published science. She must be able to explain her reasoning for dismissal of peer reviewed science. She also said that “It’s not absolutely my decision to release it [the data], implying political interference? The authors are still waiting for a response to their April invitation to discuss the CVO’s criticism with her.

You can listen to the CVO’s interview on Farming Today, available here.

The CVO & the CSA must look again and accept the findings of the new robust peer-reviewed research. Prevailing science shows the current badger culling policy to have failed, with no detectable impact from it on the incidence of bovine TB in cattle herds in the High Risk Area. The 29 Supplementary Badger Culling licences authorised this Wednesday were issued on the back of a government veterinary service in denial.

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Why Defra’s Badger Vaccination Proposals Risk Perpetuating Further Culling

Today, the Government has released its plans for a new and simplified licencing system to facilitate badger vaccination. While on the face of it these plans appear to be helpful for those who wish to see an end to the culling of badgers, wildlife campaigners are concerned that they will be used as a smokescreen, to perpetuate further ‘reactive’ culling, and to prevent those who wish to protect badgers from speaking out against the culls.

Indications are that the government aims to allow vaccination in 2 of around 60 areas where badgers will be killed in 2022, with any further areas covering but a small proportion of the designated High Risk Area for bovine TB in cattle in the west of England. There are concerns that there may be restrictions, such as vaccination being promoted only once badger numbers have been decimated, and ‘gagging orders’ placed upon those who sign up to government funding – including that badger protectors would no longer be able to speak out against the badger cull.

The Government’s announcement claims that its badger vaccination plans form part of its long-term strategy to eradicate bovine TB in England by 2038. However, the strategy relies on the assumption that badger culling is working to reduce bovine TB, when current peer-reviewed scientific evidence suggests otherwise.

Government also claims that badger culling is being phased out. The reality is that it continues to be expanded, with 29 supplementary culls authorised yesterday, 25th May. A further ten new intensive badger culling zones are expected to be announced later in the year. The expected kill figure over the next 4 years is up to another 100,000 badgers. The Government wishes to retain the option to continue killing badgers in perpetuity under its proposals for ‘epidemiological culling’ which has, as anticipated also so far failed to reduce bTB herd breakdowns.

There are several reasons why vaccinating badgers might be desirable – principally to prevent bovine TB spilling over from cattle into healthy badger populations and to protect individual badgers from disease. However, there is little evidence to suggest that vaccinating badgers will prevent or reduce bovine TB among cattle – just as with culling, the move to promote the vaccination of badgers is based on the false assumption that badgers are a significant source of TB for cattle, and that badger intervention is necessary to control cattle TB, when the evidence suggests tighter cattle measures are the answer.

There are also good reasons why vaccination of badger populations previously subjected to culling is unlikely to be successful. Badger culling will reduce a population, but there is some evidence that it may increase the prevalence of TB among surviving badgers. Also, surviving badgers may be trap shy making them much more difficult to trap and vaccinate.

Ecologist Tom Langton, one of the authors of a new peer-reviewed study, With vets Mark Jones and Iain McGill has been closely monitoring & challenging government bTB strategy failures, said:

It is depressing to see the smokescreen approach to Defra’s badger cull policy continuing. There is no evidence that vaccinating badgers, particularly after culling has massacred the population, can hold any benefit to bTB disease eradication in cattle and this was confirmed by the Godfray Review in 2018. Government is trying to normalise badger culling long-term, by initially claiming to the public that it is being phased out, when the plan is to perpetuate the so-called ‘epi-culling’ – the failed reactive culling of old. 

Failed government tactics could see the killing of thousands of badgers per year to 2038 and beyond. It is a disgusting, unethical slaughter of wildlife. It circumnavigates the legal protection of badgers under The Protection of Badgers Act 1992 and does nothing for farmers or cattle. Badger vaccinators should not be induced to mislead farmers into thinking that badger vaccination is known or expected to help control bovine TB in cattle. This is particularly unwelcome as our recently published, extensively peer-reviewed paper using government data* shows how badger culling intervention has failed to influence bovine TB herd breakdowns during the last decade, with the Chief Vet and Scientific Advisor putting out botched data and flawed argument to try to cover their trail.”

Veterinary surgeon Dr Mark Jones, another author of the recent science paper, said:

“From the lockdowns we have all suffered since 2020, we are all only too aware of the movement restrictions, accurate testing and vaccination that were necessary to control Covid 19. These kinds of measures need to be rigorously applied to cattle if bovine TB is to be successfully brought under control. Our recent peer-reviewed research clearly demonstrates that culling badgers is not reducing bovine TB among cattle herds, and while there may be good reasons to vaccinate badgers, it’s highly unlikely that badger vaccination will help control TB in cattle, and the promotion of badger vaccination continues to frame badgers as the culprit. This badger blame game needs to end.”

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Thanks to Wild Justice

We were delighted to receive a generous £1000 donation from the mighty Wild Justice last week. This was a contribution towards our badger cull ecological impacts appeal case, which has been expedited to be heard in June or July 2022. You can read more about this here.

Wild Justice, set up in 2019 and run by Mark Avery, Chris Packham & Ruth Tingay as a not-for-profit company, takes legal cases and advocates for a better deal for wildlife. And it has had much success. You can find out more about them on their website here.

We recommend that, if you haven’t already, you sign up for their free newsletter to keep up to date with their current campaigns here.

If you are in any doubt about the value of legal action for wildlife, we encourage you to watch Chris Packham in conversation with David Wolfe QC. Legal action forces a conversation where otherwise there would be none. It shines a light on issues that would otherwise be hidden in the dark, discussed and decided upon behind closed doors. In short, it gives a voice to wildlife, which otherwise would be missing.

Thanks again to Wild Justice.

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Badger culling and BTB data:

Middlemiss and Henderson say sorry for getting it wrong

As previously blogged on 18th March here, the respected journal Veterinary Record published a new scientific appraisal of the effect of badger culling on bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in the High Risk Area of England using government data collected from farmers and vets for over a decade. This extensively peer reviewed paper is available open access online, in full here. The paper concluded that badger culling has not been associated with reductions in bovine TB (bTB) incidence or prevalence among cattle herds.

Alongside a one-page summary of the paper in the Vet Record print edition, the Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO) Christine Middlemiss and Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) Gideon Henderson published an un peer-reviewed letter rebutting the paper’s main findings. They produced their ‘alternative analysis’ in the form of a graph, and claimed it showed that badger culling was ‘working’ in reducing bTB in cattle. The graph indicated very rapid declines in bTB in culled areas following the commencement of culling, with little change in unculled areas. The CVO Christine Middlemiss also posted a blog on the Defra website using the same graph.

The graph could not be reconciled with publicly available data. There followed repeated requests for Defra to supply the data and methodology, but these were not met. Then last week, six weeks after publication, Middlemiss and Henderson  sent an email to the authors of the original paper stating:

“Following your recent correspondence about how incidence in unculled area was calculated we have re-examined our analyses and discovered an error we wish to bring to your attention.  The incidence in the area unculled throughout the period was calculated incorrectly. The incidence in cull areas is unchanged. We attach a corrected graph, with the corresponding data and workings as previously requested. We apologise for this error..”

A new graph was provided (see below). After further requests and delay, we have data from Defra to allow us to reproduce their corrected graph but not to check its origination. Defra’s original published graph shows bTB herd incidence higher in unculled areas in four of the five years, while in the new one it sits at the same levels as in culled areas.

As previously, Defra are still disregarding huge areas of unculled land in their blue-bar ‘never culled’ areas, which is problematic. Notably, however, the error bars between ‘culled’ and ‘never culled’ overlap more extensively, so the difference between the two is unclear.  It seems that Defra’s corrected calculations corroborate the findings in the Langton et al., and that there has indeed been no significant impact from badger culling on bTB incidence among cattle herds.

Defra’s graphs from their 19th March letter and 5th May email:

19th March (withdrawn): Unculled incidence is higher than culled in 4 of the 5 years.
5th May: Now incidence levels in unculled areas are shown well within same levels as culled areas.

Defra’s “never culled” areas are likely to include significant land areas where bTB is less of an issue, with landowners having a lower incentive to coordinate a cull, whilst the “waiting to be culled” portion of the unculled area will have significant areas where bTB is a major problem. Defra is engineering a highly selective use of the available data. It adds up to a misleading picture that is bringing Defra into disrepute. Without access to their full data source, it is not possible to fully understand their rationale.

Further, when you don’t limit the data as Middlemiss and Henderson did, and add “all culled areas” bars (green), and include 2013/14 and 2014/15 (see below), it shows the true extent of decline of bTB incidence in unculled areas that mirrors culled areas.

Revised Defra data with Langton et al’s unculled green bars

The 5th May ‘apology’ email from Middlesmiss and Henderson maintains that “this does not change the overall argument in the letter”, yet over six weeks on, they have failed to address a response by the authors to this criticism (published in Vet Record on 2nd April). This response shows that their main argument on ‘incorrect grouping’ of data does not undermine the peer-reviewed statistical analysis.

Specifically, Middlemiss and Henderson claimed that using data from the first two years of culling ‘masks’ any overall effect from badger culling, making it ‘impossible to see’. But Defra’s counter argument rests upon a steep decline in herd incidence over those first two years! Defra’s argument falls and the answer is that taking all the data, herd breakdowns reduce in culled and unculled areas at similar rates, due to cattle measures both before and after badger culling is rolled out.

So, the senior Defra scientists have no answer, and continue to use delaying tactics, while still providing only limited access to the available data that might enable independent researchers to assess their new graph. This is shocking and does not serve the public interest. Cattle-based measures implemented from 2010, and particularly the introduction of the annual tuberculin skin (SICCT) test have been responsible for the slowing, levelling, peaking and decrease in bovine TB in cattle in the High Risk Area (HRA) of England during the study period, before badger culling was rolled out in 2016.

Last week, the authors of the badger culling paper, Tom Langton, Mark Jones and Iain McGill wrote to George Eustice (read here) about the continuing fiasco and asking for badger culling to be suspended and for additional clarification and dialogue.

This is what all stakeholders and the public deserve. Clear, open government responding to the facts in an honest and professional way.  No more delay, secrecy, and avoidance of the real issues. It is time things changed.

On Friday 20th May, the paper’s authors response to Defra’s apology and clarification was published in Vet Record. You can read this here:

Farming Today featured the debate around Defra’s data miscalculation on 20th May; you can listen here from 7:18 minutes in.

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Why were you Wicked to Badgers?

Book Review:  A History of Uncertainty – Bovine Tuberculosis in Britain 1850 to the Present,  Peter J Atkins, 2016, Winchester University Press
(Link to the online chapters of this book (free subscription required) here.

By Tom Langton

 

Back in 2016, having just begun a detailed examination of the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) (1), this book escaped my attention. Now with a tatty ex-library copy from ebay, its value and place is clearer. As with the 2019 review by Angela Cassidy (2), it is I believe a substantial contribution to the understanding of the English bovine TB (bTB) epidemic and control policy in the period since ‘badger blame’ emerged in the 1970s.

Peter Atkins, has been a prolific food and drink geographer and historian at Durham University, including inevitably, the disease-related issues. Much of the book is a detailed account of the technical and political context surrounding livestock management and milk production, including pasteurization since 1850, as a threat to human health. This is a compelling blend of what happened and why, regarding the once extremely debilitating and widely lethal bovine TB threat to human health in the UK.

Atkins book was published before the announcement of the 2016 badger cull roll out, which Atkins misjudged as unlikely to happen. Despite this, insight generally seems well evidenced and often convincing, and the book is especially worth reading in terms of what has unfolded since 2016.

Don’t be put off by the cover of the book, that shows nose to nose proximity between a tame badger and a cow, in an unlikely day-time event. This is, according to research done before and since publication, a rare event even at  night, which is when badgers are most active above ground. In fact, it is one of a group of photos that has unintentionally proliferated misunderstanding of the transmission of bovine TB from badger to cattle.

Although bovine TB and badgers occupies only the last quarter of the book (chapters 12-15), it manages to get through a good amount of epidemiological practicalities at pace, and provides bouts of eloquent summary. There is a useful collection of around 800 author-indexed references at the back of the book, several of them obscure, with handy library reference numbers too.

Spat between the ISG’s John Bourne and CSA David King

Chapter 12 on epidemiological understanding provides some useful detail on factors such as cattle herd density changes over time, government expenditure on disease control and potential infection pathways. Its thoroughness extends, at least to some extent, to referencing international examples and molecular consideration of spoligotype distribution. Chapter 13 is a rapid road trip from the period where bTB was found in badgers in 1971 in Gloucestershire, through the uncertainties of the badger-cattle disease relationship and infection of badgers by cattle. There is good descriptive summary, albeit with historical account of certain research findings as fact, rather than placed in any measured scientific context of the strength of findings. This is not a criticism as this was not a scientific appraisal.

There is a short history of badger culling from 1971, a rapid summary of the RBCT and the Independent Scientific Group 2007 report and of David King: the government chief scientific advisor’s critique of it. Plus, the spat between the Independent Scientific Groups’s John Bourne and King, that followed. Of some interest is the report that in 2007, it was the Labour government, under Gordon Brown and the MAFF-centric Lord Rooker, that laid the foundations for mass badger culling, even if there followed a delay by Hilary Benn until Labour lost the election to the coalition government in May 2010. There is some basic material on badger cull opposition and the period leading up to the culls starting, but nothing comprehensive. The threats from uncertainty and risk, the focus of the book, are well measured at appropriate points in the narrative. While several of the uncertainties are better understood due to research in recent years, the text for the most part stands the test of time well and is a good general foundation for the student.

Civil Service prone to massive policy mistakes and blundering?

Chapter 14 is likewise an admirable summary for the time of bTB testing protocols, and test accuracy. Examining what is termed the ‘recrudescence’ of the disease in England and Wales since its near eradication in the 1960s, it touches on important disease eradication cost-benefit issues and a more condensed history of disease administration, with even a brief sortie into cattle and badger vaccination.

But perhaps what is most interesting of all, is saved to the final chapter 15: ‘Is uncertainty the future?’. As the writer puts it, ‘what are the lessons the historical geography of bTB has for us?’ There then follows, as a warmup, a look at complexities of some of the spatial questions in bTB epidemiology, raised earlier in Atkins and Robinson (2013) (3) and more recently reinforced by findings from Whole Genome Sequencing. There is an amount of conjecture over ‘scenarios’ that to the historian may seem like useful wondering, but to the scientist perhaps are rather speculative.  Maybe a bit of original conjecture is okay, but it stands out a bit  in contrast to the bulk of careful documentary.

Then, for me the book turns even more compelling. It addresses the question of why the bTB response has been so sluggish and ineffective, and what is framed as the ‘grotesque cost’ of dealing with diseases of the intensive cattle industry: BSE, Foot and Mouth and bovine TB over the last decades. It looks at the punitive demise of MAFF after Foot and Mouth, and how the British Civil Service seems somehow prone to massive policy mistakes and blunders. Should, asks Atkins, bTB handling by Westminster be added to the ‘hall of infamy’ of policy disasters?  But then ‘no’ comes the answer, with a slightly unconvincing defence. His forgiveness is founded on his perception of complexity and uncertainty in the science.

Bang on cue, a sub-section is set up, that chimes with recent discussions over England’s covid-19 early response management entitled ‘A rule of experts?’. The building of policy-lead science (4) to address difficult questions is laid out, leading to the introduction of the concept of dealing with complex and politically tangled issues, framed as ‘wicked’. Based partly on the fact that the problem is dire, unforgiving, labelled as unsolvable and hence apparently justifying unconventional resolution. So ‘Yes Minster’ style consequentialism – where the ‘ends justify the means’: your often ‘tribal’ (5) bad behaviour is excused, and where whatever you decide, you become blameless.  Does this government approach sound familiar?

Wickedness unveiled

The last few pages of the book, ‘Bovine TB: a wicked problem?’ may both delight and annoy. They delve into the philosophy of addressing problems that are rated so unbalanced, complex, and frustrated, that the strategy is to manage them, based on continued uncertainty over long periods of time.  So bTB is allocated to ‘wicked’ philosophy (6), something that the very senior government officials and scientists may have latched on to at the start of culling as interest in its use began to grow (7). Meaning, that the uncertain outcome of badger culling wasn’t an important issue; it didn’t have to ‘work’ if it induced the livestock industry to accept tougher disease eradication measures that they were resisting. Such approaches are also nicely framed as a ‘clumsy solutions’. All government scientists and vets had to do, whether in the know or not, was roughly comply with a top-down ‘yes, it is the badgers’, undertake a bit of low inference analysis, then maintain ‘you will never actually know directly how much badger culling has contributed to disease control’ and ‘we are going to use every tool in the box’. This of course nullifies a range of professional and ethical pledges, and may be unlawful. But hey, this is a ‘wicked’ problem, these are different times and so anything goes? Those who have said badger culling is criminal may actually have a point?

One must ask who was ‘in’ on the badger cull wickedness, who fixed it, made it happen and who drove the car?  It is getting easier to see now. Anecdotally, government staff will apparently not deny it in private. This has been clear from multiple sources since Atkins book. But outwardly, in-post, their job comes first and they will follow the tribal line. This helps explain why Defra have reacted so ferociously (and clumsily) to the now emerging data on the badger culls (8) that shows them for what they are; ineffective. The problem must and needs long-term to remain ‘wicked’ for the emperor’s clothes to remain visible. But Environment Secretary Minister George Eustice has lost cull architects Ian Boyd and Nigel Gibbens, and those replacing them may not have been told and thus have greater exposure.

Atkins almost spoils it at the last, as Angela Cassidy did in her book in 2019. He had already come up with his own esoteric home-brew idea that badgers pose more of a risk at certain densities. He points at uncertainty in the epidemiology and the pathogenesis, but not to any deficit in ‘formal sector expertise’, which is a bit over-simplified. He denies ‘selfish individual motives or special interests’ which also looks a tad naïve, given the strength of influence of commerce in the mix. Atkins suggests no one is to blame, or that the blame is evenly spread, which is the diplomatic nice story, but  one cannot help feeling that in doing so, like Cassidy he drops into the ‘sticky trap’ of badgers and bTB (9).

Of course, scientific evaluation is not  Atkins forte,  and there is failure to balance scientific findings according to their limitations. BTB is a scientific problem and you can see as he cites and runs through much of the key relevant literature, that he is not pausing on the uncertainty and hindsight problems within them.

Despite this, Atkins logically foresees the time of effective use of cattle measures that were starting to bite in the High Risk Area as he finished this book, and that they need further tightening with better testing and/or cattle vaccination, to finish the job. Such disease control achievement however, is not the consequence of any ‘wicked’ approach. It is simply what would have happened with strong leadership and without badger culling. And, with all due credit, Atkins also rightly concludes that badgers are likely to be seen as a distraction to the bTB problem when all is said and done in years to come. Again, this book was published before the announcement of the 2016 badger cull roll-out and his last page makes salutary reading, as he was unaware of the mass butchering of largely completely healthy badgers that would immediately follow, and that should hopefully soon be abandoned.

This is a great ending if you are concerned by the repeating car wrecks of government veterinary epidemiology when addressing livestock disease control in England. And how the manipulation of logic and science for expedient high risk approaches, can be endorsed and nurtured in the tribal institutions in public service, given a few wicked people pulling the strings. 

A link to the online chapters of this book (free subscription required) is available here.

References

  1. Bourne J, Donnelly C, Cox D, Gettinby G, Mcinerney J, Morrisson I, et al. Bovine TB: the scientific evidence. A science base for a sustainable policy to control TB in cattle. Final report of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB presented to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs the Rt Hon David Miliband MP; 2007.
  2. Vermin, Victims and Disease. Book review.
  3. Atkins, P.J. and Robinson, P.A. (2013) ‘Bovine tuberculosis and badgers in Britain : relevance of the past.’, Epidemiology and infection., 141 (Special issue 7). pp. 1437-1444.
  4. Kao, R. Simulating the impact of badger culling on bovine tuberculosis in cattle. Vet Record 176 February 18 2012. “An underlying problem in this debate is the contrast between the burdens of proof demanded by the scientific and policy constituencies. The burden of scientific proof requires near certainty in outcome; the classic limit for scientific confidence is that 19 times out of 20, a repeated experiment will produce a stated result (ie, the result is within the 95 per cent confidence interval).  Policy, however, must balance the efficacy of a potential measure with social, economic and political requirements, and in the event that a decision is to be made, it is made only when the balance of probabilities is in its favour. Thus, there is an inherent paradox in the need to take statistically rigorous, scientifically sophisticated recommendations and view them through the relatively fuzzy lens of sociopolitical realities.”
  5. Boyd, I. 2021. Scepticism, science and statistics. December 2021 Significance. The Royal Society of Statistics. P 42-45. 
  6. See Pellezzoni I. 2014 Technoscienza 5,2,73-91 and a raft of associated ideas discussed in the Atkins book and elsewhere. 
  7. Badger culling emerged from scientific endorsement but there was no real link between a large experiment with equivocal results and its real-time application. Culling badgers was simply ‘Bourne’s carrot’ using Kao’s (3) acceptance that an arguable balance of probability it might work (see (3) above) was sufficient. 
  8. Thomas E. S. Langton, Mark W. Jones, Iain McGill, 2022. Analysis of the impact of badger culling on bovine tuberculosis in cattle in the high-risk area of England, 2009–2020 Veterinary Record Vol 190 Issue 6. 18 March 2022 
  9. https://thebadgercrowd.org/vermin-victims-and-disease                

Badger cull ecological impacts case –

Did Defra breach its ‘duty of candour’ to the courts ?

On Wednesday 13th April, the Rt. Hon. Lady Justice Simler granted permission for the High Court decision in Langton v Defra (case ref: CO/2062/2020) to be challenged in the Court of Appeal. The High Court case had been dismissed on 9 August 2021 by the Honourable Justice Griffiths. The case concerned an alleged failure of the Secretary of State for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (S/S) to have regard to the implications for biodiversity of ecosystem disruption following  badger culling, in accordance with the duty imposed on ministers and public bodies under Section 40(1) of the NERC Act (2006), before making his decision to continue badger culling under the ‘Next Steps’ policy.

It should be noted that previous challenges brought by Langton in 2017 and 2018 repeatedly found government and government agencies in breach of duties related to the assessment of badger culling impacts on designated nature conservation sites and associated protected species.  In the present case, it is argued that the NERC Act obligations require that the impact of badger culling across the wider countryside and on the broader and larger biodiversity resource within it must also be assessed, including by the Secretary of State, but simply hadn’t been. The Government argued in the first instance that the Secretary of State wasn’t subject to the duty at all, or that the duty was in any event covered by the assessments carried out by Natural England in the course of issuing badger licences (the same ones the earlier cases had previously convinced the courts were defective), notwithstanding that these only claimed to consider impacts on designated nature conservation sites and related land.

Last Thursday 28th April, Justice Simler confirmed that the appeal case had been expedited to June or July 2022, giving notice of a hearing in the coming weeks. This appeared to precipitate a rapid pre-prepared action from Defra that same day. They sent Mr Langton’s legal team a suite of new documents (including a mass of heavily redacted emails) showing that in October 2021 Defra had placed in front of the then Secretary of State George Eustice a brief paper exercise, summarizing their opinion on the wider biodiversity effects from badger culling, and that he had been asked to reconsider his decision to adopt ‘Next Steps’ in the light of that information.

It is very difficult to read this other than as recognition by Government that the NERC Act S40 duty:

a) did (and does) apply to the Secretary of State (despite their arguing in front of Justice Griffiths that it didn’t),

b) that it hadn’t been considered or discharged by the Secretary of State prior to the adoption of Next Steps (as argued by Langton and his team) and,

c) that the Government was concerned that it may not be possible to defend this position upon further review by the Court of Appeal.

The real matter of concern here is not so much that the Government and its agencies exercised a volte-face and sought to remedy the legal error, but that they did so in secret, without informing the court, and in a situation where the case was still ‘live’. Our legal team has raised this issue with the GLD in correspondence copied to the Court as a breach of a basic tenet of legal protocol – the ‘duty of candour’ – which requires that the courts be informed when circumstances have changed or decisions have been taken (or re-taken) that have a bearing on a live case. Both the court and the claimants legal team should have been informed of the fact of the Secretary of State’s reconsideration when it happened in December 2021. The fact that this secret Ministerial briefing was only revealed after the Court granted permission for the appeal is extremely concerning and begs the question whether it would ever have come to light at all had that permission not been granted?

It’s all there in black and white…. Secretary of State shows the court details of his Ministerial sign-off.

While it is not possible to comment of the quality and coverage of the new Defra material presently for legal reasons, it is sufficient to say that nothing has changed regarding the absence of any proper research by the Government into the collateral effects on biodiversity of badger culling. There remains an overarching need for extensive baseline research and data on the likely effects of predator removal, increases and perturbation in wildlife communities following ecological disruption on nature conservation interests. The research the Government seeks to rely on, to advance the premise that there are no meaningful side effects on biodiversity, remains scant to the point of being meaningless.

Where does this leave us?  Plainly the Government is scratching around to avoid the embarrassment of having the 2020  “Next Steps” policy quashed.

And it will no doubt seek to rely on what is called a ‘no difference’ defence it has sprung as a ‘get out of jail free’ card whenever procedural deficiencies and oversights have been exposed in previous eco-impact claims. Defra’s argument in essence, is that even if the Secretary of State had complied with the duty, he would have come to the same decision. There must come a point where the elasticity in that defence and its ability to cover and excuse all failures at departmental and ministerial level becomes fatigued. But legally speaking, whether what Defra has done behind closed doors may be sufficient for the quashing of the policy will be determined by the Court when it hears the case.  In our view, allowing badger culling to carry on in 2022 without revising the policy to address these very serious and wide-ranging biodiversity impact concerns is simply not tenable.

From a wider UK nature conservation perspective, it is very important that the case should continue, to ensure that ignoring of the NERC Act 2006 in decision making by government bodies is not allowed to become an accepted standard, and to get that confirmed by a Court judgment if Defra are not willing to concede it right away. In other words, the prospect that we could overturn the (we say perverse) ruling of Justice Griffiths in July last year that environment ministers are exempt from considering that part of the environment called ‘biodiversity’ when making decisions, is worth pursuing for many reasons.

If successful, the case could also have the effect of forcing Natural England to reconsider whether they are similarly failing to comply with what the duty demands in artificially restricting their considerations just to designated sites. It would bring into sharp focus the fact that the level of information they rely upon for impact assessment and to inform basic provisions for protection, is inadequate. Impacts are guessed or assumed because there is no background information to inform them beyond speculation, meaningless analyses of borrowed, coarse-grained datasets and a near total absence of monitoring, the lifeblood of real understanding.

These developments merely serve to reinforce the determination to halt badger culling. In recent days legal letters have been sent to Defra and Natural England asking them to stop badger culling in 2022 because of the current peer-reviewed scientific evidence that it has not worked.

So please consider supporting the Crowd Fund linked below. If everyone chips in we can spread the load and gain access to justice for badgers and all our wildlife and countryside.

Thanks you for your support. We are the Badger Crowd. We stand up for badgers.

If you can, please donate here:

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Thank you.

It must surely be time to kill the badger cull?

A new article for BBC Wildlife Magazine by James Fair takes a look at newly published peer reviewed research that concludes that the badger cull isn’t working. It’s worth a read because it puts the new analysis into the context of the historical background of bTB and the previous analyses of the results of badger culling.

It is of note that the conclusions of the Independent Scientific Group (ISG) in 2007 are mirrored by the conclusions of the latest study;

ISG: “After careful consideration of all the RBCT and other data, including an economic assessment, we conclude that badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain,”

And

Langton, Jones and McGill 2022: “This examination of government data obtained over a wide area and a long time period failed to identify a meaningful effect of badger culling on bTB in English cattle herds.

Despite this confirmation of the expected & predictable results of nine years of badger culling, Defra (Chief Vet & Chief Scientific Adviser) have kicked back strongly with accusations of partiality on the part of the authors. This is somewhat ironic as (nearly) all published English bovine TB science to-date has been published by Defra or their funded contractors. Commentary on the paper via the Science Media Centre was supplied by two recipients of Defra contracts who are or have been heavily engaged in bTB policy.

The paper’s authors are still waiting for a reply to their request for an explanation of how Defra manipulated data in their un-peer reviewed rebuttal analysis letter, published in Vet Record, which claims to show culling does reduce bTB in cattle.

You can read James Fair’s article here, and Langton, Jones and McGill (2022) here.

Permission Granted!

Court of Appeal confirm new hearing regarding the ecological impacts of badger culling (NERC Act 2006). Judicial Review Case: CO/2062/2020

The Badger Crowd is pleased to confirm that an Application to the Court of Appeal has been successful, reopening the judgements in the High Court of Mr Justice Griffiths in 2021. The appeal has taken a very long time to come through and we now hope the case will be heard before any new licences are issued by Defra and Natural England, and used this year.

Justice Griffiths in his ‘to everything there is a season’ ruling (1) had intimated that there was no need for the Minister to take steps to have regard for biodiversity protection for NERC Act listed priority species and habitats in England. The case relates to Minister George Eustice and Defra publishing a “Next Steps” policy in March 2020, prolonging the slaughter of tens of thousands of mostly healthy badgers each year in existing and new places with, according to current peer-reviewed science, no recordable benefit (2).

Defra claimed that it had decided not to protect NERC Act protected biodiversity interest from potential culling side-effects when culling began in 2013, and again in 2020, despite the 2018 Godfray review (3) flagging-up continuing professional concerns about impacts and the need for research to enable management of the risk, as determined by government funded pilot studies.

Oystercatcher; now you see them, now you don’t ? One of a number of medium sized waders (such as redshank, snipe and lapwing) at risk from changing predator patterns, but only afforded protective consideration by conditions on culling licences, when nesting on protected sites.
 

Removal of badgers from the countryside is known to bring about a range of changes to natural communities but the extent of these is unclear and determined only by careful monitoring. However, when identifying risks of such change, research undertaken over 10 years ago was limited to just a few species and habitats. Previous cases in 2017 and 2018 showed that Natural England were in breach of their duty in not properly considering the same kind of impacts to SSSI’s, leading to criticisms of government by the High Court and radical changes to Natural England’s operations. Impacts expert Dominic Woodfield from Bioscan continues to provide specialist advice on the case.

The current case challenges the continuing and long-term neglect of potential impacts on a wide range of potentially impacted habitats and species. The case also highlights Natural England’s pitiful contribution to the monitoring of nature, the unacceptably poor condition of many nature reserves and protected areas in England, and to the biodiversity depleted countryside in general.

This case will also resonate in Northern Ireland where the government department’s (DAERA) proposals to carry out ‘preliminary ecological assessment’ to form a baseline to monitor badger culling that it wants to undertake, has been widely derided and possibly now withdrawn. It is unclear how ecological impacts will be considered in NI and the case in England will certainly inform that consideration and potentially a legal challenge by the Northern Ireland Badger Group (4).

Details of the timing of the Court of Appeal hearing are currently undecided, but as last year’s case was expedited in front of the issue of badger culling licences, this is likely to happen again this year. So far, this case has been generously funded by the Badger Crowd network of Badger Trusts and Groups, notably the Badger Trust, Badger Trust Sussex, & Wild Justice, together with well-wishers and the public who are thanked again for perseverance, generosity, and determination.

Reference

(1) https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2021/2199.html

(2) Langton TES, Jones MW, McGill I. Analysis of the impact of badger culling on bovine tuberculosis in cattle in the high-risk area of England, 2009–2020. Vet Rec. 2022;e1384. https://doi.org/10.1002/vetr.1384

(3) Godfray Review 2018

(4) Northern Ireland Badger Group challenge, with others: http://www.badgersni.org.uk/pressrelease.html

 

Defra ‘tribalism’ tries to undermine bTB study?

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Picture2.png

A recent scientific paper in Veterinary Record (1) by independent researchers Tom Langton, Mark Jones and Iain McGill, showing the effects of badger culls on bovine TB herd breakdowns over the last decade, has been met by criticism from officials at the top of Defra. There are accusations that it is ‘flawed’, and in the Daily Telegraph, even of data ‘rigging’ . You can view a 3 minute video of the main findings here.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Off-The-Leash.jpgFurther details on the origin and contents of the paper are discussed in a 40-minute Off the Leash interview by Charlie Moores with two of the authors Tom Langton and Mark Jones, here. 

Many badger campaigners will know Mary Barton, aka Betty Badger, who stands up for badgers outside Defra offices each Thursday, and has done for many years. On Thursday 17th March, she was granted a meeting in person with Environment Secretary George Eustice. He told Mary that he thought the study was ‘flawed’. Then on 18th March, Defra put out a dramatic press statement, criticizing the content & motivation of those involved in writing, reviewing, and publishing the paper (2) :

“This paper has been produced to fit a clear campaign agenda and manipulates data in a way that makes it impossible to see the actual effects of badger culling on reducing TB rates. It is disappointing to see it published in a scientific journal.”

and

“Experienced scientists from the Government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency have reviewed the report and found its analysis is scientifically flawed. It has manipulated the data in a way that makes it hard to understand the actual effects of badger culling and therefore its conclusions are wrong. Today, the Chief Veterinary Officer, Christine Middlemiss, and Chief Scientific Adviser, Gideon Henderson, have also published a letter in Vet Record, which rebuts the report’s claims. The CVO has also written a blog about this.”

 Which stated (3):

“We do not believe the scientific methodology used is credible as the analysis has been carried out in an unusual manner ”

These are confident words from the chief vet, informed no doubt by James McCormack (Head of Science Advice to Defra TB policy) and Eleanor Brown (Defra’s Veterinary Head for TB Policy Advice) to try to prevent acceptance of what are the plain and simple findings from Defra’s own data. The new analysis has been extensively checked using appropriate models, peer-reviewed by 4 reviewers, and accepted as a solid piece of research. In truth the 2021 badger culls should have been put on hold in June of that year because the basic findings were clear then and Defra knew about them. 

However, the Defra Chief Scientific Advisor and CVO claimed in a letter to Vet Record on the day of publication (4) that “This analysis has been carried out in a manner that masks the effect of culling by incorrectly grouping data.”

 

Defra’s alternative analysis, shown above, has done something strange to diminish ‘unculled’ area data, that is not explained, yet which appears to undo their own argument. The letter states that the ‘impact of culling on cattle outbreaks takes some time to appear’ while showing steep decline in bTB in the first two years of culling. Oops!

All scientific studies have limitations and none are 100% correct. What Defra are doing in their letter is adopting a pro-cull narrative to promote their policy publicly, with an un-peer reviewed analysis. They are avoiding the sharp reality of what their data is really telling them, and George Eustice and the government should be very concerned about this.

Defra have defended their pro-cull policy in Parliament and in the High Court using a government study from 2019 that uses very small amounts of data (Downs et al. 2019 (5)), wrongly, as ‘proof’ that badger culling ‘works’. That paper in fact admits that there are enormous limitations to its conclusions. The position that ‘culling works’, however, has been widely adopted by the Minister, MPs, the NFU and farming stakeholders.

It’s in the herd: cattle measures are the answer

Cow undergoing SICCT test

Defra have dismissed in a short soundbite, one of the most interesting findings of the published paper: the disease slowing, peaking and declining between 2011 and 2016 across the HRA counties, and before badger culling began in all but one area.  Defra want to adjust the data for confounding variables. Such adjustment is something that only Defra can do, as they alone have access to this ‘secret’ data. But adjustments are hardly likely to substantially change the conclusions, when such a huge dataset has been used in the analysis (over 20,000 herd a year).  Mention has been made of changes in badger cull buffer areas and badger population numbers, but the strength and validity of that data is questionable and presently obscure.

The Defra letter is particularly disappointing, given that Defra/APHA should have been using data to closely monitor and inform the public on the effects of bTB interventions and to ‘adapt and learn’ from their analysis. As they intimated would be the case in a Judicial Review of culling in the High Court in 2018, and as the judgement anticipated. And to encourage and inform those involved in the grueling cattle testing effort. Shouldn’t the public, who are after all paying for all of this, demand that too? Ask a simple question: why didn’t Defra do an analysis with the large data set they had available in 2019 and show the results? Was it because it showed that bTB was peaking and falling in both culled and unculled areas, well before badger culling was rolled out?

But that would mean admitting that cattle measures are the key ‘tool in the box’ to bTB control and need to be extended. BTB  decline since 2015 has averaged around 5% per year in the HRA, very similar to the picture in Wales where badgers are not culled and also in Republic of Ireland (RoI). Badger culling is now being phased out in RoI, with long term use of annual SICCT and gamma testing, and with bTB OTFW incidence no lower than around 4%, due to the limitations of the SICCT test. International evidence points to cattle measures alone being the solution, as predicted by experts for over 20 years.

The answers are all here. BTB should keep coming down in the English HRA if it follows the RoI trend over the next 3-5 years. If modern PCR testing is applied, it could be dealt with well before 2030. If the will is there. The Edge area crisis is another matter, but could be turned around too with correct thinking and the right interventions.

Other specialist comment:

Prof Paul Torgerson from the Section of Veterinary Epidemiology at the Vetsuisse Faculty of the University of Zurich wrote an opinion editorial for Vet Record on 19th March (6) offering insights on why badger culling doesn’t work, as predicted by the government researchers conducting the Randomised Badger Culling Trial back in 2007.

The Defra and the Middlemiss/Henderson arguments have been more than dented.The authors of the new analysis have responded in the Veterinary Record (2nd April) letters pages (7), saying that Defra’s criticism of the paper is baseless, and their attempt to show alternative science lacks explanation in the way they have handled the data. Defra have discounted around half of the data and the figures they use do not match figures from the reference material. There is also a dead end Link. This could be interpreted as ‘data manipulation’ to try to defend existing policy-based science. Defra’s refusal to accept the Langton et al. analysis using all of the cull data over the whole period of culling, is effectively limiting consideration of one of the most important debates of farming and veterinary concern of the last 50 years.

Over £100 million of public money per year is paid to farmers each year to support bovine TB control, and over £90 Million has been spent killing around 180,000 badgers since 2013; £500 per badger.

Defra’s position is that it wants yet more ‘thinking time’ to privately consider data and internal reports. Meanwhile, concerned observers can only watch while the decision on the course of the badger cull, where Defra aim to kill a further c.110,000 badgers from this June through to January 2026, hangs in the balance. The matter of efficacy needs settling. But Defra want to begin culling again this June and September with the issue of further licences.

‘Scepticism, science & statistics’, by Ian Boyd

There is an irony here in as much as the attitude of Defra employees towards the new study appears to have formed a classic exemplar of what the retired Defra Chief scientific advisor (2012-2018)  Prof. Iain Boyd has described recently as departmental ‘tribalism’ in his article in the Royal Society of Statistic journal Significance  entitled ‘Scepticism, science and  statistics’. Staff behaviour includes hostile over-reaction to anyone questioning government policy.

We can only hope that those involved will now resist that ‘unjustified tribal confidence’ and the ‘traditions embedded within their professional tribe’ and find the ‘social licence to break out’. For the sake of badgers, cows, farmers, the countryside  and the public, they need to do it now.

Northern Ireland

DAERA  (NI Department of Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs) have been pressing for a badger cull in NI for some time and have rushed a consultation through recently to try to copy ‘English-style’ badger culling.

For many years Mike Rendle and the Northern Ireland Badger Group (NIBG) have been working with legal and scientific support from the Badger Trust and Eurobadger. Working and meeting with government at Stormont to discuss the issue.

Developments since 2020 have been very disappointing and many who have been watching closely feel the DAERA process of considering interventions has been bungled and that it should have followed the Welsh model. For example, on the government’s own data there is a distinct lack of association (see below) between high badger density areas and high bovine TB incidence areas. The matter of DAERA’s concealed ‘business case’ for badger culling and why the badger intervention with highest environmental impact has been chosen remains unexplained. DAERA even dropped their ecological impact assessments (SEA/HRA) in favour of an earlier ‘dumbed down’ version. This  followed an extensive critique, submitted by NIBG describing multiple failures in the proposals and with useful input from eco-regulations expert Dominic Woodfield.

 

Illustration from the Bovine Tuberculosis Eradication Strategy for Northern Ireland.

Now Wild Justice (8)  (Chris Packham, Ruth Tingay and Mark Avery) have come to the fore and with NIBG are Judicially Reviewing the decision to shoot badgers on the basis of improper consultation regarding the business plan and cost-benefit analysis. This includes reference to the new paper on badger culling efficacy in Vet Record. Cattle movements in NI are less controlled than in England, and cattle measures alone should control bTB if a higher level of herd management discipline and more accurate testing could be introduced to cattle controls. But if Defra have been coaching DAERA, the road to ruin may have been laid.

References

(1) Langton TES, Jones MW, McGill I. Analysis of the impact of badger culling on bovine tuberculosis in cattle in the high-risk area of England, 2009–2020. Vet Rec. 2022;e1384.

(2) Defra media statement 18 March 2022.

(3) Christine Middlemiss blog 21 March 2022.

(4) Christine Middlemiss and Gideon Henderson letter to Vet record 19th March 2022.

(5)  Downs S HProsser AAshton AAshfield SBrunton L ABrouwer 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. 

(6) Paul R Torgerson, P. R. Editorial in Vet Record, 19th March 2022.What is the role of badger culling as a control measure for bovine TB?

(7) Badger culling to control bovine TB, letter to Vet record, Thomas ES Langton, Mark W Jones & Iain McGill. 2nd April 2022.

(8) Wild Justice Judicial Review

(9) Interview with Tom Langton & James Wood, Head of Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge, BBC Radio 4 Farming Today, 19th March 2022. Clickable button below.

New Study: Badger culling is a national failure and must stop immediately

A new scientific paper published in Veterinary Record today 18th March 2022 analyses government data on bovine tuberculosis (bTB) collected by farmers and vets for a decade. It has been made available on open access here.

It is quite a lengthy paper, and although much of the presentation is straightforward, the statistical parts in particular are highly specialised. We’ve put together a short summary of the papers’ findings, to show what is most important.

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

Tuberculin skins tests have decreased bovine TB by around 6% per year in the High Risk Area since 2015

Cattle-based measures also include other controls and measures such as improved hygiene and the use of interferon-gamma testing as a supplement. The downside of the SICCT test however is that it has a relatively low sensitivity; this means it can miss up to 50% of true positive cases. One in seven ‘cleared‘ cattle herds, is not free from bTB, perpetuating the crisis as they are traded and infect new herds. In other words, testing and movement controls need to be further improved to root out the undetected reservoir of disease that remains hidden and undiagnosed in cattle. Cattle measures have brought bTB down by 33% over the last five years and should continue to cause a drop in rates. Declines will slow and stop however as they have in Republic of Ireland without tighter controls and use of new generation testing, as with the ‘Gatcombe’. protocol,

The second finding came from a look at the amount of cattle bTB in areas that had undergone a badger cull and compared it with the amount of disease in areas that had not had culling. This was done over a six year period 2013-2019, so before and after culling was rolled out. Multiple statistical models checked the data on herd breakdowns over time and failed to find any association between badger culling and either the incidence or prevalence of bovine TB in cattle herds. Badger culling efforts appear to be to no effect.

Results showed that that heavily culled counties, culled for longer, had similar disease change patterns to counties culled for just a year or two more recently. Breakdowns peaked on average in 2015, with reductions thereafter. As previously stated, this is well before the badger culls were rolled out in 2016. The analyses do not provide any evidence for the efficacy of badger culling as a bTB control intervention. The results are consistent with predictions by the earlier scientific reference study (RBCT) that badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to the control of bTB in cattle.

Wildlife, farmer money and effort all wasted by the badger culling since 2013

Further, although Defra keep the data based on each badger cull area secret for reasons that are not in the public interest, and in defiance of multiple rulings by the Information Commission, they do claim to have additional data that may be of use in analysis. This may include the number of badgers for which money has been claimed in each cull area.

It is strange that since the legal cases in 2018 when Defra pleaded to the effect that they would ‘adapt (their policy) and learn’, no learning in the form of reporting has been published, which defies legitimate expectations. Is this because their data says badger culling is working? It seems highly unlikely. It seems more likely that it suggests it is not working, which may be why nothing credible has been said about the four years of data since the report on 2013-2017.

Badger Crowd understands that letters will be sent to the government asking them to explain the scientific reasoning behind the decision to phase down Intensive ( 70 %) badger culling in favour of ‘Epi’ (100%) badger culling. Also, asking them to bring the cruel ineffective £100 million badger culls to an immediate and complete end this year as they should have done based on the data and views exchanged with them in March 2021 that were dismissed to allow the killing of an estimated 50,000 badgers last year.