Defra in Denial?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Defra’s Badger Vaccination Proposals Risk Perpetuating Further Culling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Badger culling and BTB data:

Middlemiss and Henderson say sorry for getting it wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why were you Wicked to Badgers?

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

By Tom Langton

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civil Service prone to massive policy mistakes and blundering?

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

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

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

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

Wickedness unveiled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

Scientists, Disease and Communicating Uncertainty

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

by Tom Langton

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

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

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

Uncertainty and the scientist

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

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

Drawn to a ‘High Impact’ challenge

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

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

Dealing with uncertainty

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

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

Uncertainty and Bovine TB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Current approach is high risk and not evidence-based.

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

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

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

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

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

The making of uncertainty: where it all went wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s look at all that in summary:

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

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

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

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

Were badger culls shown as ineffective by 2019?

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

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

Genomics study; facts or fantasy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncertainty in the perpetuation of uncertain science for decades

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding the disease epidemic exit strategy.

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

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

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

Does Oxbridge hold the solutions and an exit strategy?

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

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

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

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

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

References/LINKS

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

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

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

Waiting for the Appeal Hearing outcome…….

It’s been a month now since our High Court Appeal hearing, and the important matter of ‘what happens next’ still hangs in the balance.  The understanding is that the Courts and Judiciary are largely closed down over August, so having not received results thus far it is quite likely that we might not hear anything for several more weeks. This means of course that we may be into September before we find out more, and September is the month when we fear confirmation of  yet more areas for badgers to be shot, and for the badger cull carnage to be imposed over a much larger area. We could hear at any time, however.

As well as the Appeal outcomes, there should be news of the government’s response to the ‘Godfray Group’s’ review of the current bovine TB policy, and presumably Defra’s newly massaged ‘results’ of the pilot badger cull, (Downs et al. 2019) as an update to Brunton (2017). Raw data shows that supplementary culling has been followed by a massive bTB spike in Gloucestershire. ‘Downs’ has been used in the decision making process to try to help justify Supplementary Culling, but has been kept secret thus far. Rather like the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) report on effects of culling on the wider environment, which was held back from public scrutiny by Natural England for no good reason; the motives for withholding both are highly suspect. As ‘Downs’ has not yet been made available, we are guessing that it will be a much caveated piece of selective modelling, which will say that badger culling may be helping reduce bTB in cattle, but many more years of data will be required to be slightly more confident that it is a possibility or a likely  failure.

This is ‘the cull until 2038’ approach. The same old fudge that shames the government and the reputations of all those involved, whether they are actively enabling it or just keeping quiet for their own personal convenience/advancement. Government has said to us in writing that there is no way to identify the cause of any change in bTB breakdown rates in cull areas, and in any case, in some areas it might be expected not to work. Nobody is fooled about what is being done and aimed for; a corrupted version of the 30 years of failed badger culling in Republic of Ireland.

Perhaps those at Defra and Natural England hope to continue to hide behind the ensuing Brexit furore, hoping that badgers will not be most people’s priority at this time of national crisis? The bTB crisis in the national herd will not disappear though, but will spread, whatever happens with Brexit. At some point, those in charge will have to acknowledge that equivocal interventions are pointless, a complete waste of time and money without first addressing the major causes of disease in cattle; failed testing and hopeless movement restriction. This in fact was Natural England’s position during the original cull policy consultations – so what happened?

The solutions to bTB are available and have been used successfully in the past, and they don’t involve culling wildlife. Killing badgers may be damaging other wildlife species and habitats, in addition to all-but exterminating a persecuted apex species for spurious reasons. There are new cattle testing technologies becoming available, being stifled by vested interests that will make control easier and cheaper. The sooner the government’s policy advisors stop following failed veterinary and cattle lobby rhetoric and start listening to informed scientists (without vested interests), the faster will be the progress against this terrible disease. Whatever the outcome of the Court of Appeal, the Badger Crowd will continue to work to defeat this horrible policy using common sense, science and the law.