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somehow prepared to extend their belief in the killing of badgers and to continue culling badgers based on their own unpublished ‘secret’ science.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.