The Badger Vaccination Trap and the Geronimo Effect

When the March 2020 “Next Steps” Bovine TB policy was released, there was a rumour from inside DEFRA HQ, that its senior officials were secretly in despair. This related to compromises over its content, and the prospects to implement it in the years to come.

The policy was considered by many to be, ‘something for all, but nothing for anybody’. It would require substantial increased public funding to initiate. But it was not, with bTB still spreading, the planned tailing-off of the ruinous public funding poured into this festering agri-crisis over the passing decade.

“Next Steps” formed new mountains to climb, engaging the industry with more regulation: tighter cattle testing and movement controls, and with badger and cattle vaccination. A triple-finance whammy that the 2018 Godfray Review had hinted at. To have legs, it required stakeholder acceptance of just how bad the tuberculin skin (SICCT) test sensitivity really has been, and why ‘TB-Free’ status, after a breakdown is very  often untrue, allowing bTB to perpetuate within the High Risk and Edge Areas and to spread further to the east and north via cattle sales. Further, it required their resetting of farmer-psyche to help badgers, the animal they have been told and taught to eradicate, as vermin.

Influence from No.10?

The Prime Ministers interest in Bovine TB, beyond stalling the first Derbyshire cull for a year in 2019, has recently re-emerged. Rather off-message however, regarding the bTB threat in milk to humans, yet perhaps more visibly concerned with the claims of DEFRA, APHA and the Chief Vet’s bungling, in the ‘tough one’ case of Geronimo the alpaca. BTB is going to get fixed, Johnson promises.

Pressure from ‘high up’, had it seemed reawakened the badger and cattle vaccination policy options that rather looked like ‘window dressing’ in early plans back in 2011. Yet officials had just managed to maneuver them in, in 2020, but still to be largely ‘down the line’. To bite financially in a new Parliament. For now, work included a few modestly scaled badger vaccination ‘trials’ and a further look at the doomed immune-based ‘DIVA’ test (See here). Both are the epidemiological equivalents of fiddling while Rome burns. The disease is now so widespread that only mass cattle vaccination can possibly turn the tide.

DEFRA sleight of hand

The main DEFRA challenge in 2020, was how to present a policy moving from ‘proactive’, intensive, mass badger culling, to multiple small-scale farmer-lead ‘reactive-style’ intensive culling, but with minimum outcry. This was somehow miraculously achieved, with a press briefing claiming badger culling was being ‘banned’ or ‘phased out’. This was embraced by those who had not read the small print and who seemed unaware of the ‘epi-culling’ monster described within. Trialled in Cumbria since 2018, the flawed APHA ‘epi-culling’ (see here) approach kills 100% of badgers in a poorly badged ‘Minimum Intervention Area’, and most of them in a surrounding ‘buffer’ area, before trying to vaccinate the survivors left. The Cumbria ‘epi-cull’ has been a total flop, as breakdowns rose again in 2020, sinking the APHA showboat.

Figure 1. All breakdowns in the East Cumbria cull area per 6 month period, showing commencement of enhanced cattle controls and the period with mass badgers culling with a small amount of badger vaccination from 2020.

Derbyshire: a stinging rebuke of APHA ‘Risk Pathways’ approach

As it happens, after 2022, Defra will be running out of large areas of West and Central England to mass-kill badgers. So, it wants to switch to smaller badger killing areas both inside and beyond the High Risk Area, and a future approach that is simpler and cheaper to operate. For this, the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) has been promoting a ‘Risk Pathway’ approach, to try to ascribe badgers as the cause of many or most of the bTB herd breakdowns in, for example Derbyshire. However, the capable Derbyshire conservation folks have veterinary expertise and were onto it with a stinging rebuke of the claim that 77% of bTB in that county is down to badgers (see here).

The original bTB policy promises to undertake badger vaccination, related then to the need to help navigate culling around the national and local Wildlife Trusts, which it did successfully. And what looked like a contrived difficulty in accessing BCG vaccine for badgers in 2015, only lasted a couple of years once, under pressure, Minister George Eustice allowed the switch to a new vaccine brand supplier. Defra had decided that they could not afford to fund badger vaccination or would only fund it on a small scale, with preference for places where badger numbers had been largely culled-out. The cost and feasibility of vaccinating badgers on a large scale was probably never really factored-in at the start, and as the bTB problem has spread, the cost of doing so has escalated.

More badger meddling: a nasty rural conflict with yet more unknowns and complexity

Badger vaccination, like badger culling, holds several important technical uncertainties. The science suggests it reduces the probability of a given badger being infectious. However, as with badger culling, there is no direct evidence that it can help reduce bTB cattle herd breakdowns. The wisdom of doubling the number of uncertain interventions (see here) in tackling bTB in cattle was not lost on Defra. The approach just gives the nasty rural conflict yet more unknowns and complexity. More expense without evidence-base or any credible efficacy monitoring system.

Defra promises to the Bern Convention and a new BTB Partnership

A few weeks ago, government began to reveal what its badger vaccination plans are. Firstly, in a letter to the Bureau of the Bern Convention (see here). While repeating the falsehood of intensive badger culling being phased out, it stated that it would carry out a badger vaccination feasibility trial on ‘unculled’ farmland in a corner (7%) of Sussex, for five years.

A further commitment to train 30 vaccinators (10 a year) from 2022, to cover 2,600 sq km by 2024 was confirmed to the Bern Convention. This is partly it seems, as a replacement for a further five years of ‘supplementary badger culling’ (SBC) for 4-yr culls ending in a few years’ time. SBC is the method fiercely opposed through the High Court in recent years, that the government has pledged to closely report upon, has hidden the results of, and will terminate in January 2026.

In relation to government planning ahead, secrecy appears to surround the new ‘Bovine TB Partnership’ made up largely of farming stakeholders, the voting majority of which clearly want to see badgers culled (see here). 

Defra have flagged to the partnership the ‘mountains to climb’ problems (including little money allocated), but they are apparently trying to get the ever-biddable, National Trust to front it. An online Badger Vaccination Conference this summer was shelved and APHA sent away to try do the impossible – find evidence of badger vaccination reducing bTB herd breakdowns.

A bTB ‘cordone sanitaire’ for the Edge Area

DEFRA do still seem to be hanging onto the old ‘cordon sanitaire’ concept for the Edge Area and this may also be a target for the 2,600 sq km capacity by 2024 target. The ‘cordone’ keeps moving back, like an army in retreat, due to infected cattle movements. And it is not much of a ‘cordone’ when unidentified infected cows are being transported by road into and beyond it, with regularity.

APHA has a new mapping procedure that produces their view of where badgers have or have not been infected by cattle. The grey hexagons on their map, they estimate, are bTB free and may be the kind of area for the ‘Sussex’ approach, but what status will they have in five years’ time? In truth, getting vaccination going in the key battleground counties including Cheshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, and Hampshire would require a ‘cordone army’ of 1000 people and a £12 Million annual budget, just to get off the ground. The cull areas, if not left alone, will need twice or more effort with a bill of £100 Million by 2030. DEFRA’s value for money accounting ‘wonks’ have little hard reference. Like badger culling, there are no measurable benefits to bank. External advice suggest that cattle vaccination will be ruinously expensive too. Which civil servant wants to front these initiatives moving forwards?

The scale of badger vaccination currently described is just a pinprick compared to the military style moblisation of gunmen to shoot badgers since 2013. Further, badger vaccination licence applications are now being discouraged by Natural England in the bTB Low Risk area e.g. in Essex and Herts & Middlesex. This is a significant change to allowing badger vaccination to protect badgers on public and private nature reserves, and other places under threat from diseased cattle in the fields next door.

Defra seems largely to want to vaccinate badgers as a part of a ‘cordone’ and once badgers have been decimated after four years. Not for it to be used proactively to protect badgers which is its only current ethical and scientific application.

Badger vaccination is now being manipulated into being the speculative exit strategy following mass destruction of badger clans. But this year, just a handful of new farms, in a 25 sq km area have been started up, in an area (believed to be in Cheshire) where a new project is pushing the government beliefs. Signing up to badger vaccination is a whole new ball game for those wanting to help badgers. The concern is that in doing so, a system is created where the price of vaccinating badgers is the killing of badgers before-hand or elsewhere, both now and forever, and while the disease in cattle continues.

Vaccination groups and Wildlife Trusts are already speaking out (see here) and seeking much better operational terms that those offered by Natural England, who seem to view the regular shooting of vaccinated badgers as inevitable and acceptable. BBOWT, the Wildlife Trust of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire are urging government to develop and deliver a proper badger vaccination strategy, and not secretively and at the current snail pace.

The Geronimo effect

Finally, it is hard not to relate the mishandling of bTB policy in England by DEFRA, over the last decade, including badger culling and vaccination, to the events of recent weeks. The way in which an alpaca breeder Helen MacDonald and her alpaca Geronimo have been dealt with by Defra. The enforced euthanasia and post-mortem of Geronimo, suggesting, in this instance (subject to culturing of tissues) false-positive Enferplex testing, is a very public display of both the inflexibility of government veterinary services and the external pressure of industry bodies, forming and evolving a failing policy.

It is a reminder of why and how on a much greater scale, bovine TB testing and movement control has gone wrong over the last twenty years or more in Britain and Ireland. If Prime Minister Johnson is going to fix the Bovine TB issues in England, then he needs to put a new policy in place with the funding to make it happen. He needs to stop Defra doing ill-advised things that don’t’ work and to kick out those whose actions have made bTB worse in England. Those who have placated commercial interest and allowed vested and biased veterinary inputs to dominate animal welfare and environmental considerations.

Badger vaccination is not a valid exit strategy for badger culling. Badger vaccination should not become a fig-leaf of respectability for a culling policy that just seeks to carry on culling badgers forever.

Vaccinators need to be extremely careful of what they are endorsing or signing up to and how actions in a local area risk complementing and sustaining the routine killing of badgers to 2038 and beyond elsewhere.

Vaccinators should avoid:

  • Advice that badger vaccination, with epi-culling is a viable way to overcome bovine TB in cattle.

  • Advice not to support or fund legal action against badger culling in order to qualify for government badger vaccination contracts.

  • Offers of funding and staff posts for ‘buying in’ to the government’s ‘epi- culling’/vaccination plans.

  • Vaccination contracts with non-disclosure clauses, requiring vaccinators to;
  • Be silent on cruelty and opposition to badger culling.
  • Share sett data with cull companies.
  • Accept that vaccinated badgers may be shot occasionally or even routinely.
  • Suggest or imply to farmers that badger vaccination may help reduce bTB in cows when this is not known.

Badger Culling and Vaccination: Where is the March 2020 “Next Steps” policy trying to take us?

Last Thursday 23rd September, Hertfordshire and Middlesex Badger Group hosted a webinar to look closely at the governments “Next Steps” strategy for achieving bovine tuberculosis free status for England.

Ecologist Tom Langton kicked off the event with a presentation on the policy as it relates to badger vaccination. It was very sobering. In contrast to the headlines that accompanied the announcement of the policy (‘Badger Culling to be Banned’ was what much of the mainstream media ran), badger culling looks set to continue, although in a different guise.

Large scale culling (of 70-90%) of badgers is to be replaced with localised 100% culls, with the example of the Cumbria 100% cull as the policy model.  Cattle herds in Cumbria (Area 32/hotspot 21) are still experiencing high numbers of bTB breakdowns despite three years of culling & now farms have many ‘dead’ setts. One badger has been vaccinated for every ten shot, and some vaccinated badgers may already have been shot.

The chief vet will be able to authorise localised culling based on the new ‘epi-pathway’ approach. Basically, this means that if local vets cite badgers as a likely source of infection, such as infection found in just a few badgers, culling can be licensed.

APHA ‘risk pathways’ approaches do not factor in the low sensitivity of some of the bTB herd testing being used, leaving up to 50% of infection undiagnosed in the herd. Cattle are still the biggest, if not only source of bTB infection, but APHA just refuse to take full ownership of the problem.

So how is Defra going to sell this shocking new ‘cull and vaccinate’ policy to the public, those of us who passionately love our wildlife? It looks as if they are trying to ‘normalise’ culling by engaging voluntary groups to get involved in vaccinating a proportion of badgers. The problem with this approach is that participants will have to comply with government by stopping opposition to culling, by handing over sett data, and by telling farmers that badger vaccination will reduce bTB in cattle. None of these things are acceptable.

Born Free veterinarian Mark Jones made his position clear: we “…need to avoid getting drawn into a situation where there is tacit acceptance of a system that seeks to secure de facto support for culling, with vaccination used as an exit strategy from it”.

To find out more about what the government has planned for our badgers to 2038 and beyond, watch the webinar recording here.

 

High Court judge decides that Defra 2020 badger cull policy does not trigger protection of biodiversity under the 2006 NERC Act

Today, Mr Justice Griffiths handed down a High Court judgement on the most recent Judicial Review on the ecological impacts of badger culling in England. He dismissed the claims made against the Secretary of State George Eustice, concerning the need for consideration of measures to protect species and habitats in the wider countryside, under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 (NERCA). This follows the decision to keep on culling badgers with changes in culling methods, including the wider introduction of reactive culling.

The claim had been brought in early 2020 by conservation ecologist Tom Langton, with support from the Badger Crowd, the broad affiliation of badger trusts, groups, and wildlife charities fighting poor science and decision making surrounding the badger culls in England. The ruling today for Judicial Review CO/2062/2020 suggests that despite the lack of evidence of the defendant recording any considerations, the Minister did not need to do anything “to have regard… to the purpose of conserving biodiversity” when the “Next Steps” policy was published in March 2020.

The judge indicated that so far, badger culling had been done “…with the benefit of all the evidence available about ecological impact and biodiversity. There was no new evidence that might even potentially have caused Next Steps to take a different turn.”

A ‘do-nothing’ approach was lawful?

However, Tom Langton’s earlier cases in 2017 and 2018 had exposed Natural England as being in breach of its duty for lack of protective measures for habitat and species features protected by Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Measures needed, which NE then hurriedly put in place via a new set of guidelines, requiring a wide range of practical precautions.

The recent case addressed species and habitats across an average of 90% of badger cull areas; on land beyond SSSI boundaries and protected by the NERC Act 2006.  In a statement provided to the court, Natural England, who license badger culling, stated that protection imposed on badger culling licences “…are not necessary outside protected sites in order to comply with the purpose of conserving biodiversity.”

The 2018 Godfray Review conclusion to continue culling had stated that ecological studies of the consequences of reducing badger densities on other species should be undertaken. The Godfray review recommendation on ‘periodic culling’ involved a five-year badger cull cessation period with associated badger vaccination, and was considered the most ‘promising’ future approach. But this was not adopted by the government in March 2020.

An application to the Court of Appeal is now under active consideration.

A Badger Crowd representative comments:

“This is obviously a disappointment and blow to all those concerned with the biodiversity crisis in nature-depleted England, and who wish to see the potential cost, and damage to our environment from badger culling properly addressed. Ecological impact and potential impact from badger culling are accepted processes that are under-researched and not properly monitored. The need to address them was established by legal action in 2017 and 2018.  If addressing these problems outside SSSIs is too difficult, as has been suggested, or perhaps too time consuming and expensive, then badger culling should stop.   Freshly extracted evidence shows how government has improperly withheld information, that now needs to be fully examined. But, except for a few SSSIs, by his own admission, the Secretary of State has decided not to protect 90% of the countryside from scrutiny of the potential ecological effects of badger culling. England’s wildlife and the public deserve better. Thanks are extended again to the legal team and experts, and to the 700 individuals and organisations who have donated so generously and given support over the last 18 months to try to bring government to account.”

The Judgement may be read in full here.

Biodiversity Catastrophe

Badger cull case will test UK commitment to wildlife legislation

A High Court Judicial Review in London this Thursday 22 July is a timely test of the extent to which DEFRA has ‘had regard’ to biodiversity protection. The claim is that Secretary of State George Eustice failed to protect wildlife, as is required by the Natural Environment & Rural Communities (NERC) Act 2006, when causing ecological disturbance to the wider countryside by mass badger culling in England.

The biodiversity commitment was made in 2006 in response to the UK signing the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, established in 1992. Minister George Eustice in a speech recently however admitted that the UK is “one of the most biodiversity depleted countries in the world.”

The case is particularly important as a New Environment Bill is passing through parliament and amidst claims that proposed targets for addressing the biodiversity crisis may be treated as non-binding, following worries that public bodies have not implemented the NERC Act 2006 adequately.

Concerns have existed since a House of Lords Select Committee in 2018 found the nature conservation agency for England, Natural England, to be run down, ‘hollowed out’, and unable to discharge aspects of its statutory function properly, including when advising Defra.

The case seeks to quash the Government’s 2020 (“Next Steps”) Bovine Tuberculosis policy covering the continuation of badger culling. It is being brought by ecologist Tom Langton supported by a large ‘Badger Crowd’ of Wildlife Trusts, charitable organisations, and the public, including The Badger Trust who helped get the case running and the new wildlife law group Wild Justice.

 

“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.

 

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/

Wild Justice Joins Badger Cull Legal Fight

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

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

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

You can get details of the Wild Justice Appeal here.

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

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

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

DEFRA RESPONSE TO GODFRAY REVIEW dated 05 March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Why do Defra mislead us?

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

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

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

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

  • Where does badger protection really stand after this report?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Badger Cull Habitat Regulations Assessments Legal  Challenges

Photos courtesy of Richard Bowler

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

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

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

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

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

Further detail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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