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

 

 

 

 

 

Cracks appear at DEFRA

Badger Cull Consultation extended by 3 weeks to 13 May

At around 5.00pm yesterday (19th April) Badger Crowd was sent Defra’s ‘stakeholder’ message that the badger cull consultation has been extended by 3 weeks. Due to end on Monday 22nd April, it will now finish on 13th May. One legal letter was sent to Defra on 19th March and then two on the 28th March this year, stating specifically that the 5 week consultation period was too short and that an 8 week period would be appropriate.  Defra consultations are often eight weeks long.

Although a three week time extension has been granted, the three week delay in responding to the letter and agreeing it means this still does not provide an adequate response time. Defra just doesn’t get it. 

One of the letters also pointed out the misinformation and lack of detail on aspects of the consultation document. Two long letters were also received from Defra yesterday (19th) and are now under the legal microscope.

Legal pressure from our friends at Badger Trust and Wild Justice, together with their ‘survey monkey’ poll of respondents, illustrates problems with interpretation of the consultation. Extra time will give Defra more time to reflect on how muddled their consultation truly is.

Other voluntary groups are still considering what advice to provide to individuals wanting to write to Defra about the consultation, and we will report further on this as it is made available.  It is still difficult to advise on the best way to complete the consultation, because of the lack of information provided, its limited scope, the misleading content including wrong use of science and the wording of the questions which does not allow adequately for views to be expressed.

Defra’s consultation is a mess and they know we know it’s a mess. They know it’s a big mess. Thanks again to the 700 of you who have joined the Badger Crowd and are supporting the fight for justice for badgers.

We are the Badger Crowd.  We stand up for Badgers.

Help Stop the Badger Cull U-turn

Kamikaze bovine TB consultation – will it crash and burn?


On Thursday 28th March 2024 two solicitors’ letters were sent to the government. They express grave concerns over aspects of the Defra five-week badger culling consultation that began on 14th March, and attempts to bring about a policy u-turn on the phasing out of badger culling.

As readers may be aware from our recent blog, there is so much wrong with the proposal that it is hard to know where to start. Put simply, the Chief Veterinary Officer, currently Christine Middlemiss who is based at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) would be given sweeping powers to designate as many new cull areas as she and apparently a group of mostly farmers and cull companies think fit. This would be based upon currently obscure assumptions about how cattle herds have caught bovine TB in any area, yet with the finger wrongly always pointing at badgers.

Future decisions on initiating culls seem to rest around whether badgers share the same countryside areas (mostly they do because of the pasture landscapes) and whether they have the same bTB strain as the cows (mostly they don’t, according to the ‘Badgers Found Dead’ Edge and Low Risk Area surveys). Even if they do, an infected cattle herd may rapidly cause infection of the landscape, including many wild mammal species.

These decisions, to be made behind closed doors, will prevent the promised policy direction to ‘phase out’ badger culling. This phase-out  said that the last cull authorizations would be for 2025, other than in ‘exceptional’ circumstances (we continue to oppose these ongoing intensive culls). But the new consultations would permit an unlimited number of ‘cluster’ cull areas across the whole of England. There would be unlimited badger shootings, over an up to seven month period annually, each year decimating healthy badgers in the hope of killing a handful of infectious ones. Totally unacceptable.

‘Cluster’ culling looks very much like the failed Low Risk Area, so-called ‘epidemiological’ culling, which has killed so many badgers in the Cumbria pilot  without demonstrable effect (see ‘A bovine tuberculosis policy conundrum in 2023‘, chapter 5.). They are trying not to call cluster culling ‘epi-culling’ because of these failures.

What has become clear is that Defra are keen to muddle the effects of tighter cattle testing and movement control  by saying that badger culling has contributed to the well-known reduction in number of herds being withdrawn from trading. But there is no scientific evidence of this, only good evidence that badger culling has shown no effect. Yet Defra and their agency APHA remain in denial. They claim in the consultation that a peer-reviewed published academic study finding no disease benefit is flawed, yet cannot provide the data or any analysis to prove their point. After two years, their public outburst is as useless as it was in March 2022,  when their muddled attempts to undermine published science (the first attempt was withdrawn) came out.

Badger Crowd is in touch with Badger Trust and Wild Justice over a range of concerns over the lack of essential information for fair consultation. Responses from government so far have shed no light on questions asked.

Deadlines are coming up and further legal work is necessary, so an initial fundraiser was launched on Monday 1st April on the Crowd Justice website to fund the Badger Crowd legal work. Our fundraising target was reached by April 11th and the fundraiser has now been closed. Thank you very much to all who have supported. If we are advised by our legal team that we have good grounds to seek a Judicial Review, we will need to launch another fundraiser to cover the costs of this. Thank you for your support.

We are the Badger Crowd. We always stand up for Badgers.

The Failed Badger Culls – a brief history and why the fight is not yet over.

Episodic and patchy badger culling has been taking place in England over the last 50 years in an attempt to influence the bovine TB epidemic in cattle herds. And there have also been several ‘experimental’ badger cull trials over that time, the largest of which was the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (1998-2005). The current ‘proactive’ intensive badger culls, where a guesstimated 70-95% of the badger population is killed, began in 2013. We have now had 10 full years of intensive badger culling across the High Risk Area, with over 210,000 badgers reported killed. There have also been experimental badger culls in TB hotspots in at least two places in the ‘Low Risk Area’, where the aim is to kill 100% of the badgers. Killing is now done largely by free-shooting, which is deemed inhumane by the British Veterinary Association because of the cruelty involved.

How is disease control going?

With variations between areas, the general trend for the bovine TB burden in cattle has been downward. However, this decline in bTB cannot be linked to badger culling as in almost all areas bTB rates levelled off and began falling in response to the move to annual cattle testing in 2010, before badger culling began.

Importantly, there has been a further increase in the frequency of cattle testing for bTB over the same period as culling has been taking place, which has begun to remove infected cows slightly more efficiently. Cattle are now tested every 6 months using the tuberculin skin (SICCT) test, and additional testing using Gamma Interferon tests have been introduced to  help remove more of undetected but infected cattle. It is this increase in frequency and efficacy of testing that has been reducing the rate of infection, not badger culling.

Analysis shows no difference in disease decline between culled and unculled areas

The most recent peer-reviewed and pubished analysis of the efficacy of badger culling has shown that there was no detectable difference in disease reduction between culled and unculled areas between 2013 and 2020. All that DEFRA has done is make a crude claim that badger culling works, based on reports  and data that it has  refused to publish or make available for many years and for spurious reasons.

What’s happening now?

Despite the near-complete government news blackout on badger culling, it is still very much government policy. It continues in 60 zones this year, reducing in number by around a third each year until 2025 when the final 23 culls will fizzle out. Natural England have once again authorised badger culling licences for autumn 2023 (announced September 7th). This will mean that up to 26,000 largely completely healthy badgers will be shot dead this year under their watch.

What are Defra’s plans for badger culling in the future?

New report on ‘epidemiological culling’

Despite headlines back in 2020 suggesting that badger culling was to be phased out, the likelihood is that Defra is being cajouled by industry to introduce a new badger culling policy. We understand that a consultation this autumn might seek views on a ‘reactive’, or so-called ‘epidemiological’ culling policy, a method with the core approach banned by government in 2003..

If implemented, this policy would seek to kill 100% of badgers in what are being called bTB ‘cluster’ areas. Although such culls are described in new policy as for ‘exceptional use’ only, it is possible or even likely that they will be implemented wherever bTB is found in cattle and where farmers want to kill badgers. Minette Batters, President of the NFU, has made no secret of her wish to remove badgers from livestock farmland completely, and Defra listen to the wishes of the NFU. The policy does indicate vaccination for any badgers that remain following culling, but this is a policy that clearly continues to attribute significant cattle infection to badgers. This, despite consistently growing scientific evidence for this being extremely unlikely, with weak, equivocal or even manufactured evidence keeping that sentiment alive.

Disease breakdowns continued in Cumbria despite 100% of badgers culled

A trial of this new ‘epi-culling’ approach has been taking place in Cumbria since 2018. Despite eliminating the entire badger population over an area of around 90 sq.km. or more, herd incidents with persistent infections remain unresolved. Bovine TB infection is persistent because it comes from within the herd and from traded stock. There is no credible epidemiological route for infection from badgers. This is useful as a model of why government policy is badly flawed and misguided.

What can we do to stop this?

Years of campaigning by numerous organisations and individuals has so far;

  • Led to legal challenges in the High Court of aspects of the welfare consequences of, scientific justification for, and potential ecological effects of badger culling
  • Challenged the certainty of the science being used to justify badger culling with peer-reviewed analyses
  • Lobbied MP’s repeatedly
  • Organised over 50 rally’s and marches
  • Produced many petitions of up to 300,000 signatories
Protesting outside High Court London

But Defra have not listened or even significantly engaged with those  opposing badger culling. They are listening to the NFU, the big landowners with a powerful voice, and vets who put their own interests and industry before environment, biodiversity & animal welfare. 

The increasing public awareness of climate change impacts and the immediate threat they pose have led to urgent calls to reduce meat and dairy consumption. This in turn should make government take a radical look at the farming industry in the UK, and the policies it is supporting that damage our natural environment. It looks like an impossible task with a government that has no qualms about supporting and subsidising the fossil fuel industry and counts many large land-owners with vested interests amongst its MPs.

Will an election in a little over a years’ time make any difference? Politician’s convictions seem to be increasingly fragile approaching a election, where the importance of green issues to the electorate may be unclear or even antagonize a proportion of it. Whilst polls show that voters rank the environment among the concerns of greatest importance to them, the Uxbridge byelection showed that these issues require careful handling.

Effective caps are needed to block wastefulness and overexploitation of limited resources for trivial activities and inefficient processes.  If candidates want your vote at the next election, the political parties & their candidates need to commit to a comprehensive overhaul of farming and environment policies. It is vital to make it crystal clear to them how important these issues are, or they will not commit to addressing them urgently. We may be stuck with badger culling and policies that continue to deplete our natural resources until it is too late to prevent catastrophic damage. Badger culling is just one more symptom of everything that is wrong in environmental protection in England in recent decades. Strong action is needed right now to change the way government thinks and acts. Everyone has a role to play in ensuring that those in power, and those seeking power, know how important environmental issues are, and how their response to them will affect the way we vote. 

 

 

 

 

Post-Normal Science – Fact, Fantasy and the BBC (again)

A quick look at the BBC farming media and sociology, touching on ‘tribalism’, the BTB Partnership and ‘avoiding the facts’. The result: a perfect storm to confuse bovine tuberculosis control.


In 2022 DEFRA took steps, but failed, to try to stop published peer-reviewed science being published in the Veterinary Record (here, here, here and here), disgracefully interfering in the scientific process. Fourteen months later, DEFRA are still unable to produce data or analyses to substantiate their claim that badger culling has resulted in any disease benefit, or indeed has not failed completely. The Minister Therese Coffey now talks about badger culling continuing if the science is good‘ (see here).  Last year, the Chief Veterinary Officer Christine Middlemiss on Radio 4s Farming Today, blamed others in DEFRA for the withholding of data on badger culling (listen here). If such data were released, it would quickly  allow the use of a wide variety of analyses to check for the efficacy of badger culling. Surely the BBC’s influential Radio 4 flagship farming programme Farming Today, with its one million listeners, would wish to be first to get to the bottom of what is really happening in the badger cull, which is after all, such an important subject. But recent events suggest that they are perhaps, more than hesitant, and might even prefer confusion over clarity?

This month, following enquiries to Farming Today about a misleading story on badger culling by David Gregory Kumar (a BBC reporter from the West Midlands), a follow-up piece was promised by the BBC’s Dimitri Houtart, their ‘Environment, Food, Rural Affairs & Natural History Executive Editor & BBC Rural Affairs Champion’. He said: ‘I have asked my Farming Today team to ensure we mention your complaint and highlight your main points’  On the offending programme on 4th July, Gregory Kumar had played a clip where James Griffiths, a livestock farmer from the Gloucestershire Pilot 1 badger cull area had said ’badger culling has undoubtably made a difference, no one can deny it.’ With Gregory-Kumar then adding, ‘the latest data seems to support this.’ Which it does not. The latest data shows bTB falling generally as it has since around 2015, but the role of badger culling, unseparated from the increased use of better disease tests, is not known. The only published science, checked by a large raft of independent experts, suggests that it has not worked (read here).

Oddly, Gregory Kumar had mentioned the apparent inability of Defra to show badger culling works in an online article that day (see here), reporting a Defra line that analysis of the cull data was not possible due to a lack of comparison sites. This is misinformation because there are many ways to compare Defra’s secret data inside and outside cull areas each year since 2016 to give valid comparison analyses. Is it that Defra don’t get the results they want, or is it that for some reason they are incapable of doing the statistics in question? At least the Secretary of State is referring to ‘if’ the science is good. But the apparent delay in producing good scientific evidence of the benefits of culling is curious. Meanwhile, the government tries once again to bundle a further raft of badger killings through in August to perpetuate the miserable fiasco. Thousands and thousands of completely healthy adult and cub badgers will be killed for no good reason while farmers and the public are misinformed.

Sadly, in this recent episode of media confusion, history was repeating itself, with Gregory Kumar grossly overstating the case for the badger cull working and providing misleading information in the same way on a BBC outlet.  Back in 2014 the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) partly upheld a complaint against an article that Gregory Kumar wrote on BBC NEWS online, as follows: here is a part of the ruling on Gregory Kumars work:

The committee began by looking at what data there was to support the belief that a badger cull had led to a reduction in TB in cattle.

Given that both the statistics and scientific studies about the link between badger culling and bovine TB levels were inconclusive, the Committee examined whether the article had used clear and precise language to make this apparent to the audience. In doing so, it observed that the badger cull had become a highly divisive issue with those for and against the cull using the findings of different trials to bolster their respective causes and so it was essential that the BBC provided the greatest clarity possible on the subject.

In this context, the Committee believed that the language used in the article had not been sufficiently precise as it suggested that the badger cull might be a factor in helping control the disease when this was scientifically unproven. It considered that, while the data did show a decline in the number of cattle infected with TB in Ireland, there was no conclusive evidence to show that the badger cull had been categorically responsible for any of this decline and so it was inaccurate to say that, along with other measures, it can help control the disease.

On July 4th 2023, misleading information was again given out suggesting that badger culling had worked in Gloucestershire and England, with bTB policy in Wales (without culling) not working so well. However, the epidemiology reports (here) show an influx of diseased cattle into north Wales from Shropshire and Cheshire, providing a simple explanation for this. Local trading is still around 50% of cattle movements in Wales.

Here is the data from Gloucestershire where James Griffiths farms:

There has been an increase from 22 incidents in 2013 when badger culling began to 28 incidents in 2022. It is not hard to spot that badger culling shows no sign of working.

So, Defra persist in withholding data that could tell us if badger culling is working, and continue to allow exaggerated claims for efficacy to be made. And what did Farming Today do to clarify the situation? They got in touch with DEFRA, and on 17 July played bits of an interview with a member of its secretive BTB partnership, Professor Gareth Enticott of the Human Geography Department at Cardiff University.

The bTB Partnership Group was set up in 2021, with the aim ‘to encourage shared ownership, coordination, and decision-making surrounding England’s 25-year bovine TB eradication programme’. In 2022, its chairman John Cross (who has just been given an OBE) when asked its view on a new scientific analysis, said that the group does not have the capacity to consider scientific evidence. This was a surprise as it counts a professor of epidemiology amongst its membership. Other members of the group are largely farmers and vets who believe that badgers should be culled. Wildlife and nature conservation experts are not well represented.

Disappointingly, rather than addressing the point of contention in the previous Farming Today, i.e. whether or not the latest bTB data support the thesis that badger culling is reducing disease in cattle, Prof Enticott introduced the concept of ’post-normal science’. This did not really feel like an appropriate response to a factual and statistical matter concerning real data and the withholding of it for simple analyses. Enticott contended that Farmers may not be keen to wait for data to show that badger culling is effective – was that deemed acceptable?  He said words to the effect:

“ …science is never definitive on anything, and that’s how science progresses, that there’s always debate about what works and what doesn’t work. In terms of the badger cull and TB policy as a whole, what you’ve got really is a debate about values which are in contest with each other, so the evidence which has been collected around badger culling reflects a set of different values about what constitutes appropriate evidence, and those values represent or are reflective of the times in which the evidence was collected.

So if we go back 20 – 25 years, you know there was a real hope that the randomized badger culling trial, very scientific approach – that form of evidence seemed to be the kind of the highest level of scientific evidence would provide the answer, and would also convert people into believing that badger culling would work. Now it turns out that that wasn’t actually the case and it wasn’t the case because they’re always these kinds of uncertainties around badger culling. But you can look at that in a number of different ways and always challenge it. So there’s never really going to be a definitive answer.”

This is simply misleading. The RBCT, as a scientific exercise, was aimed at finding out it culling could provide any disease benefit, rather than trying to ‘convert people into believing that badger culling would work’. The recent learning curve from better understanding of testing efficacy is that the ‘all-reactor’ set of results should be used in the analyses; these show no relationship between badger culling and herd breakdown. These comments reduce the conversation to confusion with a jaded view of the science process.  Enticott went on:

“The answer really is what kind of science do you want to have. So, in other another environmental controversies people talk about the need for what’s called kind of post-normal science. You often have an issue where the facts are uncertain, values are disputed, the stakes are high, but people need to make a decision quite quickly. Waiting for the evidence of the randomized control trial or whatever, is not going to be appropriate.”

Firstly, the facts are not uncertain (although the interpretation certainly is), and the normal science process is open for business, it is just Defra don’t want to let go of data, talk about analytical procedure or publish results because they just want to carry on killing badgers. There never was any hurry, everyone knew that bTB was spread long distance in lorries and the skin test was not clearing herds properly. The reality was a conscious policy choice to carry on ‘trading dirty’ rather than lock down, while blaming the badgers. Enticott continued:

You need to develop different ways of collecting information and doing science, and people refer to that as post-normal science. Now one of the ways in which you might do that is by kind of accepting that you know different forms of evidence are limited and there are problems with them.”

Well, anyone interested in post-normal science is welcome to Google it. It looks like a bit of a neo-liberal mandate to make it up as you go along. Promoted by an ‘International Society for Ecological Economics’…… While it can be appreciated as a kick-back on the current trend to twist data with dubious modelling, it looks like the kind of rationale that could be used to help reduce the planet to dust.  You must wonder if Farming Today’s million listeners were given a clear insight into the concept and its application to bovine TB control.

This must be an example of the BBC at its worst and you have to wonder what Gregory-Kumar and Dimitri Houtart are up to.  Do they know what they are doing or are they just two more of John Krebs sticky people (see here)?

Gareth Enticott articulated that farmers hold their own views on the effects of badgers on biodiversity and would be keen to take control of badger numbers for that reason, which is very revealing but not very helpful. Any move towards farmer-led/informed manipulation of the ecosystem remains illegal because of the barbaric treatment of wild and domestic animals by a range of sadistic people. The legal protection of badgers was a move that reflected the wishes of the public in the 1970’s who had witnessed decades of sickening abuse. Animal welfare, like science, progresses by careful process. It marks out some measure of human progress and humility. The role of badgers in the ecosystem would be much better understood if Natural England and DEFRA had done what they promised a High Court Judge they would do in 2018 and monitor the ecological consequences of removing hundreds of thousands of them. But that has been strongly resisted, and substituted with feeble ‘rule of thumb‘ assumptions.

The effectiveness of badger culling as a disease control measure remains unproven, and this is what needs to be communicated to the farming community effectively. Then they can stop wasting their own, as well as public money on a badger culling policy that is expensive, and ultimately has not had, and never will have, any measurable or actual impact on bTB in cattle.

Back in 2012, ‘Bourne’s carrot’ was the phrase developed from the rumoured whisper in a Westminster corridor, to John Bourne, who ran the RBCT. The metaphorical carrot offered killing badgers to help incentivise farmers to test and remove infected cows. We have had a long era of Fake News and ‘winner takes all’ mentality.  Can the truth prevail? Not with post-normal science one suspects.

Since 2011, there have been books exposing government incompetence in livestock disease management (1) and the jumping to conclusions by social analysts on the advice of vested interests (2). There has been the cautioning by an exiting Chief Scientist on ‘tribalism’ and its drug-like ability to bring civil servants into conformity (here).  The farming and veterinary sectors, alongside vested academia still struggle to come to terms with the reality that badgers are not implicated in any significant spread of Bovine TB in cattle herds.  Which players will be the first to accept the wickedness (here) of the situation, and will the media finally spot what is ultimately in the best interest of farmers, cows and badgers? Has post-normal science been hiding in plain site since 2011 – it looks decidedly possible. Will BBC Farming Today and other farming media be able to cope? Probably not on current form – we will see.

A full transcript of the Farming Today piece from 17th July is available here.

(1) Why were you Wicked to Badgers?, May 2022.
Book Review:  A History of Uncertainty – Bovine Tuberculosis in Britain 1850 to the Present,  Peter J Atkins, 2016, Winchester University Press
(2) Book Review: Vermin, Victims and Disease. April 2020.  British Debates over Bovine Tuberculosis and Badgers, by Angela Cassidy

Badger cull science failure, denials and confusion

Since mid-March 2022, Defra has persisted with its claims regarding an independent scientific paper (1) that extensively analysed government data on herd bTB incidence and prevalence in the High Risk Area of England since 2010. The paper compares areas subject to badger culling with those that were not culled in each year of the controversial mass badger culls from 2013-2019.The paper concludes that badger culling has had no measurable benefit in bovine TB disease reduction, and Defra continue to claim that the paper is flawed.

Defra’s and Natural England’s position on this new analysis, including apparently that of the Defra chief scientist (CSA), Gideon Henderson and chief vet (CVO) Christine Middlemiss, seems to be based on their dislike of the statistical approach of the new paper, which differs from Defra’s traditional approach to badger cull evaluation.

Defra/APHA prefer to try to mimic the analytical methods of the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT). They take cull areas and compare them with different unculled areas, adjusting the data considerably to try to take account of the subtle or sometimes profound differences between compared areas. The new study took a different approach. This study looked at the same (or 97% of) herds over the years of study, so spatial differences were minimized. The analysis used data from herds when they were in unculled areas, and then again when they were in culled areas following their transition from one to the other. This simple approach, dictated by Defra secrecy over cull area locations, brings different strengths and requires less interference with the data. The approach enabled all the data available to be used, not just selected parts of it that might lead to skewed, inaccurate results and conclusions. Just look, for example, at the tangled caveats in the Downs paper from 2019 of just three culled areas and multiple unculled areas.

But Defra are very bold in their criticism : “the analysis was scientifically flawed. It manipulated data in a way that makes it impossible to see the actual effects of badger culling and therefore its conclusions are wrong.” Confident claims, but do they have merit?

Defra’s ‘inappropriate grouping’ claim

Defra’s main objection surrounds the issue of what they call ‘inappropriate grouping’ of data. This is the key point in the letter that they pressed the Veterinary Record journal to publish alongside the shortened printed version of the paper on 18th March. This was reported on in more detail here.

The problem in Defra’s claim  goes beyond the calculation mistakes in their 18 March Vet Record graph, that they subsequently (in May) apologised for, retracted & replaced with results more similar to those in the new paper. Defra’s presented data shows the herd bTB incidence reducing dramatically in the first and second years from cull commencement. This is the same data as used in the new paper, so this is no surprise. But the point is, Defra say that you cannot group data from years one and two of culling with that from the third and later years because the level of decline in years one and two are too small, and this will remove all signs of effect. However, the Defra graphs do not show that the level of decline in years one and two in cull areas is small, and this is the contradiction that they refuse to talk about.

Similarly, the analysis presented by APHA staffer Colin Birch at the IVSEE16 conference in Nova Scotia, Canada earlier this month, (2) Figure 1, does not show that the level of decline in years one and two is small either.  It showed sustained decline  over 4 years, with a similar level of decline each year right from the start. Yet it provided no comparison of data from the 25% of the HRA that remains unculled. To the audience’s complaint, here, he quite wrongly tried to attribute these declines to badger culling.

Figure 1. Marginal effects on confirmed bTB incidence rate associated with duration of badger control. Error bars indicate 95% confidence intervals. From Birch abstract ISVEE 2022

So where did the ‘inappropriate grouping’ comment come from? Well, it is likely that Defra have fallen back on RBCT advice and the 2006 and 2007 (3,4) papers that presented the findings of 10 treatment-control area comparisons of small cull areas. These papers showed large variation in the estimated levels of decline in bTB herd incidence in culling areas, so much so that the confidence intervals (CI) on the presented graph figure 2A (Figure 2.) passed through 0 in most years.

Figure 2. Fig 2 (A) from Donnelly et al. 2007

Estimated average declines were 3.5% in year 1 and 12.8 % in year 2, with 39% in year 3. So, you can see that by using the RBCT as a prior reference source (this the point of reference used in Defra/APHA documents), there could be an expectation that there isn’t much disease reduction in years 1 and 2.  However, while the drop may not  have been projected to show significance until year 3, the decline trend should be present and visible by the end of year 2.

So looking again at Figure 1 (Birch 2022 abstract), government is now turning this on its head and claiming, in contradiction, that bTB incidence among cattle herds reduced by around 15% per year in each of the first two years of badger culling.

Defra’s unsupported point was also made by Cambridge vet James Wood on Radio 4 Farming Today on 19th March 2022, but it simply doesn’t stack up. Even if there was just a modest (say 8% average) annual benefit in years 1 and 2, it would still have shown up in the new paper analysis in comparison with unculled areas when using such a huge amount of data, as is possible using the 2016 onwards rolled-out HRA badger culls.

Ridiculously, Defra have previously claimed substantial benefit in years 1 and 2 from the post-2013 cull data, and used this as a basis for claiming badger culling was working. They did this spectacularly in 2017 with the APHA Brunton et al. paper (5) that suggested benefit 32% in Somerset, and 58% benefit in Gloucestershire in the first two years, and again in 2019 with the notorious and heavily caveated Downs et al. paper using data to-2017 (6), that was undone by the 2018 results (7), also published in the veterinary literature, with slightly more claimed benefit (Table 1 below).

Pilot cull Area 2013-2017

Brunton et al. 2017

Downs et al. 2019

Percent est. in Yrs 1 and 2

Gloucestershire 1

58%

66%

88%

Somerset 1

32%

37%

86%

Table 1. Claimed benefit from badger culling in Brunton et al (5) and Downs et al (6).

The Defra Minister and MP’s were told that badger culling was working based on this claimed year 1 and 2 benefit. They told parliament and the public in no uncertain terms that badger culling was working, so they can’t really go back on it now without losing face. James Wood also told Countryfile views that he thought the data showed badger culling was working based on the first two-years of pilot data. So, who is talking in riddles now?

The problem that Defra have, and it is why they have clammed up to the scientists and media, is that if Defra/the CSA/CVO were to communicate beyond the bold claims made in March in Vet Record and on the Defra media blog, they would lose the argument. Defra have written to the first author saying they are not prepared to discuss the matter. Caught, it seems, between their scientific advisors’ comments, legal undertakings to monitor efficacy and policy-mania to keep on badger culling in the face of failure. Even Natural England have gone as far as saying that the situation is unclear “Because these different control measures are being implemented simultaneously, it is difficult to determine the relative contribution each of them is making to disease reduction.”

Insufficient data points?

One argument Government have used to dismiss the validity of the new paper is that it has insufficient data points. While the new study does has few data points, each data point summarises a huge amount of data representing hundreds or thousands of herds, helping to obviate the kind of problems caused by the smaller data sets of APHA studies. The approach is equally or more valid. It did, after all, pass rigorous peer-review (4 reviewers including at least two epidemiological statistical specialists) in a leading veterinary journal.

Basically, Defra lost both arguments, rebutting the paper in short measure, and it is astonishing that CSA Henderson CVO Middlemiss were given this position to hold, let alone to defend. No wonder Middlemiss got muddled on Farming Today over it on 25 May.  This problem is now many months old and Defra and Natural England have carried their unsubstantiated criticisms along to justify the licensing of further supplementary culling licences in May and  intensive culling licenses from August. This means the killing of tens of thousands more largely healthy badgers over the next four years to add to the roughly 200,000 that have been slaughtered to date. This flies in the face of peer-reviewed science, against which Defra have failed to produce anything credible or comprehensive that is peer-reviewed.

At the Birdfair State of the Earth panel debate on 15th July of this year, the retired badger cull architect Prof Ian Boyd: Chief Scientific Adviser at Defra (2012-2019) commented: “Well, if badger culling isn’t working it shouldn’t be done, that’s absolutely clear.  I think there is still an ‘if’ there, but I suspect that the evidence is suggesting it doesn’t work.”

And Prof David Macdonald at Oxford, who chaired the Natural England Scientific Advisory Committee for many years, and who called the Pilot culls an ‘epic fail’ has commented in Chapter 16 of his new Oxford University Press book ‘The Badgers of Wytham Woods’: “ it is hard to see how Middlemiss and Henderson land a knock-out punch on Langton et al’s analysis..”

There is nothing very dramatic or complicated here in Defra’s last stand. Defra has lost the scientific argument. They must surely now face abandoning the failed badger culling policy altogether. They really should talk openly about it.

References

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

2. Birch, C. Prosser, A. and Downs S.  An analysis of the impact of badger control on bovine tuberculosis in England. Abstract oral presentation to ISVEE16, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. 2022.

3. Donnelly, C. A. et al. Positive and negative effects of widespread badger culling on tuberculosis in cattle. Nature 439, 843–846 (2006).

4. Donnelly CA, Wei G, Johnston WT, Cox DR, Woodroffe R, Bourne FJ, Cheeseman CL, Clifton-Hadley RS, Gettinby G, Gilks P, Jenkins HE, Le Fevre AM, McInerney JP, Morrison WI. Impacts of widespread badger culling on cattle tuberculosis: concluding analyses from a large-scale field trial. Int J Infect Dis. 2007 Jul;11(4):300-8. doi: 10.1016/j.ijid.2007.04.001. Epub 2007 Jun 12. PMID: 17566777.

5. Brunton LA, et al. Assessing the effects of the first 2 years of industry-led badger culling in England on the incidence of bovine tuberculosis in cattle in 2013–2015. Ecol Evol. 2017;7:7213–7230. doi: 10.1002/ece3.3254. – DOI – PMC – PubMed.

6. Downs S H, Prosser A, Ashton A, Ashfield S, Brunton L A, Brouwer A, et al. Assessing effects from four years of industry-led badger culling in England on the incidence of bovine tuberculosis in cattle, 2013–2017. 2019. Sci Rep. 2019; 9:14666. 
https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-49957-6. Accessed 16 June 2021

7. Mcgill I, Jones M. Cattle infectivity is driving the bTB epidemic. Vet Record. 2019; 185(22), 699 – 700. 
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31806839/.

Natural England and the 2022 cull licences

Over the last three years, the science base for badger culling has shrivelled away from ‘not very much’, to nothing. It has regressed from speculation that it might enable a modest annual reduction of bTB in cattle, to the reality that after 7 years of study, there is no measurable benefit when comparing herd breakdown rates in culled and unculled parts of the High Risk Area. It doesn’t work. This is one reason the government refuses to talk about it. Not only did the 2018 spike in bTB breakdowns in Gloucestershire show how unlikely it is that the killing of badgers is linked to the epidemiology of cattle breakdowns. It showed how cautiously the model-based claims of the Animal Plant and Health Agency (APHA) after 2 and then 4 years of culling should be considered. Subsequent detailed examination of all the government data this year in a peer reviewed paper (Langton et al) showed the badger culls to have failed.

Following a ridiculous three months of trying and failing to block and then rubbish the new scientific paper, Defra stopped communicating with the authors and enquiring journalists, leaving Natural England (NE) with the difficult decision of whether to continue issuing licences. The government response was to re-deploy Andrew Robertson from the government’s TB HUB information service in Exeter to Natural England in May of this year “because of a lack of expertise” inside the NE organisation. The outcome was that Natural England supported Defra’s position and issued yet more badger culling licences. Initially more Supplementary culling licences were approved by NE in May, this despite the fact that there was no benefit after 4 years to maintain for a further 5 years. Then in August, NE were somehow prepared to extend their belief in the killing of badgers and to continue culling badgers based on their own unpublished ‘secret’ science.

Instead of stopping culling as they should have done, NE have taken a nebulous stance on the science. It has refused to provide any written justification for its position, perpetuating its belief in the use of secrecy to prevent public scrutiny of their competence and decision making. The public have a right to see the rationale for their decisions, but this has been withheld. It is clear that NE have worked very very hard this year to facilitate continued issue of licences. They do this for a combination of reasons. They are likely fearful of contradicting Defra and APHA. Perhaps it would be too difficult to admit to failure on such a sensitive area.

Over the summer, NE Chairman Tony Juniper chose not to reply to communications, preferring to talk vaguely on public panels about NE not wanting culling and preferring vaccination. This summer he had a big chance to stop badger culling. He didn’t. He has now been in charge during the culling of most of the approximately 200,000 badgers. He and George Eustice have carried out what some call the near eradication of badgers over large parts of England.

NE eventually responded this week following a legal pre-action letter, sent in early October. They claimed that the death of the Queen and changes in government had prevented the licensing paperwork from being shared with those asking for it. These are embarrassing excuses for the lack of provision of legally required documents, on such a controversial subject of high public interest, and they reflect poorly on those responsible.

Information released late on Friday 28th October, showed 11 new cull areas, and the potential for tens of thousands more badgers to be killed. Over 30,000 or so could have already been shot over the last 8 weeks in a further sickening Natural England licenced ‘bloodfest’ of largely healthy badgers. One thing is certain, this is Natural England’s work. Natural England carry the torch for badger culling even if they say they are only following orders. As they have since 2012, when someone thought it would be a good idea for NE to carry it out and control it. They certainly have. It is the legacy of those involved with NE past and present, as much as anyone.

The Daily Mail, Defra and the bTB story that just keeps growing

Has Defra had enough of experts? Its own experts that is?

Last week The Daily Mail published a story (here) around the release of a Freedom of Information request (here). This FOI showed that the Deputy Director of the bovine TB Programme at Defra wrote to the journal Veterinary Record (VR) trying to influence the peer-review process of a new scientific analysis of badger cull data, Langton, Jones and McGill, (here), and largely failed.

The Mail story was published on Tuesday 30th August and names Eleanor Brown as the senior official who wrote to VR Editor Susanne Jarvis on 2nd March 2022, just a few weeks before the paper appeared in print. It laid down extensive criticisms aimed at the manuscript that they had been sent ahead of publication, where they stated that it was the VR Editorial Board’s (Headed by Lord Trees) decision as to whether to publish it or not. Defra thought it should not be published and made that very clear to a journal that extensively publishes government science.

The original Mail article implied that VR had been ‘forced’ to seek changes to the manuscript. The VR Editorial Board had in fact called a special meeting to discuss challenges to the paper, that Defra’s email in early March claimed was full of errors and flaws. However, the VR Editorial Board found that there was nothing wrong with the statistical work, which was found to be robust. These senior national and international veterinarians, with the VR staff, resting on the detailed reviews of no less than four peer reviewers decided that Defra’s accusations held little substance, and published the paper largely unaltered. The paper showed badger culling lacked any signs of working. Badger culling has not affected bTB herd breakdown in the High Risk Area of England since 2013.

The Daily Mail then republished the article the next day (31st August), removing the claim that Defra had ‘forced’ the Veterinary Record to make changes to the paper. The truth was that  in order to proceed with publication, VR had required the authors to write-in Defra’s apparent intention to publish something in the future, using data it had kept secret, and describe it as a limitation to the study. Something that was dubious, but was made a condition of the paper not being blocked. So the Mail got it right in that there was an element of ‘watering down’ due to the Editorial Board meeting, but nothing that impacted the full force of the paper’s findings that showed that  Defra’s badger culling policy had been a total failure.

Defra’s view that the analysis was flawed was therefore roundly rejected by over a dozen leading experts in the field. However, Defra had been invited to comment on the new paper for a short news piece to accompany the publication of Langton et al in the same edition of the journal. But this ‘comment’ somehow morphed into a full-page critique, fronted by the Chief Scientific Adviser Gideon Henderson and Chief Veterinary Officer Christine Middlemiss. This  contained and expanded on the sentiments of Eleanor Brown’s email. It  persisted with the claims that the paper was ‘flawed’. This was published under the guise of a ‘letter’ in the very same issue.

These highly unusual events then became farcical when commentators immediately recognised errors in Defra’s alternative view.  But Defra then held out for six weeks before admitting that their letter was flawed. They then revised it. Saying it didn’t matter anyway because they were right and in effect, that the study, Vet Record editorial staff and the peer reviewers were all wrong (here).  In response to last weeks Mail story, Defra even put out a defiant blog on 30 August repeating their original nonsense and unchecked views using small amounts of data for the unculled area comparison (here).

The 30 Aug Defra  blog stated:

“As we had been invited to, we presented our findings to Vet Record to help inform its editorial decisions around publication of the paper, with the journal deciding to publish the study alongside a letter of response from the Chief Vet and Defra Chief Scientific Adviser. There was absolutely no attempt to make changes to the scientific research, as the Mail claims was the case.”

For some reason any comments made to this blog criticising Defra’s restatement of their flawed position were removed. Interesting.

So Defra now say that it never attempted to try to get changes made to the science. Yet it wanted to go over the head of the VR staff and peer-reviewers to the Editorial Board? And turned an invite for a news piece comment into a mini-paper that was wrong, dressed up as a letter.

Readers can be the judge of whether science was handled ethically in this instance. Defra say they made no attempt to make changes, yet they wrote to VR in very clear and emotive terms a few weeks before publication, and having been ignored, completed a hurried un-peer-reviewed missive that itself was full of error, ambiguity and secrecy. They were successful in getting the VR Editorial Board to require a smattering of changes stating that Defra had other ideas. Un peer-reviewed science of the future influencing peer-reviewed science of the present?

This actually all looks more than a bit dubious from the perspective of publishing ethics. It has to be asked, who is going to look into it? Having re-stated their views on their new blog, Defra have begun signing off new four-year intensive badger cull licences in 10 new cull areas this autumn, with 40,000 or so more badgers condemned. But Defra are wrong. They (wrongly) claim large benefits from badger culling in the first two years of culling, as they did in 2017, yet say this data cannot be used in the Langton et al analysis. And then they won’t talk about it and neither will Natural England’s statistical expert Peter Brotherton. Natural England as a whole have clammed up, presumably because Defra won’t explain their thinking to them either.

The Minister George Eustice owns the badger cull policy and is closely managing it. He must now be aware of what his staff have done. He may even be a part of it. They have painted themselves into a corner and gone to ground. Has he had enough of his experts yet? If he survives the reshuffle that is. If not, perhaps the dodgy legacy will be his, and a new Minister will get to grips with the ridiculous, unscientific yet defiant behaviour of Defra and its agencies on bovine TB and badger culling. As hundreds of badgers a day are shot for no good reason, the evidence clearly points to bad government and desperate measures. This policy of killing largely healthy, protected animals in a manner found cruel by the British Veterinary Association is out of control.

Defra’s efforts to pervert the course of science

Today the Daily Mail lifts the lid on Defra’s attempts to interfere with scientific progress (here).

Defra were caught out by freedom of information (FOI) disclosures, leaning heavily on Veterinary Record journal staff, and using emotive language, over an  accepted academic manuscript. This  new scientific paper analysed the governments own bovine TB and badger culling data. It was published by independent researchers on 18th March (see here).

Defra lashed out in an extraordinary way at the authors, peer-reviewers and journal staff via a media blog and made half-baked attempts at manufacturing  graphs using selective bits of (incorrectly calculated) data pushing what they wanted to see. They reached a new low level in efforts to keep badger culling going to prop up the failed policy. Their science and statistics is all over the place and they then refused to communicate over their embarrassment.  Defra staff are now in bunker mentality with their advisers unable to help.

It should be all-over for badger culling – will the Defra, APHA and Natural England blinkers remain on,  or will we see the change that the new science demands?

Read the FOI’s here.

 

DEFRA called out over flawed bovine TB claims at international vet conference

The UK’s Animal and Plant Agency statistician Colin Birch was roundly criticized for his presentation yesterday (12/08/22) at the 16th International Symposium of Veterinary Epidemiology and Economics (ISVEE 16) held at Halifax Convention Centre, Halifax Nova Scotia, Canada.

Birch presented data from badger killing zones in England in recent years, with no proper explanation as to why he had not also used data from unculled areas to compare. He claimed  that a reported 50% reduction in bovine TB herd incidence in culled areas was due to badger culling.

The audience seemed less than convinced. At the end one question pointed out that it is not possible to attribute the reduction in bTB incidence to badger culling as the reduction in the unculled area had a similar trajectory. Cattle measures (Testing and movement controls) that were introduced prior to and over the same period (in both culled and unculled areas) would reduce incidence in the manner observed.

A further point was made from the audience that it looked like Birch and APHA were trying to make and promote ‘policy driven evidence’ to satisfy the ministry (Defra). Birch had no coherent response to this but said that he did not agree.

The unpublished manuscript by Birch and others is yet to be fully disclosed, but comes at a highly sensitive time for Defra and Minister George Eustice and Natural England Chairman, Tony Juniper and his scientific staff. They want to sign off the killing of another 40,000 largely healthy badgers from September of this year, despite the science suggesting that complete failure is the most likely outcome.

In March of this year, Defra issued flawed data (see here) in response to a detailed peer reviewed paper (see here) published in Veterinary Record which showed that badger culling in England since 2013 has failed. In a response to the paper, Defra produced a media outburst designed to undermine it, that claimed badger culling had little or no effect in the first two years, and therefore the analysis used was flawed. Observers have been left baffled and talking about government competence, since all the Defra data presented shows large drops in herd incidence over the first two years, suggesting that it is cattle measures that are responsible for these declines, and not culling.

Despite high public interest in this most controversial of policies, Defra have become tight-lipped on their home-made dilemma since March 2022, and defiantly issued more cull licences in June. But despite well and truly losing the science argument they still  appear desperate to try to show some reason to prop up their policy and to enable them to keep killing badgers. This fell flat at today’s conference as the science community strongly questioned Defra’s handling of data.

Environmental principles ‘usurped’ as Badger Cull ecological impacts case is hijacked

On Tuesday 26th July 2022 at the Court of Appeal in London, case CA-2021-001918 was heard: The Queen on the Application of Langton v The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs & Anr was heard in Court 71.  The presiding judges were Lady Justice Macur, Lord Justice Haddon-Cave and Lord Justice Dingemans.

It was not a good day for badgers, or for public interest concerned with how government policy impacts the UKs increasingly nature-depleted rural areas. It showed a sinister ploy by the Government to defeat a well constructed legal claim in what is plainly backroom conduct that only came to light in April 2022, after the Court of Appeal had granted permission for the appeal to be heard. Most of all it shows the level of thinking in government where winning and ‘doing it our way’, takes precedence over doing what is right and in the public interest.

The decisions, read with the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee recommendations published just two days later, could not provide a  more stark contradiction. Government has created a new low bar, where not knowing enough, not being able to afford essential research and ignoring official reports pointing to evidence gaps, are all good reasons to do nothing. Biodiversity protection just entered a dangerous void, thanks to those in charge at Defra and Natural England.

Background

This case was an appeal from the High Court judgement of August 2021 [2021] EWHC 2199 (Admin), where Mr Justice Griffiths concluded that the Secretary of State for the Environment, George Eustice, was not required to ‘have regard’ to the potential impacts of badger culling policy on biodiversity under Section 40 of the NERC Act 2006, see here. This was in respect of listed priority species and habitats and the potential disruption of biodiversity by removal of badgers from the wider countryside.

The first stage of the Court of Appeal hearing was to consider whether the appeal had become “academic”, after permission to appeal had been granted by Justice Simler on 13th April, following late evidence from Defra in the form of the witness statement of Eleanor Brown dated 28 April 2022 and submitted by the Secretary of State.

Ms Brown’s witness statement showed that Defra took steps to remedy the same defect alleged in the High Court case regarding the all-important section 40 duty to consider biodiversity impacts. The Secretary of State had conceded before Justice Griffiths the assessment under section 40 had not been done when adopting Next Steps in 2020. It was a rearguard action that had significant implications for the case when it was finally before the Court of Appeal this July.

Ms. Brown is DEFRA’s Veterinary Head for TB Policy Advice. She told the Court in her witness statement that following the judgment in the High Court in July 2021, that although Defra had “won” the case, in October 2021, Defra officials nevertheless took steps in case that decision was overturned, and to prepare papers for the Secretary of State, to be signed off in December 2021. This would include the missing s40 assessment of the effects of badger culling on biodiversity. Ms Brown explains that the Defra officials invited the Secretary of State to consider whether to continue with Next Steps badger control policy. A copy of the briefing note to the minister can be found here. Our view of the Minister’s briefing was that it was a wholly inadequate summary of previous information about the risk of badger culling and manifestly failed to fully assess the wider ecological risks.

Ms Brown’s evidence was challenged as being a breach of the duty of candor, given that Ms Brown, and the Government Legal Department who acts for the Secretary of State in legal proceedings, kept these October 2021- December 2021 activities secret both from parties to the case and from the Court, and only declared them once permission to Appeal had been granted in mid-April 2022.

The case for the claimant is made

The question of the Appeal being ‘academic’ (without legal means for ‘relief’: to quash the unlawful original policy, as challenged) was considered as the first stage in the court process. Mr Richard Turney (Landmark Chambers) for the claimant, argued that although relief in respect of the quashing of the badger cull 2020 ‘Next Steps’ policy was no longer available, due to the Secretary of State having latterly remedied any potential omission ‘to have regard’ in December 2021, (Ground 4), an important point of principle remained. This was in respect to the legal requirement to ‘have regard’ under the NERC Act 2006 when making decisions of this sort (Grounds 1 and 2). The claimant was nevertheless entitled to a hearing and if successful, ‘declaratory relief’, this being recognition of the legal error in respect of the generic approach to the issue and the judgement by Mr. Justice Griffiths in August 2021.

Mr. Turney emphasised the importance of the case, that badger culling is highly controversial and possibly the largest intervention ever for protected wild species in the UK. The same duty to ‘conserve biodiversity’ (a central component of obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity 1992) is now to be taken forward in the 2021 Environment Act. Some parts have yet to come into force, but it is potentially weakened by the original 2021 Griffiths judgement by giving space for provisions to be avoided where uncertainty exisits.  Mr. Justice Griffiths judgement was said to be, in Mr. Turney’s view, ‘stark’:  if the biodiversity duty does not apply in these circumstances, would it apply in any circumstances?

The government responds

Mr. Hanif Mussa QC (Blackstone Chambers) for the government took the court to the government’s ‘no difference’ argument, that it would have done what it did (not take steps to consider, investigate, avoid, monitor, and take action to mitigate potential ecological impacts of badger culling) irrespective of its consideration of the biodiversity duty. He submitted that the claim had to be dismissed because the court no longer had authority to continue. He submitted that the 2021 Environment Act was sufficiently different for the decision not to be that relevant and that there were currently no outstanding cases where the outcome might rest on this case.

He referred to Dr Brown’s witness statement that research into potential impacts would take too long and there was no point studying them over the four years remaining of culling.

Court of Appeal decides not to hear the case.

Within two hours of consideration, the judges came to their conclusion that by reconsidering the matter in December 2021, Defra had corrected any possible error in the Secretary of State’s earlier procedure and therefore any consideration of relief in 2022 was therefore academic.

With respect to the matter being considered on Appeal as exceptional circumstances, the judges did not seem too interested in the issue over whether the subject of the case was part of an ‘ongoing relationship’ between Mr. Langton and Natural England (remedies in the 2017 and 2018 cases proved the long running dispute) although they were ‘aware’ of Natural England’s communications with the claimant.  

Whether the wording of the 2021 Environment Act is sufficiently different to that of the 2006 NERC Act in respect of the Section 40 duty and for there to be a significant concern over the decision affecting future decisions withthe new legislation did not appear to be appreciated as a compelling argument of much interest to the court.  This is where it might be argued most forcefully that the Court of Appeal let things down.

Finally, whether there were other cases waiting to be heard on the point, and to which this Appeal related seemed to be important, and because none were known this appeared to act against the argument for a full hearing so the three judges decided to close the hearing down.

Conclusions

It is disappointing that the Court of Appeal decided not permit the substantive merits of the case to be aired and allowed an important public interest case to be “played” by Defra through the submission of very late evidence that had the effect of rendering the claim ‘academic’, so that the merits were not decided.

For now, there remains doubt over the validity of the main ground in the case as to whether the s40 duty was engaged when Ministers considered Next Steps policy in 2020, and we continue to maintain that the Court of Appeal judges could and should have heard the case given the important legal issue before them.

Defra and Natural England’s conduct since 2013 and during this litigation is worthy of more extended analysis. Those who started off defending doing nothing, and who dug in further when badger culling was rolled out and fought not to take steps and then had to give in a little in 2017 and 2018 doing the minimum possible and in secret. All that behaviour is on the record. There is also a public discussion to be had on the utility of Senior Courts Act when it is used in this way – to remedy clear errors of law after the event, and only in the face of legal challenge, with a claim ‘no difference’ to avoid any consequence.

This repeated approach is against every principle of natural justice.  It also suggests that neglect of, or wilful failure to abide by legal duties and responsibilities is now open to Government departments to employ as a default. Employed on the basis that legal challenges exposing such failures will be precipitated in only a minority of instances, and in such situations, you just remedy the error, claim no difference and can be confident the courts will award no sanction or relief. This disgrace holds all the hallmarks a broken system that can and will be used to limit the expectations that might be had for the 2021 Environment Act.

House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee recommendations

Published just two days later, compare what is being promoted with what happened in this case. In the Environment Act 2021, Parliament agreed five environmental principles which are to guide Ministers and their officials in the formulation of policy. These principles are:

• the principle that environmental protection should be integrated into the making of policies

• the principle of preventative action to avert environmental damage

• the precautionary principle, so far as relating to the environment

• the principle that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source

• the polluter pays principle.

Environmental principles of this type are widely used to inform national governments in their approach to environmental policymaking. Reference to them is to be found in several multilateral treaties on the environment, and they are explicitly included in European Union treaties as a foundation of EU environmental law.

After the hearing Claimant Tom Langton commented:

“It is fair to say we have been outmaneuvered by a Ministry intent on culling badgers and ignoring its duty to properly protect the environment from the unmeasured, unmonitored changes that culling may bring about across the wider countryside. The decision not to examine the initial ruling means that our biodiversity crisis has just got deeper, with one of the few statutory requirements to hold back the influence of commercial exploitation on wild species and habitats shown to be both slight and expendable. Many of the basic principles of environmental safeguard have been avoided and this is a bad day both for badgers and biodiversity protection. We will fight on and expose the unscientific and undemocratic actions and attitudes that typify the destruction of our environment and fuel the biodiversity and climate catastrophe.

Environmental impacts expert witness Dominic Woodfield, from Bioscan UK said:

“I believe the refusal to hear the case represents a fundamental failure of jurisdiction, in an instance where any application of logic shows the first instance decision to have been flawed. That failure has been lapped up by Defra and the Government Legal Department, despite their actions since in re-making the decision, demonstrating that they have always known the first instance judgment to be wrong. We went to the court of appeal in the hope of seeing bad law corrected, and if the Court of Appeal are not interested in doing so, one wonders whether the hard work in getting the Environment Act 2021 onto the statute books has been fruitless, even before it has properly come into effect.”

See also here regarding the infamous BTO reports, part of a related ‘broken’ promise by Natural England to monitor badger cull impacts effectively.

Thanks for the huge effort since 2020, to try and bring justice for badgers and their wild communities.

Thanks are extended to the legal team acting for Mr. Langton: Richard Turney and Ben Fullbrook of Landmark Chambers and Lisa Foster and Hannah Norman of Richard Buxton Solicitors, expert witness Dominic Woodfield of Bioscan UK and to all those funding and supporting the legal work as a part of the Badger Crowd. This includes The Badger Trust who helped instigate the legal action against aspects of the ‘Next Steps’ policy in 2020, Badger Trust Sussex for administrative assistance and for managing offline donations, Wild Justice, very many of the badger groups and organisations around the UK, many other animal welfare and conservation bodies and several generous individuals. Hundreds of badger workers and the general public have also chipped in to spread the load. Others have helped with a wide range of supporting actions: research, advice, publicity and coordination. Thank you all.

References

House of Commons 2022. Environmental Audit Committee recommendations on the Government’s draft environmental principles policy statement Third Report of Session 2022–23.

https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/23278/documents/169773/default/       

Record of hearing: Court of Appeal video archive. Search for:  Langton (claimant/appellant) v The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (defendant/respondent)

A letter to the Prime Minister

A letter signed by 30 veterinary and environmental professionals has today been sent to the outgoing Prime Minster Boris Johnson and other members of the government calling for an immediate moratorium on badger culling in England. Those signing the letter include the three authors of a recently published peer-reviewed paper (read here) on the efficacy of the badger cull using government data.  

A moratorium would allow time for independent scrutiny to establish the veracity of the independent scientific evidence as well as Defra’s claims, and to consider whether culling should be permanently ended as a result. It would also allow for a re-evaluation of the bovine TB eradication policy based on the latest scientific evidence rather than received wisdom that is decades out of date.

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said:

“It couldn’t be clearer – badger culling simply doesn’t stop the spread of TB in cattle. Yet even when presented with this evidence, DEFRA has its fingers in its ears, and continues to kill at will. We need to see a moratorium to allow time for independent scrutiny of the evidence – which I have no doubt will reinforce the message that this cruel and counterproductive badger cull must come to an end.”

Tom Langton, the lead author of the independent study said:

“Defra have painted themselves into a ridiculous scientific corner and now simply refuse to discuss it. This is the sign of a government that has lost its grip and cannot accept that its own data now shows badger culling to be a cruel and ineffective failure. It’s Defra’s version of ‘Don’t look up!’.”

Veterinarian Dr Mark Jones, Head of Policy at Born Free and one of the co-authors of the scientific analysis, said:

“Huge numbers of badgers have been killed across vast swathes of the west of England over the past decade, ostensibly to control the spread of TB in cattle. However, in spite of Government claims, evidence that the culls are working is lacking. No further badgers should suffer and die for the sake of this failed policy. It’s time that badger culling was ended.”

The letter can be viewed here. The letter is featured in an article in The Guardian here