Many of you will have noticed the publicity surrounding the unexpected release of the above report entitled DEFRA (2020) Next steps for the strategy for achieving bovine tuberculosis free status for England. The government’s response to the strategy review, 2018.
Most of the newspapers ran dramatic stories, talking of a seismic shift and U-turn in government thinking on badger culling and bovine TB. There was also talk of a ‘shift in political emphasis’, a ‘rowing back’ and ‘viable exit strategy’. It was as if they had failed to read and digest properly the details in the 109 pages.
Unsurprisingly, some organisations and individuals stated that the report was to be welcomed and offered hope whilst others were rather more cautious or cynical. Let’s unpick what actually happened and what it might mean for badgers and the efforts to stop badger culling.
- A shift away from badger culling and towards badger vaccination?
No, not really. Vaccination of badgers was always a part of the strategy, even if a neglected one. The 2018 Godfray review called for a move away from lethal control but only by way of conducting a comparison between supplementary culling and vaccination. This is something that would be controversial and expensive to carry out, take many years and lead to more speculation and bickering over modelled results. Most would advocate vaccination over culling, but the level of vaccination, up to a few thousand badgers a year, does not make it an acceptable trade-off for continuation of mass culling for another decade. Especially when it will never be possible to attribute changes in bTB herd breakdown rates to badger vaccination, rather than any one of a number of other interventions. This is exactly the same as is happening now with badger culling.
- But Badger Culling is coming to an end isn’t it?
No, it isn’t; many having been misled by what they were reading or have been told. Nothing could be further from the truth. Somehow the public have been conned into thinking it is because of the generality of the Godfray Group review. The facts are that we are now at ‘peak cull’; over 40 cull areas are in-hand and much of the High Risk Area is being culled. Last year this year and next year will each see around 40,000 or more badgers shot in more futile culls. After that, culling tails off, but only because they are running out of badgers to kill; 70% of badgers across English ‘cattle country’ will have been killed. Nevertheless, don’t expect killings to drop below 15,000 at any time before 2030 by which time up to 300,000 badgers will have died. It could be fewer, (but not much fewer),as culling starts up in the Edge area and potentially becomes more widespread in the Low Risk Area as the failed policy causes more spread eastwards. The fact is, it is business as usual with the government killing machine. This is DEFRA keeping to plan which as reported in Farmers Weekly on 11th March 2020 is to maintain the badger population to one badger/sq.km. or below to reduce the possibility of badger to cattle bTB transmission.
- But government accept that badger culling isn’t working, don’t they?
No, quite the opposite. All Defra offer is deception, cherry picked data and selective use of models. Supplementary Badger Culling (SBC) has been fought in court for three years and whatever you believe about the science, bovine TB went through the roof in Gloucestershire in 2018, the first year of SBC with a 130% increase and in 2019 it remained at the same levels as before culling started. Yet the Defra response repeats time after time only the equivocal study stating reduction in Gloucestershire of 66% by 2017, based on questionable modelling by a small number of government paid scientists. Why do they do this? Claiming success and progress is the Defra justification for continuing culling. This is despite the then Chief Scientific Advisor Ian Boyd confirming in legal papers in June 2019 that there is no way to determine the direct effects of badger culling from individual areas or areas combined after many years. The only stop button is if bTB falls away.
Defra are desperate to retain credibility on this issue, and are trapped within their own failed policy and bad epidemiology advice. They surely realise by now that badger culling with other actions is not delivering bTB control and that the problem remains with cattle testing and lax cattle movement controls. Responsibility for bTB policy within the government has changed hands over the last couple of years. Nobody wants to own it. The Defra response shows all the signs of a government refusing to deal with their past oversights and misjudgements. It is bereft of the will to take charge of the immediate measures needed including pre-movement testing with modern blood tests, the only measure that can drive infection rates down in the short term.
- So the report just repackages old policy with no good outcome?
The sort of cattle measures being promoted are positive, but very long promised and overdue and they don’t go anywhere near far enough. A DIVA test trial to enable cattle vaccination would be welcome, but is it the right technology? Another five year wait to find out. 6 monthly SICCT testing is being expanded in the High Risk Area ‘over the next few years’ in addition to the Edge Area. This was a ‘no-brainer’ in 2012 but now can’t take place all at once because too many bTB positive cattle would be detected. There is mention of increase in gamma test, introduction of IDEXX testing – this is good but there is no timetable. There is suggestion of compulsory post movement testing in the Low Risk Area and Edge Area only. This should have been mandatory everywhere; it is how Scotland eliminated bTB by 2009 to become TB-Free. There is a suggestion to incentivise biosecurity by a compensation penalty for those who don’t adhere to biosecurity recommendations. This has been done in Wales for a while and must help. There is talk of improved slurry management – this is good, but large scale applied research is needed not just small scale investigations.
Most noticeable of all the above is a lack of detail as to the extent of any action and clear timetable for implementation.
- Where does badger protection really stand after this report?
The wait continues regarding permission for the case against SBC in the Supreme Court. A hope for positive news remains. An end to this unscientific experiment has been signalled but it should never have started.
The recently released Defra report reflects more than anything, a stubborn entrenchment of its thinking, their lack of new ideas or acceptance of external criticisms and how badly they are ‘stuck’ in failing policy. There is desperation in them clinging to the 2019 APHA ‘Downs’ modelling paper when they know the conclusions are unreliable. What does this say about Defra’s competence?
Many Badger Groups have worked incredibly hard on badger vaccination which does provide clan immunity, but does not necessarily prevent these badgers being shot if they stray beyond an ownership boundary. Unfortunately there is no evidence that badger vaccination assists in bTB control and mass vaccination gives life to the ‘finger of blame’ that points to badgers being heavily involved in the transmission of bTB to cows, which is uncertain at best.
Badgers are still being unscientifically blamed for a significant proportion of cattle bTB infection, leading to a nonsensical question on the potential benefit of culling versus vaccination. Never in a million years will badger vaccination protect cattle from bTB, it can only protect badgers. Cattle need their own vaccine. The recent suggestion by Defra that badgers should be snared to facilitate vaccination indicates quite clearly their lack of understanding of the physical injuries inflicted by snares. Snare restraints must be opposed at all cost.
I hope this summary is useful. Please let us know your thoughts. These are strange times and coronavirus now dominates our lives. The next few months will be a huge test for many of us and may even take some of us away. Whatever happens, the fight will go on and will not fade. That is a promise.
We are the Badger Crowd and we will continue to fight lies and deceptions relating to the mindless slaughter of badgers in England.