This General Election, please campaign locally to help STOP the badger culls.

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It’s just three weeks until polling day for the General Election. We need badger supporters to step up once again, and  to alert parliamentary candidates to the ongoing outrageous badger culls. There are two things to do:

Firstly contact your constituency candidates and ask them if they will stop the culls, if they are elected. You can find out who they are here. The Green Party have said they will stop badger culling, and Labour say they will “work with farmers and scientists on measures to eradicate Bovine TB, protecting livelihoods, so that we can end the ineffective badger cull”.  Please ask them all what their plans are and make sure they know that all forms of culling should stop from July 5th, with all existing licences revoked.

Secondly, please try to attend hustings. These are the political meetings that are held locally in your constituency, where you can meet your candidates, supply relevant information and ask them questions. Find out  where and when the hustings meetings are and make every effort to attend. Click HERE for access to a leaflet that can help give you guidance with facts about badger culling, carefully prepared by a team of dedicated badgerists from around the UK. You can print it out double-sided on A4, then guillotine in half to make A5 leaflets. (You may have to print on one side of the paper first, then reload it in the paper cassette the other way up & run through the printer again).



Good luck in your constituency. We hope newly elected MPs will be caring and compassionate and understand that on badger culling, much science has been questionable or misrepresented to promote badger culling.

We must stop the Cruel, Expensive culls. They Just Don’t Work.

Defra’s zombie killing machine won’t stop

DEFRA don’t want to vaccinate badgers, they want to keep killing them, against advice from Natural England.

As the first badgers of summer 2024 are being killed outright by a shot to the heart, or scream and die slowly in pain, a Freedom of Information response released on 31st May has revealed a morass of Government confusion. Communications between Defra and Natural England  from April and May of this year show DEFRA contriving to carry on culling. By aligning with the views of its highly controlled ‘BTB Partnership’, and stalling the promised badger vaccination programme, that they have had four years to prepare for.

Dr Peter Brotherton’s (Director of Science at Natural England) advice in April, (see here), a response by Defra in early May (here), and final decision by NE (here) tell the story. NE’s response to the recent policy consultation (here), is also very revealing. Brotherton gives NE’s view on Supplementary Badger Culling (SBC) that are done after 4-years of Intensive culling, is that badger vaccination should be the best option to promote, based upon his view of the available scientific evidence :

“I can find no justification for authorising further supplementary badger culls in 2024 for the purpose of preventing the spread of disease and recommend against doing so.

However, on 1st May, Sally Randall who is the Director General for Food, Biosecurity and Trade for DEFRA responded saying:

“The experience of the last three years has shown that whatever changes are made to disease control, those most affected by the disease, must have confidence in both the process and the trajectory. Changes need to be carefully timed and communicated, whilst balancing a range of potentially opposing views. Any abrupt changes to policy would seriously undermine our ability to engage constructively with the industry on future disease control interventions.”

The letter included an Annex A. with advice from APHA and the Chief Veterinary Officer, stating that Defra’s view was that SBC should continue until badger vaccination was fully viable, and that would take an unspecified amount of time. DEFRA said it had not gone far enough with preparations and that there was no financial capacity to promote it. They implied that farmers didn’t want it either. Then just two days later on 3rd May, Oliver Harmar, Natural England Chief Operating Officer, responsible for badger cull licensing at Natural England, decided to grant nine new Supplementary Badger Control licences and to authorise seventeen existing SBC licences in 2024, the decision having been passed by Tony Juniper and the NE Board. The licences were issued around mid-May.

But of equal importance, Brotherton made the following remarks:

“As I have said in previous advice, much greater effort is needed to raise awareness of the disease reduction benefits of the alternatives to culling among the farmer community, in my opinion. In this regard, it is disappointing that the recent publication by Birch et al. 2024 has been widely reported as providing evidence that badger culling reduces the incidence of bTB by 56%, when in fact the study shows the overall impact of implementing a range of bTB control measures, not culling alone. Further research to establish the relative disease reduction contributions of the different control measures is needed.”

This of course is the point made problematic by the crude and misleading ‘Abstract’ at the start of the APHA draft report (here) and following on with the published version (here). The recent Defra consultation on introducing so-called ‘targeted culling’ claimed that badger culling was responsible for herd incidence reduction, although it had no evidence of this. Brotherton is therefore disappointed by Steve Barclay, the Secretary of State for Defra and Defra Minister Douglas Miller and previous Defra Ministers. They have all seriously misled the public with badger cull claims and this is now a matter for legal consideration. Reductions in herd breakdowns could all have been down to tighter cattle testing and the accepted published peer reviewed and uncontested science on changes to herd incidence peaking and falling before badger culling was rolled out – and shown at the County level (2013-2019) suggests that this is most likely the case (see Langton, Jones and McGill 2022).

In previous High Court challenges over the future of badger culling, the ruling has been that decisions on culling can also be political decisions. If the future of badger culling is to be based on the science, then we will be seeing an end to culling very soon. Intensive, Supplementary, Low Risk Area, and Targeted culling are mistakes that should, and will be seen as such, and confined to the past.

While the disease benefit of badger vaccination is (like badger culling) not proven, the benefits of tighter cattle testing are well established. It is cattle measures done properly that will deliver the much needed bovine tuberculosis disease control for Britain and Ireland.

On 5 July the new Government must focus on advanced cattle testing, quarantines and lockdowns and consign badger culling to history, where it belongs.

Defra scraps pre-election badger cull ambition

There has been a positive step forward.

Defra have responded this afternoon about how they are handling Tom Langton’s legal challenge to the recent badger culling consultation, that closed just before the General Election was announced last week. A Pre-Action Protocol letter challenged the lawfulness of Defra’s  ‘targeted badger intervention’ policy consultation for several reasons and today Defra were responding about their intentions in the weeks to come.

Defra said they are “continuing to analyse consultation responses with a view to putting proposals for a decision on this policy to the incoming government after the election.”

This is good news at least in the short term. A new policy will not be put in place by the current Conservative government. But it also implies that Defra may seek to defend the claim that the consultation was unfair, which is disappointing.

Defra also say that they want an extra two weeks to consider the PAP letter, but we will learn their position on 14th June. Defra should drop the consultation,  recognise its failings and accept that badger culling has no future at all in bovine tuberculosis control in cattle.

The Defra Badger Cull consultation on the ‘targeted badger intervention’ policy – where are the swerves?

The Defra consultation on more badger culling ends on Monday 13th May 2024, at midnight. Since it was launched on 14th March there has been increasing incredulity over how sketchy and confused it is. It is a classic example of how not to consult with the public over an extremely important decision on how to tackle a complex disease epidemic.

The problems are largely of Defra’s own making, with the scientific aspects of the issue particularly poorly handled. Questionable management of the bTB policy is exemplified by the ‘BTB Partnership’. This was was set up under the 2020 ‘Next Steps’ policy, after the Derbyshire badger cull licence was put on hold for a year in 2019 by Boris Johnson who fought off the NFU and announced a  move to phase out badger culling.

The BTB Partnership was set up as a group of largely cherry-picked farmers and vets, most of them it would seem wedded to badger culling, and ‘hired and fired’ by Defra who also control the agenda, with secrecy over its work, reporting and outputs. There is a blog about the shambolic Partnership here. Not surprisingly, it recommends more badger culling and tries to row back on actions that might inconvenience the beef and dairy industries, thus preventing the industry contraction that must inevitably come, but that could have been so much smaller, if done earlier.

The main problem with the consultation is that it blurts out its intention without actually consulting. It’s a bit like asking what colour your new car should be, and do you need a sunroof? But the bigger questions have already been fixed; make, model, engine size, fuel type, all decided for you. You are being asked questions about the trimmings.

So, the consultation is not at an early stage, not at a stage where the various options are reviewed and described, with a sound build up to a presentation of the top range of possible alternatives and asking you about which path to take. Instead, Bang!, this is what you get. And it is being handled in a  similar way to previous bTB consultations  only this time it is much, much worse. It looks sloppily written and rushed. Rumour has it the NFU wanted to get it in place before the general election, although it is not actually needed in 2024. The problem for Defra is that views, or perhaps expectations on the government consultation process have been changing, and this kind of approach is no longer acceptable. Witness last October the judgement in Northern Ireland that found the badger culling proposals unacceptable. Why wasn’t the lesson heeded you have to ask?

Looking specifically at factual issues, the ‘elephant in the room’ is the discovery over the last ten years that all but a few of  (SICCT) test reactors are infected. With few false positives this makes any narrative that the herd status OTFW (officially bTB Free Withdrawn) is the yardstick for eradication (or better expressed, elimination), very old thinking.

This has some unfortunate consequences, not least for the now challenged RBCT (Randomised Badger Culling Trial) which actually found no effect of badger culling when all reactors (OTFS (Officially bTB Free Suspended) and OTFW are taken into account. This should have led to Defra reviewing their approach, but ‘stick to plan’ is the order from somewhere – the farming industry? It doesn’t make sense. And it isn’t mentioned at all in the consultation. Neither is the increased frustration and louder and louder complaints by vets and test developers that the current policy is unviable and useless. Not fit for purpode. It follows the failed trend of the Republic of Ireland who have culled badgers for over 20 years. The consultation seeks endorsement without adequately, or in many cases at all, explaining its rationale and alternatives.

Further, the consultation is not adequate in explaining the progress and new development of badger vaccination and cattle vaccination. With badger vaccination, DEFRA now pull back, saying its efficacy is unknown, much as the Godfray Review did in 2018. There is no enthusiasm for it from the farmers either. They have been told since 2022 that badger culling works and a new generation of advocates for culling have developed, bringing sentiments of badger hatred to new highs on social media.

How has this happened? Well by a series of announcements, interviews and parliamentary statements by Secretaries of State and Ministers since 2022, based upon a combination of staff at Defra and its agencies telling people that badger culling works. This continued until just before the start of the consultation on the back of unpublished data, uncheckable analyses and inference trying to transmute association to causation. Same old.

The new Secretary of State in Defra’s revolving doors of sackings and appointments is Steve Barclay. No one in cabinet wants to do the Defra job. You have to deal with climate change, flooding, sewage and farm waste in rivers and on beaches and wangle ways around protecting nature as a flurry of screamingly bad diseases flourish with industrial farming.  So Barclay sets out the consultation, claiming a figure of 56% decline in herd breakdowns after four years of culling, based on the ‘before and after’ APHA paper (Birch et al published Feb 28 this year), with absolutely none of the controls of a scientific study checking causation. There is no comparison of culled areas with unculled areas. There is a blog about the problems of Birch et al. preprint here.

Using words from a rather flaky abstract, designed to please, Barclay mis-quotes and misrepresents what the paper actually says, no doubt incorrectly briefed by the hapless APHA who are desperate to find a way out of the 2020 policy car-crash and not to call the last decade out as one huge mistake. Barclay follows other politicians, Eustice, Coffey, Spencer, Douglas Miller who have groomed the farming industry to believe what they want to hear i.e. that but for the badgers the cows would be clear of bovine TB. What is irrefutable is that the influence of badger culling on bovine TB in cattle herds is unclear.

Defra seem to have gone out of their way to bias consultee’s opinion in front of their consultation. Some observers thought it had been put on hold, with the hope of a new Parliament sorting out the mess in a years’ time. The consultation fails to distinguish between the scientific opinions of a handful of Defra staff who have spent the last decade blaming badgers, and what the published science actually says and means. Not to do so is not just worrying, it is unfair and unlawful.

Why did they drop a weak bit of analysis (Birch et al. 2024 ) just in front of the consultation and weaponise it to try to force a return to mass culling? Results from Cumbria, south of Penrith, showed that cluster culling was a sham in Area 32, and cattle measures had resolved bTB in all but chronic herds before the first of the 1115 mostly healthy badgers were shot, from 2018.The independent report “A Bovine Tuberculosis Policy Conundrum in 2023” demonstrates this clearly, and the follow-up addendum produced in April 2024 confirms it.

The failure of their ‘epi-cull’ or ‘cluster-cull’ trial is too uncomfortable for them and doesn’t fit with their ‘keep to plan’ strategy, so they pretend it hasn’t happened? Then they delay the economic evaluation until later because it looks like everything done to date has been done at a financial loss, but can be fudged in four years’ time?

The confusion and lack of technical reporting on cattle vaccination, and the need for enhanced testing according to the learning from Gatcombe farm in Devon has not been mentioned at all – no options provided. Airbrushed out.

The consultation normalises the least humane option for shooting badgers without going through the difficult considerations behind that decision. This is extraordinary, given the shift to free shooting over cage shooting for cull companies that have had praise heaped upon them with offers to make their killing easier..

The executive powers that would be passed to the Chief Vet and the appointed BTB Partnership for day-to-day decisions looks like an unrepresentative, unaccountable closed shop. Methods for identifying where badgers would be culled are unformed and justified using the unsuccessful Low Risk Area model (see here and here) and the unproven intensive culling results (see here, here and here). Why was the consultation not held back until these problems had been addressed? Answer, because the trials have failed. Why does this consultation even exist if this key point is not absolutely clear for all to consider? As APHA said in 2023, there are now more questions than answers.

This consultation is an abomination. Following the failed DEARA consultation in 2023 it is unprofessional and embarrassing. We should know who is responsible for it. It is so far away from the interests of the public and industry that it must be stopped.  

Responses to consultation questions: some thoughts:

Q7. Should there be an annual cap on the number of clusters that can be licensed to undertake badger culling? 

If you answer Yes, you may be accepting that the policy is fine as long as it is limited to x number of culls per year. Don’t be misled by this trick question. It does not offer the alternative of knowing that no targeted culling should be done.

Q8. What other factors should be taken into consideration in defining a cluster under the targeted badger intervention policy?

If you suggest new factors, this may imply that you agree with the other factors suggested. 

Q10. & Q11. To what extent do you agree or disagree there should be a separation of Natural England’s statutory conservation advice from licensing decisions?

These are tricky. At face value it might suggest that you are being asked if NE need no longer fulfil its statutory nature conservation role. But that is very unlikely to happen without a change in law. What it might be asking is whether you think NE should stop licensing culls in order to distance its  advice on badger culling ecological impacts from the authorisation of killing badgers, which would be a very good thing. However the question is very general and vague. Perhaps the question supposes culling should continue (which it should not), so does agreeing to it endorse the act of culling? NE should never have taken on the role of licensing culling, it was the worst decision in its history and has seen rampant killings of around 230,000 badgers since 2013. The next question, 11, deals with whether cull licensing should go to Defra, (to join with vaccination permissions), to which the answer should be no because culling should stop.  So Natural England  who are just told to get on with it without question should stop and it shouldn’t go to Defra? It would seem sensible not answer these ones on the grounds of confusion.  Defra would love to keep licensing with NE as it gives culling the respectability of endorsement by a conservation body. Be careful how you answer this one because the question isn’t clear. It could trick people into supporting keeping badger culling responsibility with NE. It is not clear if you can use question 12 to explain your views if you have not answered questions 10 and 11 however. What a muddle.

Q12. Please give reasons for your answers to this section (optional)

Here you could make the point that Question 10 is faulty. The question does not reflect the text of the consultation adequately.  Natural England, in preparing impact assessments free of charge for cull companies and being instructed by Defra to issue licences, has lost its supposed  independent role. NE has taken direction from and rubber-stamped Defra and the CVO’s instructions to issue licences, and for the NE Chief Scientist to describe culls as successful whether or not minimum cull targets are met.  And on an uncorroborated assumption that Defra’s badger culling policy has an disease benefit, which it has consistently failed to show.

Q13. Do you have any comments on the Information for Applicants at Annex B for carrying out the culling part of a targeted badger intervention policy? (optional)

This information is inappropriate given the unfair nature of the consultation.

Q15. Should animal level bTB risk information be published on ibTB?   

Yes

Q16. Please give reasons for your answer (optional).

Any information on disease risk should be publicly available.

Q17. To what extent do you agree or disagree it would be helpful to share information on where herd owners source their stock from?

  1. Strongly agree

Q18. Please give reasons for your answer (optional).

Any information on disease risk should be publicly available.

Q19. Do you have any other comments? (optional)

Here is your chance to offer your full view.

This consultation is an utter shambles and should be withdrawn. It is thrown together, unfair and misleads on multiple counts. It avoids providing essential background facts and leads those answering questions into endorsing ill-described proposals. This consultation will be challenged and measures are already in place for that to happen.

WE ARE THE BADGER CROWD

 

 

 

 

 

Defra Badger Cull Consultation

What does it say and mean?

On 14th March, Defra launched a new consultation:

“Bovine TB: Consultation on proposals to evolve badger control policy and introduce additional cattle measures”

A five week consultation period ends on 22 April, so here is a digest of what is proposed. It’s is a bit long, but important if you care about truth, bovine TB control in cattle, badgers, cruelty and the squandering of public finances.

SUMMARY

This consultation is badly worded in places and the detail is hard to comprehend. It appears unrealistic in terms of scale and implementation. The questions asked in this consultation are minimal and generally loaded towards the respondent agreeing with the described process to keep on killing healthy badgers into the future.

The consultation is founded on the incorrect interpretation of a new study Birch et al. 2024, which itself is in need of revision. The robustness of the new study is open to question, and aspects of it are now being queried with the Minister and the authors.

Defra are back-tracking on the March 2020 ‘Next Steps’ policy in favour of continued forms of supplementary and low risk area culling in existing and new areas, as directed by the Defra Chief Veterinary Officer. The methods for selecting ‘cluster areas’ for badger culling is not prescribed and effectively leaves a free hand for culling at the CVO’s discretion aided by industry advisors.

All previous Defra badger cull consultations have resulted in implementation of the policies as set out in the consultation, whatever the responses have been. Defra have made it clear that they will consider ‘group’ objections differently to personal objections.

We feel this consultation is unlawful and should be withdrawn and as such cannot recommend anyone responding until further advice has been received.

Consultation Foreword by Steve Barclay Secretary of State for Defra.

It is hard to know if the mistakes in new Minister Barclay’s foreword are unintended. It was probably written for him by Defra staff, perhaps the Chief Vet, who as we know struggles with science papers. On the back of the brand new APHA research he says “I want to be clear. A major element of this success has been the industry-led cull of badgers.  The latest evidence from the first 52 cull areas shows that rates of bovine TB breakdowns in cattle are down on average by 56% after four years of culling. This analysis has been published in a scientific journal after rigorous peer review. “

Leaving aside whether the peer review was rigorous and independent or not, Barclay, the Secretary of State for EFRA is attributing the decline in detected cattle herd breakdown incidence to four years of badger culling, as has the Defra Minster Douglas-Miller. This is now being repeated widely in farming circles. But the science Barclay refers to does not support this, even if it implies it in the abstract. There is a bit of speculation about it in the discussion, that is all.

Call this lies or misinterpretation, there really is no such clarity from ‘the latest evidence’. Even Cambridge’s Defra-funded James Wood had to correct the over-simplified abstract of the new APHA paper (Birch et al) for a piece in last weeks  Veterinary Record. The misleading abstract should be a simple retrospective corrective edit for the journal, along the lines of other government funded bTB science. We will see.

On this point Defra boss Douglas Miller had been making  the ‘56% benefit’ claims  for months, based on a preprint that was corrected when published. To be really, really clear, what the peer reviewed published science says is that it is not possible to directly attribute the fall in cattle herd bTB breakdowns to badger culling. It could all be due to cattle testing or other factors. Recent alternative published peer-reviewed analyses strongly suggest that this is the case (Langton et al). The courts could be interested in the misrepresentation of science by the Minister.

Also not mentioned in the consultation is the fact that the statistical code for the Birch paper (instructions on how it was analysed) is not included in the supplementary information published with the paper, so it can’t be checked. Requests to the author for this code and to the Minister have not yet been successful. Defra have received a legal letter asking for it promptly but it had not arrived by the noon deadline on 20th March. There are several things about the analysis that look a bit odd and which deserve further scrutiny, so supply of information to be able to re-run the analysis is critical to an ‘intelligent and informed response’ to the 14th March consultation.

PART A – BACKGROUND

This gives the usual statistics of change in bTB levels around the issue. There are comments about an ‘adaptive policy’, ‘banking the benefits’ and ‘striking a balance’, but none of these claims are scientifically evidenced and are mostly seem to be throw-away blah from Defra staff and the shambolic BTB Partnership.

PART B – PROPOSAL 1

The report text then switches from its assertive attitude in the Ministers statement to be a bit more careful. It says: “5.2. The policy of badger culling, which has been in place since 2013, is highly likely to have contributed to this significant reduction in the disease.” Not sure any more then? Still wrong – should have said ‘could be’. Paragraph 5.3 implies the reduction of bTB breakdown incidence is due to badger culling, which is an incorrect assumption and not borne out by the Birch study, as was also made clear by Oxford’s Prof David McDonald’s analysis earlier this year. A more detailed look at Birch et al.(2023) pre-print is available here and here.

Defra then repeat their outburst from two years ago, rejecting independent peer reviewed science in a top Vet journal, that suggested badger culling brings no response to bTB control, as follows:

“We acknowledge that this analysis has been challenged by certain groups opposed to culling who analysed the publicly available data from cull areas up to 2020 11. These groups concluded that culling had no effect on bTB in cattle. This peer-reviewed analysis was published in the Veterinary Record journal in March 2022. The Defra Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) and UK Chief Veterinary Officer (UK CVO) assessed this paper and found the analysis to be flawed. The UK CVO and CSA response (and a later correction) was published in the Veterinary Record12,13 although the authors reject the criticisms of the UK CVO and CSA 14.“

An outburst that APHA have still, after 24 months, failed to demonstrate scientifically – despite holding all the data, in secret. It would be possible for APHA to simply compare farms in culled and unculled areas in multiple ways to test for the efficacy of culling. Why have they not done this? Is it because they do not get the result that they are desperately seeking to support the policy? The signs are that internally, APHA  actually know they are wrong. One senior insider has said privately in response to the consultation “the momentum created by Godfray is being stifled as DEFRA considers that the solution is too difficult and too expensive….. convincing themselves that the cull has worked to avoid the embarrassment of their mistakes.”

What are the future badger killing consultation proposals in general?

  • Construct a narrative that ‘badgers are a part of the local disease problem’ using circumstantial evidence from dead badger surveys.
  • Remove the all-important ‘exceptional use’ requirement of the March 2020 Next Steps policy, so badger culling can expand across the whole of England (HRA/EDGE/LRA), as before.
  • Change the term ‘cull area‘ to ‘cluster area’. Talk about ‘targeted badger intervention’ when all that has happened is cull areas have been renamed.
  • Rename ‘cull company’ as ‘licence holder’ who will appoint gunmen for both cage shooting and cruel free shooting, and it appears, badger vaccinators (Para 5.30).
  • Allow unlimited cluster areas to be licensed for culling each year (Para 5.18). Licenses to last for one year at a time.
  • Keep the 100% culls in the Low Risk Area using the ‘’Hotspot’ approach, which remains more or less the same, and a model for ‘clusters’. Death by APHA terminology.
  • The public will continue to pay for the licensing operation and monitoring, as well as the cost of policing culls, and support with costs incurred by industry when carrying out badger vaccination (Para 5.35).
  • Defra infer that the objective of a targeted badger intervention policy would be to secure disease control benefits by reducing the potential for infectious contacts between badgers and cattle in cluster areas ”before eradicating infection in cattle herds within the affected cluster” (Para 5.7).  This has not previously been suggested, i.e. badger culling is a prerequisite for cattle measures to be able work. This is not borne out by scientific literature and evidence. As such it is speculative and an attempt to mislead consultees regarding disease epidemiology.

How will cluster/cull areas be chosen?

  • APHA say cattle movement data and use of ‘whole genome sequencing’ of dead cattle and badger samples will inform the process. But it is unclear how, and sight of the method is lacking. There is no mention of the detailed independent report from 2023. that found the process failed and unfit for purpose. How cluster areas are chosen  can be changed at any time it seems, a free reign for government.
  • “Breakdowns that could be caused by high-risk cattle movements will then be removed, to increase the accuracy of identifying areas where badgers are a part of the problem in the spread of disease to cattle.“ This does not make sense, why would the source matter if cattle have gone on to infect badgers. This does not even follow the twisted APHA logic.
  • Cull supremo Christine Middlemiss, the UK CVO, will oversee deciding which clusters should be eligible for badgers to die. She might use ‘epidemiologists and veterinary science experts’ from the Bovine Tuberculosis Partnership – the closed cabal of mostly farmers and cull operatives that helped to refine these ideas. That works in secret and seems largely unaccountable.
  • Defra apparently have a magic bullet up their sleeve: “We are developing a surveillance and monitoring system which, when fully implemented, would allow for an assessment of the level of risk that local badgers may pose in a cluster.” We need to see and understand this pipe dream to be able to consider it.
  • The culling season will be relaxed from a fixed duration of around 10 weeks to the free-for-all allowed in Supplementary and Low Risk Area culling, to enable maximum culling of badgers. It seems to faciliate 100% culling if you want it, through to the end of January of the following year.

Badger vaccination – the new bolt-on

  • The failed BTB Partnership has apparently indicated that badgers should not be vaccinated before being culled in the HRA or Edge (Para 5.17) and the LRA (Para 5.21) because it would take too much effort.
  • After culling for two years or more, any surviving/recolonizing badgers may be vaccinated, and this is a condition of culling. Although government may fund vaccination, it appears farmers do not want to vaccinate badgers.

Note, in Cumbria it looks as if badger numbers bounce back within very few years, as they have in Gloucestershire, so the number of badgers needing vaccination is going to be massive. Especially as loads of areas that still have bTB embedded have been coming out of supplementary culling and are now due for badger vaccination according to the APHA vision. Or are government going to wait for badger numbers there to build up and cull large numbers again later? Or launch a military-scale exercise to get them vaccinated? Has anyone really thought this through? Thousands of people, tens of thousands of cages and vaccines. Or will it be a token effort to cover for just more culling?

This consultation, if taken at its word, could be a mandate for massive amounts of badger vaccination starting this year with no culling. But no, the unproven ‘shoot then vaccinate in new areas’ idea is pushed hardest, no doubt to win the anti-badger audience:

  • “The licence holder would also need to demonstrate, that it is able to vaccinate badgers in the year immediately after culling is stopped and for (typically 4) years as advised by the UK CVO (para 5.32). They must establish, with government support, cage trappers and lay vaccinators, organising training or securing a contractor to undertake badger vaccination. “

Other changes:

Defra will take over licensing from Natural England (Paras 5.14 and 5.27), but NE will still be responsible for saying that ecological impacts are barely significant and will be waving culling through without properly monitoring its impacts on designated sites. While claiming that it does. Tony Juniper’s cull-championing charade looks set to continue. Tim Hill who claimed badger culls to be a success each year is leaving this summer though.

Un-culled areas can have farm biosecurity measures and badger vaccination if they wish. APHA think “The available evidence suggests that the factors affecting the transmission of M. bovis between badgers and cattle are highly context-specific and dependent on many interacting factors at a local level.” There is no scientific evidence base or consensus for this claim – unless it is hidden from view..

Nothing changes:

Any decision by the Secretary of State on introducing licensed badger control under a targeted badger intervention licence will be informed by the scientific evidence and veterinary advice available, experience from the licensed badger control operations to date and responses to this consultation.” (Paras 5.24).
How will this be done and made available for scrutiny?

Previous economic assessments of wildlife control policies indicated that badger culling largely represents positive value for money.” (Para 5.22).
This is simply not properly evidenced, with unexplained lumped figures, and the public are almost certainly being misinformed. Defra have no idea about the effect of measures on the true burden of disease in cattle, embedded and undetected.

PROPOSAL 2: Licence and associated conditions for badger culling under a targeted badger intervention policy 

The size of future cluster areas is unclear but may be similar to existing cull areas – over 100 sq km. Within cull areas, Defra “will make decisions on the level of accessible land on a case-by case basis, taking into account such specific circumstances such as topography, land use and badger sett surveys or any other matter that is considered relevant” (Para 5.33).
The CVO has recently claimed (on Farming Today) that cluster culling is not the 100% culling approach of LRA culling (the proposed epi-culling model). But it looks like it. As cluster areas get bigger, the aim will be to kill 100% of badgers over available land which may be more restricted than was the case in the Cumbia and Lincolnshire cull areas. The system is not as well described as the 2018 low risk area culling methodology. It looks fairly similar, but in areas where permission to cull and vaccinate will be harder to obtain. There is no binding agreement for a minimum 6 years cull, and vaccinate it is all on trust. The bad idea is badly planned.

Strange?

Paragraph 5.36 states: “.. if a cluster overlaps with an area that has completed intensive or supplementary badger control within the last three calendar years, there would be no funding requirement.” This presumably means no need of disclosure of available funds to cull. “If the interval is longer than this, the licence holder will need to demonstrate that it has access to funds which are sufficient to carry out culling operations in eligible clusters for at least two years,”  This might imply that there will be an overarching licence holder for more than one cluster. It’s all a bit unclear. Why would a supplementary culling area not go straight to vaccination only, or is the aim just an extension of supplementary culling? Why not go straight to vaccination? The text is hard to unravel and looks ill-prepared.

“Culling in response to bTB outbreaks in the Low-Risk Area of England would continue to be permitted on the same terms as introduced in 2018, on an individual licence basis”. But LRA culling is the model for epi-culling which was not warranted and has failed. Just recently a new breakdown in the area.

Methods for the HRA /Edge seem to imply it will not be LRA-style culling (with a buffer area etc) but more like a hybrid with supplementary culling, according to cluster area size. Will cluster areas cull to hard boundaries or not? Thus, the consultation presents a lack of clarity and ambiguity to a degree that makes meaningful response impossible.

PROPOSALS 3 and 4

These relate to cattle purchasing and cattle movement monitoring and are not considered here.

Annex A: Wildlife disease control – Progress since 2020

Defra states (Para 1.10.) “We proposed to pilot the vaccination in areas as part of a phased approach. APHA has recruited two cohorts of full-time vaccinators in 2022 and 2023, who have been undertaking badger vaccination in several areas across the country, including in five former cull areas. These areas vary in size from 15 to over 350 km2, with more than 1,500 badgers vaccinated in England by APHA in total in 2023.”

There is absolutely no chance of vaccinating badgers in more than a very few cluster areas for multiple reasons, so this consultation is misguided not only in its scientific evidence base, but also regarding the feasibility of vaccination ever happening other than at the existing token scale. A phased approach that will fizzle out.

Information on  the pilot exercise in Cumbria is sketchy, and it is not possible for the public to understand exactly what is being done: the recovery rate of badgers, how many vaccinated badgers have been shot and how many vaccinated twice, or how many badgers have bTB of different strains. The consultation is describing an unevidenced process that is more hope than reality, that it cannot afford and will not seek to properly implement, for which there is no evidence that it will have any effect at all, and breaking multiple scientific and ethical veterinary and good practice guidelines. It is representative of a failed policy.



Veterinary Record exposes yet more government bovine TB failings

The respected journal Veterinary Record included two short News and Reports articles on government bovine TB news last Friday 15th March, just a day after their consultation to ‘evolve badger cull policy’ was announced.

The first covered a story we have written about in our blog (here) regarding the downsizing of the government bTB partnership. Member Dick Sibley was effectively sacked from the partnership, and VR comments:

“Sibley said he had been sacked after challenging Defra on the effectiveness of its testing and eradication programme, particularly the south west of England where he is based. He said the downsizing of the partnership would result in a decrease in challenge and debate.”

Another member who was removed from the partnership commented “They don’t want the partnership to come up with its own ideas, they want Defra’s ideas to be rubber-stamped by the partnership.”

The short article ends with the usual Defra quote about what a serious disease bovine TB is and what a difficult and intractable animal health challenge. It concludes “…… we are now able to move on to the next phase, including wider badger vaccination, alongside improved cattle testing, and work towards deployment of a cattle vaccine.”  There is no mention of badger culling in the statement by Defra’s spokesman. This is despite the fact that is was  published a day after the consultation was launched, a consultation in which Defra’s outlines its intention to continue an adapted, unrestricted, and less controlled form of intensive culling. They fail to mention it at all.

The second article “APHA study looks at the effect of badger culling on bTB”, is a short report on the newly published paper by APHA staff member Colin Birch and colleagues. The claims of the paper are reported, but notably, James Wood was quoted as saying “the badger control programme has been associated with increased use of more stringent cattle controls, including the use of gamma interferon assay in infected herds and promotion of biosecurity, which means that the attribution of the full effect to a single intervention is not possible.”

In fact that should be, the attribution of any effect to a single intervention is not possible. The reality is that Birch et al 2024 on which the consultation rests heavily, fails to prove any benefit attribution to badger culling at all. The Defra Minister Lord Douglas-Miller and Secretary of State Steve Barclay have, as a result of APHA’s failings, misled the public. They need to withdraw the consultation immediately.

The DEFRA Bovine TB Partnership: Shambles or Scandal?

Dick Sibley removed from the Governments BTB Partnership

According to TB HuB, (1) The Bovine TB Partnership comprises members with extensive experience and expertise in the farming industry, private veterinary profession, non-government organisations, academia, local authorities, and government.” It is managed by Defra and has ‘Member organisations’ including the Animal and Plant Health Agency, National Farmers Union, the British Cattle Veterinary Association, the British Veterinary Association and Natural England.

In recent weeks vet Dick Sibley and others have left the partnership (2), frustrated at lack of progress, and suggesting that anything not central to DEFRA’s agenda is not welcome.

The  terms of reference for the partnership in 2021 (3) suggest that it was established in response to Professor Charles Godfray’s 2018 review of the bTB Strategy: the Government was committed to co-design with industry and other stakeholders ‘a new bTB Partnershipto encourage shared ownership, coordination and decision-making’ and  a driving force for further progress with disease eradication, absorbing the advisory function currently performed by the bTB Eradication Advisory Group for England (TBEAG) to become a senior-level and high impact government and stakeholder group for bTB control.’

Dick Sibley is well known as arguably the foremost English ‘coalface’  veterinary worker on bovine tuberculosis management, in Devon and beyond. He qualified as a vet from Bristol University Veterinary School in 1977 and has been in veterinary practice ever since, and he runs West Ridge Veterinary Practice based in Witheridge, in Mid Devon.

His X/Twitter biography describes him as “Veterinary surgeon working with cattle and other farm animals, hoping to make their lives better & healthier so that they can make our lives better & healthier”.

Dick is dedicated to the care of cattle, with particular expertise in the management of infectious diseases such as BVD, Johne’s and Tuberculosis, as well as delivering whole herd health plans for large dairies to predict and prevent disease and health issues. His credential speak for themselves. He has an Honorary Fellowship, awarded for his work with BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), Foot and Mouth disease and Tuberculosis, he is National Secretary and President of the British Cattle Veterinary Association. He has a range of awards; RABDF Princess Anne Dairy Award, the RASE Bledisloe Cup, Honorary Life Membership BCVA, and Dairy Industry Award 2006 for veterinary services to the cattle industry.

Until recently, he was a member of the government’s ‘Bovine Tuberculosis Partnership’. Towards the end of February 2024 however, it was reported in the farming press that Dick Sibley, and another member had been removed from the partnership, and a third quietly resigned. Although it was originally envisaged in 2021 that the partnership would produce useful summaries of their work and make them publicly available, no insight into the thinking of the group has been forthcoming. It has been a closed shop. For the public and interested parties, there has been no insight at all, a huge disappointment considering its role and potential pivotal importance. In short, the BTB partnership has been a failure. There are even gagging clauses on partnership members speaking publicly without approval.

Shortly after he left the Bovine TB Partnership Dick Sibley started posting on X about his experiences and his posts offer interesting insight both into the problems faced and workings of the so called partnership. By way of introduction to his long social media thread, Sibley pointed out:

The 3 counties of Cornwall, Devon and Dorset have 7,989 cattle herds and generate 33% of new herd incidents of bovine TB in England.  At the end of September 2023. these 3 counties had 652 herds not officially TB free. (Down from 1011 in 2018, but up from 627 in 2021). I repeatedly mentioned this to the partnership. And got sacked. I guess if you dont like the message, shoot the messenger.”

So, does Dick Sibley think that the current bTB policy is working well? He says:

To get the country OTF by 2038 as pledged by DEFRA, I understand we need to get 99.9% of herds tb free for 6 years. In the 3 counties with current herds, thats just 8 herds still non OTF by 2032. I dont think that is possible doing what we are currently doing.”

The answer then, is no, he does not think Defra will achieve OTF (officially tb-free) status by 2038. The reason behind this is that the current testing system largely based on SICCT and gamma testing obviously leaves many infected animals in the herd that could only be found with a wider suite of tests, with local management of each unique farm circumstance needed to finish the job.  For that reason, the current system is doomed to failure as amply demonstrated in painful slow-motion across the Republic of Ireland over decades. Testing needs to be constant and not confined to the current routine. Additional/supporting PCR/qPCR tests in particular.  Use of Actiphage for pre-movement herd testing is the single essential action that would curtail disease spread rapidly, even if triggering a new national herd management strategy for diseased herds.

Why would Defra not want to look too closely at embedded infection? Perhaps too many reactors means too much compensation (too much money) seems the most likely explanation. It appears financially uneconomic, and more politically expedient to sit on?.

Does Sibley think that the bTB partnership of which he has been a member is a helpful and functioning working group, producing & collating useful and relevant science? He says:

.. for the past 3 years I have sat dutifully listening to unrealistic ideas on how we are going to replace badger culling with vaccination, BCG the cows and keep testing and killing. Short, truncated discussions on the pros and cons. Thats not a partnership, its an audience.”

Again, it looks like the answer is no. It sounds as if there was little engagement with the specialist expertise invited to attend. What does Sibley say about whether he believes badgers are an important source of cattle infection? He says:

We have tried really hard here in the South West: started culling badgers in 2016 and peaked in 2018: 90% of the area of the 3 counties culling by 2021. More testing, more gamma, more killing, more restrictions and yet 892 herds lost their OTF status last year. Is that success? Of those 892 new herd incidents, most of them werent new. They were recurrences of established infections. We used to blame the badgers, but we have now killed most of them. So, as many of us suspected, they are more likely due to undetected residual infections within the herd.”

So, Dick Sibley is concluding that repeat infections are most likely due to undetected cattle infections. Sibley has usefully drawn attention to one of the more irrational of Defra’s many rules and restrictions; you can only test cattle for bTB if they are OTF. He says:

Trouble is that the permission to test can only be given to herds that are not OTF! As soon as they go clear with a couple of clear skin tests, we cant use any additional testing. Not even an extra skin test between the six-monthly routines. Endemic infection resurfaces. Nuts.”

There is a more in Sibley threads: how Michael Gove became engaged in the issue, how that led to the Godfray Review (of the bTB policy), how DEFRA’s responded to set up the TB Partnership. But the partnership does not get a good account from Sibley:

We listened, no decisions. Three quarters of the time taken up with presentations, then truncated discussions through lack of time. The rooms got smaller and smaller and tech more dysfunctional. Covid didnt help. Frustrating”.

Frustration seems perhaps to be the overriding outcome of the partnership. Sibley writes frankly:

I asked for targets, objectives, Key Performance Indicators. What was success? Could we have some radical thinking? Ok, maybe I was a bit mouthy. We were told about current policy and plans: phasing out of culling, phasing in of vaccination. But what about the big gap between the two? How could this work?

Task and finish groups did some great work: I co-chaired one on improving testing sensitivity. Brave of them to ask me! Our good group put in hours of constructive discussion and research to produce a detailed report. Radical but realistic. Where is it now? Wasted.

That report even led to a full day workshop held at the APHA site at Weybridge. I really thought that this would do some good and make a difference. A good day of real discussion and proper time spent on difficult issues. Nothing came of it.”

Dick Sibley goes on to cite an interesting case study:

A small organic herd of red Devon beef sucklers: set up about 10 years ago. Before stocking the 200 acres of rolling Devon grassland, constructs 7km of badger and deer proof fencing. 2” mesh buried 40cm into the ground and going to 6ft+. Even Steve McQueen couldnt get out.

The herd went down with Tb in 2019, 3 years after being established in its colditz. I got involved in 2021 and started enhanced testing to see what was going on. We SICCt every 60 days in accordance with rules, and then privately gamma, Idexx and phage 3 or 4 times yearly.

Of the 101 cattle that we have tested in the last 3 years, 42 have left the herd as reactors (either SICCT or gamma) and 40 have been designated high risk due to a positive result on another test type. 7 more were gamma positive last week. There is significant age clustering.

We have got 4 day old calves testing positive for antibody! They didnt make that themselves, they got it from the colostrum. But mothers tested negative. The offspring of some test negative cows (but designated high risk) have all gone as reactors. We suspect mother – calf”.

So despite cattle being reliably isolated from potential wildlife infection, the embedded cattle infection persists.

Sibley’s thread finishes with:

“For those hunting the tb solution, be patient and manage your expectations. There is no simple solution. And for those campaigning for [badger] culling, just take a quick look at iTB map. My patch is the squares with 61 and 59 in. That’s after 5 years of [badger] culling. Disappointing.”

For those with more than an interest, it is worth reading SIbley’s thread in its entirety. If nothing else, it may be the only window into the workings of the bTB partnership that those not actually in it will ever get. DEFRA and APHA’s secret world of policy failure. Not so much a partnership as a captive audience of those who need Defra’s support in many ways and will not contradict them for personal and organisations reasons. Gagged to the outside world. It really stinks.

What does the BTB Partnership actually achieve – let’s take a quick look, according to its published role:

The Partnership has a number of responsibilities:

1. Contribute to setting strategic direction of the bovine TB disease eradication programme, helping to identify priorities, and address specific opportunities, risks and issues, as an integral part of the bovine TB Programme’s governance

Does it do this?  Apparently not very well. It looks slow to investigate advice that does not fit with its past and future plans.

2. Help set standards, monitor progress, and identify where new approaches might be needed

Does it do this? Apparently not very well. DEFRA/APHA seem reluctant to move outside the constraints of its own thinking and to recognise past limitations, oversights, failures and new direction.

3. Co-design potential new policies and communications

Does it do this? Apparently not – most members are there as an audience to offer approval but not to come up with any substantial changes.

4. Identify new evidence sources/requirements and ideas and captures wider views to inform discussion as needed

Does it do this? Absolutely not. Resists new evidence and fails to engage in external communications.

5. Engage widely to advocate agreed bovine TB policy to a range of stakeholders

Does it do this? Not much. Occasional conference for conference goers. NGO’s are outside the tent. There is little or no reporting – the shortfall is huge.

6. Encourage the formation of and work closely with local groups and creates opportunities for stakeholders/local groups to work together. Regularly reviews how to improve local engagement and maximise the value of local groups

Does it do this? No, the reversion to local groups tacking disease locally has been sidelined, despite its obvious potential.

7. Engage with developments in wider domestic agriculture policy (aware of and linked to sector wide initiatives that impact bovine TB control) – helping to build understanding of the potential implications for future disease control and helping to influence the design of future policy to benefit the goals of the bovine TB Strategy

Does it do this? Apparently not at all.

Chairman James Cross, a farmer, might be asked:

  • Where are the results of the specific ‘task and-finish’ groups?
  • Where is the ‘new evidence sources/requirements and ideas and captured wider views to inform discussion’?
  • How have you engaged ‘widely to advocate agreed bTB policy to a range of stakeholders?’
  • How have you worked ‘closely with local groups and created opportunities for stakeholders/local groups to work together’?
  • Where are the ‘Regular reviews on how to improve local engagement and maximise the value of local groups’?

References

  1. TB Hub, The home of UK TB information
  2. Defra’s bovine TB partnership loses members, Josh Loeb, Vet Record, March 5 2024.
  3. Bovine TB partnership terms of reference

Defra’s consultation on the 2020 ‘Next Steps’ badger culling policy

In recent years Defra have made no secret of the fact that they aim to continue badger culling after the current intensive culls finish at the end of January 2026. The 2020 bovine TB policy outlined the intention to continue badger culling in ‘exceptional’ circumstances. APHA have been piloting a new ‘reactive’ style culling policy that aims to kill 100% of badgers, otherwise known as epidemiological culling or ‘epi-culling’ in Cumbria and Lincolnshire. This pilot has failed to eliminate bovine TB however, (see Chapter 5 of ‘A bovine tuberculosis policy conundrum in 2023′ ) and simply served to highlight persistent infection in a handful of farms.

‘Epi-culling’ has been licensed by Natural England since 2018 despite its ongoing failure. Badger Trust was told by Lord Richard Benyon (Minister of State at Defra) in written correspondence, and by Eleanor Brown (now deputy Chief Veterinary Officer) at a meeting, that a consultation on this new epi-culling policy would be launched this year. This now seems not to be the case. In this recent article in VET Times, a Defra spokesperson was asked whether the anticipated consultation would begin before Christmas. The reply was “we are working to provide further detail at the earliest opportunity.”

Initially it was thought that the consultation would be in winter 2022 or Spring 2023. This was delayed to Summer, then Autumn, and then the middle of November. It may yet appear, perhaps this winter, but indications are that Defra are rethinking.

The National TB Conference in Worcester on 29th November might have been an opportunity to set out Defra’s intentions going forward. The programme for the event listed senior speakers/participants including Lord Benyon (Defra Minister), Christine Middlemiss (CVO) and James Wood (Head of Department of Veterinary Medicine at Cambridge), long-time supporter of badger culling. But Lord Benyon did not even turn up, & it was left to a few of the pro-cull vets to make statements on their personal ‘views’ about the success of badger culling. Perhaps they had hoped that APHA’s pre-print on the effects of badger culling might have been published by now. But there are serious issues with this analysis, see here and here.

So why has the consultation on epi-culling been delayed? Are Defra beginning to realise that badgers are not a significant player in bovine tuberculosis after all?

Three possibilities………

  1. The epidemiology of bovine tuberculosis science does not support their position on epi-culling, (see this independent report). APHA’s latest epidemiology report has changed its method of assessing attribution of disease, (see here).
  2. The science behind culling is uncertain & becoming frailer. A peer-reviewed paper in 2022 failed to find any association between the industry led badger culling 2013 – 2019, and either the incidence or prevalence of bovine TB in cattle herds (see Langton et al 2022). Following on from this analysis, a pre-print looking at the original RBCT analysis found that alternative & more appropriate analyses of the data found no effect of badger culling (Torgerson et al).
  3. There will probably be a General Election next year. Pushing out a consultation on a scientifically fragile badger cull policy, that is also cruel, potentially ecologically damaging and economically unsound is not a vote-winner for a political party. A majority of the public remain opposed to badger culling.

Meanwhile, in the House of Lords on December 12th, Conservative peer Lord Colrain, asked “What progress they have made towards identifying a vaccine for eradicating bovine tuberculosis?” Labour peer Lord Granchester took the opportunity to quote a reduction of 51% in herds under restriction in Cheshire, appearing to claim this as a win for badger culling, and suggest  that it would make sense “to allow all areas of England to undertake a cull to control disease in cattle, disease in badgers and stress in rural communities before introducing vaccination?” He failed to mention that Cheshire has actually had more gamma testing than any other county in the country as shown in the bar chart below. It is the increased use of gamma testing that is most likely responsible for the observed decline in herd breakdowns. 

It is still a bit unclear what Labour will do with bovine TB policy if they are elected to government in due course, with their messaging inconsistent at present. Shadow Defra Minister Steve Reed recently told journalists at the Countryside Land and Business Association conference that there is enough reason to believe that badger culling is a way of preventing transmission, so “in the short term we have to continue with that”. Sue Hayman (former Shadow Environment Minister) meanwhile said at the launch of a Wildlife Link report recently, that badger culling would be brought to an immediate end. Current Shadow Environment Secretary Daniel Zeichner was quoted in The Guardian (here) in October saying “I’ve spent a long time looking at this…….We’re going to make England bovine TB free by 2038, but with a range of measures that do not include culling.”

None of this is satisfactory. Secrecy cloaks every move, and stakeholders remain outside what should be an open and careful discussion of the various technological and economic options. It is in no one’s interest to let factional lobbying and secret deals continue with the wasteful and cruel outcomes seen over the last ten years.

We have now reached the point where a handful of pro-cull lobbyists are promoting their ‘views’  on the success of badger culling and making statements that are simply not borne out by the facts. Dick Sibley (a vet who has worked on alternative bTB testing approaches), in a recent letter to Vet Record, comments on “the unfortunate paucity of scientific evidence” that currently underpins current advice, and concludes that “the effect of the mass killing of hundreds of thousands of badgers has been disappointing, to say the least”.

The latest government epidemiology summary shows that half of breakdowns are now herds with embedded disease, herds breaking down for a second, third or more times. Why? Because infection is not being caught by conventional testing. It is not that hard to work out why public money has been frittered over the last ten years on a policy with no end point. It has been deemed just too tough to grasp the nettle and get on with the difficult and expensive job of better testing and some herd depopulation, with farms left fallow for several years. This reality cannot be put off any longer and the economics of a new campaign need to be clear for all to consider, with relevant measures to achieve prompt bTB control, not decades more of subsidised nonsense.

Has APHA finally seen the TB light?

A shift of emphasis

Was it the damning April report on the failed Cumbria badger culls that has led to the clear change in the way that APHA’s is now attributing source of bTB infection in cattle? Have the crazy proposals for the so-called ‘epidemiological culling’ policy been recognised for the epidemiological nonsense that they are?

Or is it simply that the raft of Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) results clearly indicate cattle movements as the main distributor of bovine TB? Either way, the new epidemiology report for England published this November shows a dramatic shift of emphasis in the attribution of source of infection.

While previous APHA reports have laboured to claim that around half of cattle bTB infections are attributed to badgers, the analysis for 2022 of the results of ‘bovine tuberculosis epidemiology and surveillance in England and Great Britain‘, published earlier this week (20th November) (read here) tells a different story.

Outrageous attribution

It looks like the death knell for the perpetually dodgy and unscientific ‘Risk Pathways’ approach that was so heavily slated in the April report by independent scientists earlier this year. Risk Pathways was introduced in 2017, as evidence to cull badgers across the whole of west England and more. Every APHA ‘epi’ annual report since 2017 has contained a table with the consequence of condemning badgers to more culling.

Now, with the speculative nature of the approach well exposed, APHA have no choice but to do what they should have done before badger culling began – shift emphasis to the necessary cattle testing and herd management. These are the only measures that will actually move bovine tuberculosis in cattle towards elimination using the right cattle tests from the cattle testing toolbox.  

See below in the 2021 analysis: the first column claims outrageously high attribution of source of infection to badgers, at over 50%.

In this years table for 2022 (see below), the column has gone, and the switch to uncertainty is complete.

Compare the pies

Compare also, the pie chart of disease sources from 2021 (below) with that for 2022 (below that). Where once badgers were getting 52% of the blame, 56% is now shown ‘blank’ – effectively showing as uncertain.

What is concluded from this welcome, but far too late in the day revision? The ridiculous blaming of badgers was just too unevidenced, too ridiculous. APHA can no longer deny that evidence now points to the source of bTB infection being all but totally from livestock and livestock infected pastures. And it can only be addressed by livestock measures.

APHA’s hopeless Disease Report Form (DRF) to coax vets into naming badgers as a cause of new cattle infections was heavily criticised by a Derbyshire Wildlife Trust veterinary report in 2019. In their supplementary file, also recently released, APHA now say:

 “A new Disease Report Form (DRF), for recording cattle TB incident investigations, is under development. This aims to enhance data capture and review the methodology around how we assess source attribution to improve understanding of TB transmission pathways and the evidence base for biosecurity advice.”

Whole Genome sequencing can now be used to better understand transmission routes. There is no excuse for anything but bringing all badger culling to an immediate and permanent stop.

Setting out the truth about badgers in black and white

The Northern Ireland Badger Group together with the USPCA has published a new factsheet on dispelling the myths on the role badgers play in the spread of Bovine TB (bTB).  This follows a recent court outcome which has stopped a proposed badger cull in Northern Ireland.

Last month, both organisations welcomed the ruling from a judge that a badger cull proposed by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) as part of its drive to tackle bovine TB, would now not proceed.

This new factsheet provides dispels the myths on the role badgers play in the spread of Bovine TB.  It adds to a growing evidence base that culling badgers is not the answer to bTB.

Nora Smith, Chief Executive of the USPCA said:

“Last month, we welcomed the court’s decision as a positive step in protecting Northern Ireland’s diverse wildlife and badger population. The unnecessary killing of helpless badgers by free shooting will do nothing to address the problem we have faced for years with bovine TB.

“We have full sympathy for our farming community who have been devastated by the impact of bovine TB on their herds and who have been led to believe a cull of badgers will play a leading role in solving the problem. It will not.

“The latest evidence reaffirms the highest rate of transmission is cow to cow. There must be a new conversation around how we eradicate bovine TB and the focus must be on cattle movements, testing and biosecurity. In Wales, which has a more robust strategy to protecting both cattle and badgers, they have seen a marked reduction in bTB, while their badger population remains intact. 

Mike Rendle, Northern Ireland Badger Group commented:

“The recent court ruling has forestalled the pointless killing of large numbers of badgers in Northern Ireland. It is now beyond any doubt that cattle to cattle infection is driving bovine TB in herds. There is no credible evidence that badgers play a significant role in disease spread.

“The problem lies with the reservoir of undetected infection in cattle. The current skin test, which may detect as few as half of the infected animals in a herd, is not fit for purpose. Farmers and cattle deserve better.

“I hope that by dispelling misconceptions about badgers and instead following the latest scientific evidence, we can all work together to develop an effective evidence-led policy to deal with the disease while protecting farmers’ livelihoods as well as our badgers.”

Read the new factsheet here.

What next for Northern Ireland’s bovine TB strategy?

As Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) considers the fallout from the recent court judgement quashing their plan to shoot badgers in Northern Ireland, what does the future now hold for their bovine TB strategy?

DAERA’s current policy carried forward the main elements of the strategy proposed in 2016 by the government-appointed TB Strategy Partnership Group (TBSPG). The TBSPG was a government-industry partnership which included senior industry figures and former civil servants. Notably, no member of the group had any expertise or background in badgers or wildlife.

Soon after its appointment, the TBSPG met with stakeholders to ‘seek their views’. Even at that early stage, the TBSPG made it clear that they thought a badger cull was necessary. There was a clear impression that they had already decided on a badger cull before any evidence-gathering or engagement, meaningful or otherwise, had taken place.

The TBSPG was succeeded in 2018 by another industry-led group, the TB Eradication Partnership (TBEP), under the same TBSPG Chairman. Similarly, the TBEP exhibited equal enthusiasm for a badger cull, with apparent little regard for the views of the badger/wildlife side. You can read about the TBEP membership in this Protect the Wild blog.

Following the recent successful Judicial Review taken by Wild Justice and the Northern Ireland Badger Group, any further attempt by DAERA to progress a badger intervention will require a new public consultation. Given the shambolic nature of the last consultation, any new proposal will require root and branch revision to have any chance of succeeding.

Meanwhile, two major pieces of significant and highly relevant new research have emerged.

Firstly, a comprehensive analysis of bovine TB data by Langton et al. failed to identify a meaningful effect of badger culling on bovine TB in English cattle herds. Instead, reductions in cattle TB incidence and prevalence showed a strong correlation with the introduction of cattle-based disease control measures.

Secondly, a study carried out by scientists at the Northern Ireland Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) found that cattle-to-cattle transmission was by far the most common form of disease spread. Cattle-to-badger transmission was considerably more common than badger-to-cattle transmission, and no badger-to-badger transmission was detected.

The science makes it increasingly clear that ineffective herd testing and the two million cattle movements annually are driving the persistence and spread of bovine TB in Northern Ireland, not badgers. As the body of evidence exonerating badgers builds, DAERA will surely struggle to justify any new badger removal proposal.

As it turned out, DAERA’s (now defeated) decision to implement an indiscriminate and cruellest possible badger cull was a spectacular own goal and a decisive setback to their bovine TB strategy. The responsibility for this debacle lies squarely with the architects of the strategy and those in the industry who supported and enabled it.

Perhaps predictably, the decision to inflict unacceptable suffering on large numbers of healthy badgers served to galvanise the conservation and animal protection sectors in opposition to the plan.

For its part, the badger side has seen its good faith and willingness to engage thrown back in its face. Confidence and trust in the process have been seriously undermined. The government has squandered yet another opportunity to make meaningful progress.

This is a watershed moment for DAERA and the industry. They can choose to embrace the science and tackle the reservoir of undetected infection in cattle, or they can continue to scapegoat badgers and face further legal challenges and delays.

APHA, evidence and distortion – the badger blame game continues

A new analysis of Bovine TB data by the Animal and Plant Health Agency

“Difference in Differences analysis evaluates the effects of the Badger Control Policy on Bovine Tuberculosis in England”, by Colin P.D. Birch, Mayur Bakrania, Alison Prosser, Dan Brown, Susan M. Withenshaw, and Sara H. Downs.

This new analysis was posted as a pre-print on 6th September, on the ‘bioRXive server. You can view it here, although there is no access to the data to check it.

With the current programme of intensive badger culling winding down and coming to an end in 2025, up to a quarter of a million largely healthy badgers have now been killed. A new consultation on Defra’s intentions going forward under the 2020 “Next Steps policy is expected on or after 16th November. This new scientific paper has therefore been constructed at an important moment for the future direction of new bovine TB policy.

Both Therese Coffey (Secretary of State for Environment Food and Rural Affairs) and Lord Richard Benyon (Minister of State for Biosecurity, Marine and Rural Affairs) have said in public and in correspondence that badger culling should continue. Mark Spencer, (Minister of State for Food, Farming and Fisheries), has been using the Birch et al pre-print in parliament to claim large disease reductions from badger culling.

But how certain is the science behind these claims of disease reductions, and the stated intentions to carry on culling badgers?

In a 30 minute presentation available to view on YouTube here, Tom Langton talks through recent scientific pre-prints and publications that have analysed bovine TB in cattle herds and badger culling. Inevitably it is a technical presentation as the issues and the statistics involved are complex. But at this critical moment, as bTB policy is further revised, the controversy and uncertainty surrounding the science of bovine TB control needs even closer scrutiny.