Defra ‘tribalism’ tries to undermine bTB study?

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A recent scientific paper in Veterinary Record (1) by independent researchers Tom Langton, Mark Jones and Iain McGill, showing the effects of badger culls on bovine TB herd breakdowns over the last decade, has been met by criticism from officials at the top of Defra. There are accusations that it is ‘flawed’, and in the Daily Telegraph, even of data ‘rigging’ . You can view a 3 minute video of the main findings here.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Off-The-Leash.jpgFurther details on the origin and contents of the paper are discussed in a 40-minute Off the Leash interview by Charlie Moores with two of the authors Tom Langton and Mark Jones, here. 

Many badger campaigners will know Mary Barton, aka Betty Badger, who stands up for badgers outside Defra offices each Thursday, and has done for many years. On Thursday 17th March, she was granted a meeting in person with Environment Secretary George Eustice. He told Mary that he thought the study was ‘flawed’. Then on 18th March, Defra put out a dramatic press statement, criticizing the content & motivation of those involved in writing, reviewing, and publishing the paper (2) :

“This paper has been produced to fit a clear campaign agenda and manipulates data in a way that makes it impossible to see the actual effects of badger culling on reducing TB rates. It is disappointing to see it published in a scientific journal.”

and

“Experienced scientists from the Government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency have reviewed the report and found its analysis is scientifically flawed. It has manipulated the data in a way that makes it hard to understand the actual effects of badger culling and therefore its conclusions are wrong. Today, the Chief Veterinary Officer, Christine Middlemiss, and Chief Scientific Adviser, Gideon Henderson, have also published a letter in Vet Record, which rebuts the report’s claims. The CVO has also written a blog about this.”

 Which stated (3):

“We do not believe the scientific methodology used is credible as the analysis has been carried out in an unusual manner ”

These are confident words from the chief vet, informed no doubt by James McCormack (Head of Science Advice to Defra TB policy) and Eleanor Brown (Defra’s Veterinary Head for TB Policy Advice) to try to prevent acceptance of what are the plain and simple findings from Defra’s own data. The new analysis has been extensively checked using appropriate models, peer-reviewed by 4 reviewers, and accepted as a solid piece of research. In truth the 2021 badger culls should have been put on hold in June of that year because the basic findings were clear then and Defra knew about them. 

However, the Defra Chief Scientific Advisor and CVO claimed in a letter to Vet Record on the day of publication (4) that “This analysis has been carried out in a manner that masks the effect of culling by incorrectly grouping data.”

 

Defra’s alternative analysis, shown above, has done something strange to diminish ‘unculled’ area data, that is not explained, yet which appears to undo their own argument. The letter states that the ‘impact of culling on cattle outbreaks takes some time to appear’ while showing steep decline in bTB in the first two years of culling. Oops!

All scientific studies have limitations and none are 100% correct. What Defra are doing in their letter is adopting a pro-cull narrative to promote their policy publicly, with an un-peer reviewed analysis. They are avoiding the sharp reality of what their data is really telling them, and George Eustice and the government should be very concerned about this.

Defra have defended their pro-cull policy in Parliament and in the High Court using a government study from 2019 that uses very small amounts of data (Downs et al. 2019 (5)), wrongly, as ‘proof’ that badger culling ‘works’. That paper in fact admits that there are enormous limitations to its conclusions. The position that ‘culling works’, however, has been widely adopted by the Minister, MPs, the NFU and farming stakeholders.

It’s in the herd: cattle measures are the answer

Cow undergoing SICCT test

Defra have dismissed in a short soundbite, one of the most interesting findings of the published paper: the disease slowing, peaking and declining between 2011 and 2016 across the HRA counties, and before badger culling began in all but one area.  Defra want to adjust the data for confounding variables. Such adjustment is something that only Defra can do, as they alone have access to this ‘secret’ data. But adjustments are hardly likely to substantially change the conclusions, when such a huge dataset has been used in the analysis (over 20,000 herd a year).  Mention has been made of changes in badger cull buffer areas and badger population numbers, but the strength and validity of that data is questionable and presently obscure.

The Defra letter is particularly disappointing, given that Defra/APHA should have been using data to closely monitor and inform the public on the effects of bTB interventions and to ‘adapt and learn’ from their analysis. As they intimated would be the case in a Judicial Review of culling in the High Court in 2018, and as the judgement anticipated. And to encourage and inform those involved in the grueling cattle testing effort. Shouldn’t the public, who are after all paying for all of this, demand that too? Ask a simple question: why didn’t Defra do an analysis with the large data set they had available in 2019 and show the results? Was it because it showed that bTB was peaking and falling in both culled and unculled areas, well before badger culling was rolled out?

But that would mean admitting that cattle measures are the key ‘tool in the box’ to bTB control and need to be extended. BTB  decline since 2015 has averaged around 5% per year in the HRA, very similar to the picture in Wales where badgers are not culled and also in Republic of Ireland (RoI). Badger culling is now being phased out in RoI, with long term use of annual SICCT and gamma testing, and with bTB OTFW incidence no lower than around 4%, due to the limitations of the SICCT test. International evidence points to cattle measures alone being the solution, as predicted by experts for over 20 years.

The answers are all here. BTB should keep coming down in the English HRA if it follows the RoI trend over the next 3-5 years. If modern PCR testing is applied, it could be dealt with well before 2030. If the will is there. The Edge area crisis is another matter, but could be turned around too with correct thinking and the right interventions.

Other specialist comment:

Prof Paul Torgerson from the Section of Veterinary Epidemiology at the Vetsuisse Faculty of the University of Zurich wrote an opinion editorial for Vet Record on 19th March (6) offering insights on why badger culling doesn’t work, as predicted by the government researchers conducting the Randomised Badger Culling Trial back in 2007.

The Defra and the Middlemiss/Henderson arguments have been more than dented.The authors of the new analysis have responded in the Veterinary Record (2nd April) letters pages (7), saying that Defra’s criticism of the paper is baseless, and their attempt to show alternative science lacks explanation in the way they have handled the data. Defra have discounted around half of the data and the figures they use do not match figures from the reference material. There is also a dead end Link. This could be interpreted as ‘data manipulation’ to try to defend existing policy-based science. Defra’s refusal to accept the Langton et al. analysis using all of the cull data over the whole period of culling, is effectively limiting consideration of one of the most important debates of farming and veterinary concern of the last 50 years.

Over £100 million of public money per year is paid to farmers each year to support bovine TB control, and over £90 Million has been spent killing around 180,000 badgers since 2013; £500 per badger.

Defra’s position is that it wants yet more ‘thinking time’ to privately consider data and internal reports. Meanwhile, concerned observers can only watch while the decision on the course of the badger cull, where Defra aim to kill a further c.110,000 badgers from this June through to January 2026, hangs in the balance. The matter of efficacy needs settling. But Defra want to begin culling again this June and September with the issue of further licences.

‘Scepticism, science & statistics’, by Ian Boyd

There is an irony here in as much as the attitude of Defra employees towards the new study appears to have formed a classic exemplar of what the retired Defra Chief scientific advisor (2012-2018)  Prof. Iain Boyd has described recently as departmental ‘tribalism’ in his article in the Royal Society of Statistic journal Significance  entitled ‘Scepticism, science and  statistics’. Staff behaviour includes hostile over-reaction to anyone questioning government policy.

We can only hope that those involved will now resist that ‘unjustified tribal confidence’ and the ‘traditions embedded within their professional tribe’ and find the ‘social licence to break out’. For the sake of badgers, cows, farmers, the countryside  and the public, they need to do it now.

Northern Ireland

DAERA  (NI Department of Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs) have been pressing for a badger cull in NI for some time and have rushed a consultation through recently to try to copy ‘English-style’ badger culling.

For many years Mike Rendle and the Northern Ireland Badger Group (NIBG) have been working with legal and scientific support from the Badger Trust and Eurobadger. Working and meeting with government at Stormont to discuss the issue.

Developments since 2020 have been very disappointing and many who have been watching closely feel the DAERA process of considering interventions has been bungled and that it should have followed the Welsh model. For example, on the government’s own data there is a distinct lack of association (see below) between high badger density areas and high bovine TB incidence areas. The matter of DAERA’s concealed ‘business case’ for badger culling and why the badger intervention with highest environmental impact has been chosen remains unexplained. DAERA even dropped their ecological impact assessments (SEA/HRA) in favour of an earlier ‘dumbed down’ version. This  followed an extensive critique, submitted by NIBG describing multiple failures in the proposals and with useful input from eco-regulations expert Dominic Woodfield.

 

Illustration from the Bovine Tuberculosis Eradication Strategy for Northern Ireland.

Now Wild Justice (8)  (Chris Packham, Ruth Dingle and Mark Avery) have come to the fore and with NIBG are Judicially Reviewing the decision to shoot badgers on the basis of improper consultation regarding the business plan and cost-benefit analysis. This includes reference to the new paper on badger culling efficacy in Vet Record. Cattle movements in NI are less controlled than in England, and cattle measures alone should control bTB if a higher level of herd management discipline and more accurate testing could be introduced to cattle controls. But if Defra have been coaching DAERA, the road to ruin may have been laid.

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;e1384.

(2) Defra media statement 18 March 2022.

(3) Christine Middlemiss blog 21 March 2022.

(4) Christine Middlemiss and Gideon Henderson letter to Vet record 19th March 2022.

(5)  Downs S HProsser AAshton AAshfield SBrunton L ABrouwer 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. 

(6) Paul R Torgerson, P. R. Editorial in Vet Record, 19th March 2022.What is the role of badger culling as a control measure for bovine TB?

(7) Badger culling to control bovine TB, letter to Vet record, Thomas ES Langton, Mark W Jones & Iain McGill. 2nd April 2022.

(8) Wild Justice Judicial Review

(9) Interview with Tom Langton & James Wood, Head of Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge, BBC Radio 4 Farming Today, 19th March 2022. Clickable button below.

Go Wild for Wild Justice!

Great news this morning. Wild Justice, the UK organisation fighting for justice for wildlife, run by Mark Avery, Ruth Tingay and Chris Packham are sending over unspent funds from their badger killing welfare legal challenge. This was recently refused permission for Judicial Review, meaning that the disgracefully cruel and ineffective way of killing predominantly healthy badgers, escapes further legal scrutiny. However, this welcome synergy by those seeking to change the more extreme bad management of our wildlife and countryside, means a welcome boost to fundraising for the case now going to court and supported by the BadgerCrowd. Thanks also for a generous link to our CrowdJustice fundraiser from the Wild Justice newsletter today. The crowd fund has already had over 500 donations from people chipping in, and with a last push, we hope to reach our target before the deadline in front of the 22 July substantive hearing. Keep up to date with the important work of Wild Justice by signing up to their newsletter and follow them on Twitter at @WildJustice_org. Their challenges, legal investigations and commentaries are well worth your interest and support.

THANK YOU WILD JUSTICE

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SAVE THE BADGERS * STOP THE CULLS * JUSTICE FOR BADGERS

Update on Fundraiser Progress

Thank you so much for all your kind messages of support and generous donations over the first few days of the appeal. In addition to the Badger Trust’s generous donation to get the challenge started, we have had several ‘offline’ pledges, so we  are now over half way to our preliminary target. The Badger Trust has issued a statement about the two new legal cases, the humaneness challenge from Wild Justice (now fully funded) and the policy challenge from Tom Langton, and emailed it out to its supporters. Hopefully this will reach the attention of more people who care for badgers and wish to support the essential legal work.  However it is really important to also get the appeal out to the public at large. You can help by alerting your friends and contacts to Badger Crowd’s donation page, and by letting any suitable social media networks know too. If you are a member of a nature conservation organisation, you may consider writing to them suggesting they draw the fundraiser to the attention of their members.

Earlier this week we had a lot of ‘Freedom of Information’ material sent to us by Natural England regarding their consideration of the future of badger culling  and their reaction to the ‘Godfray Report’ and ‘Next Steps’ policy guidance. It has been sent to our lawyers as it clearly shows the terrible disarray surrounding the governments approach. There is much uncertainty, and there are many gaps in the evidence regarding this horrible policy.

A team of volunteers is working hard to make these legal challenges possible, as are the lawyers. It is an uphill battle, but we will do all we can to pass the milestones ahead and make our case for a court hearing.

Badger Trust Statement, 9th July 2020

Government faces two new legal challenges as it seeks to expand controversial badger cull policy

Permission for two Judicial Review legal cases is being sought against the government as it seeks to expand its highly controversial badger cull policy in 2020.

 

Wild Justice legal challenge

The first case is being taken by Wild Justice, the non-profit organisation formed in 2018 run by wildlife experts Chris Packham, Mark Avery and Ruth Tingay to ‘fight for wildlife’. The case against Natural England (with Defra as an interested party) concerns the manner in which badgers die from ‘controlled shooting’, whereby individuals are licensed to shoot badgers following a single, short training course.

In 2014, the government’s own Independent Expert Panel advised that badgers should not take more than five minutes to die in more than 5% of cases. Natural England has been observing levels above this yet has taken no action, despite the level of suffering caused. Shooting into the small heart of a badger from a distance can be difficult and the British Veterinary Association has also previously concluded that the method is inhumane.

Funds for this legal challenge have been donated in record time in an outpouring of public disgust and concern over the rapidly expanding badger cull policy. The challenge comes in advance of a further increase in culling with up to ten more licences to be issued by Natural England in September

Wild Justice opposes the entire badger cull policy, but its legal challenge aims to force the government to stop the use of controlled shooting as a culling method on humaneness grounds.

An end to the use of controlled shooting, could also force the government and the farming industry to recognise that now is the time to move towards badger vaccination – a non lethal means of lowering bTB in badgers, on both cost and humaneness grounds.

Tom Langton Legal Challenge

The second case by conservation ecologist Tom Langton, challenges parts of the Next Steps Policy, a response to the government’s bTB policy review in 2018, carried out by Sir Charles Godfray. The key grounds for the legal challenge are as follows :

Supplementary culling and a failure to expand vaccination

‘Supplementary culling’ follows a four year cull licence for a cull area and is usually carried out by ‘controlled shooting’ methods. This means that culling in any area can continue, with little to no monitoring for up to nine years. The grounds for this new legal challenge fall into five areas, including:

The case seeks to show that continuing the supplementary cull policy (which is not supported by the available evidence) is not rational and should be phased out by gradual replacement with vaccination as the government’s own review detailed.

Defra is also failing to apply a two year break in culling or a move to vaccination in 50% of the post intensive cull areas, despite recommendations to do so in the Sir Charles Godfray TB Policy Review and public statements claiming the government is phasing out badger culling in favour of vaccination.

Low Risk Area culling

Low Risk areas form all areas of the country that are not considered to be high risk or edge areas (between the two). The Next Steps policy seeks to cull in these areas, wherever ‘epidemiological evidence’ suggests that there may be a reservoir of the disease in the area. In practice*, this means wherever badgers are present and the source of repeated breakdowns has not been identified. The Godfray Review made clear that poor tests are missing large reservoirs of disease in the cattle herds themselves.

Despite this, evidence from Cumbria suggests that Defra is carrying out proactive type culling in the low risk area that does not even conform to the evidenced approach of the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) and has no basis in veterinary science. A widespread adoption of this type of culling in low risk areas might result in permanent collapse of the badger population across many areas of England.

Environmental Impact Assessment

Defra is failing to carry out an appropriate assessment of the impact of badger culling under the Habitat and Species Regulations 2017.

Over the last three years, Tom Langton has led two legal challenges against the government, supported by The Badger Trust and the Badger Crowd.

His first challenge in 2017 against Defra exposed the fact that supplementary culling may hold no value at all in the fight against bovine TB (bTB) in cattle potentially making eradication of the disease more difficult, with no way of directly measuring whether it works or not. The second case required Natural England to concede a national breach of duty, regarding monitoring the potential impacts of culling on internationally important nature areas where culling has been allowed.

Although failing to bring an end to supplementary culling, the two legal challenges have enabled a deep insight into secretive government planning and have exposed areas of deficiency including the experimental and poorly monitored nature of the government’s interpretation of legislation, protecting badgers and natural communities.

The latest legal challenge in 2020 is again supported by the Badger Trust and the Badger Crowd.

Badger Trust

Dominic Dyer, CEO Badger Trust said: “ In the past, The Badger Trust has taken legal action preventing badger culling in Wales and has fought a number of legal actions in the High Court since 2013 seeking to stop or limit the cruel, destructive and unnecessary killing of our iconic badgers in England.

We welcome the involvement of Wild Justice to the cause of badger welfare and support their efforts. The legal case we have helped to fund this year with Tom Langton is equally important and we hope that they both get permission in the weeks to come so that non-lethal bTB control methods in badgers prevail, as the Sir Charles Godfray bTB policy review expert panel has recommended” .

Wild Justice

Dr Mark Avery from Wild Justice said: “We’re very grateful to over 1100 individual donors who have funded our legal challenge. We wish Tom Langton and the Badger Trust all the best with their separate legal challenge. Badgers are wonderful creatures and they need all the friends they can get these days.

We believe Gandhi was right to say you can judge the greatness of a nation by the way it treats its animals, and by that measure Defra and Natural England are doing a very poor job.”

* Critical evaluation of the Animal and Plant Health Agency report: ‘Year End Descriptive Epidemiology Report: Bovine TB Epidemic in the England Edge Area – Derbyshire 2018’

Further Information:

The Badger Crowd

Crowdfunder link and information on case here:

https://www.crowdjustice.com/case/help-stop-defra-plans-to-extend-badger-culling/

Blogpost here:

https://thebadgercrowd.org/blog

Wild Justice

Extract of Wild Justice pre-action letter to Natural England

https://wildjustice.org.uk/general/extracts-from-our-pre-action-protocol-letter-to-natural-england/

New Legal Challenge Against Badger Culling

First of all, a huge congratulations to Wild Justice for reaching the funding target for their latest legal challenge on the humaneness of the free shooting of badgers as licensed by Natural England. Follow @WildJustice_org on Twitter, or sign up to their newsletter on the Wild Justice web site to receive email updates with the latest news about the case. It is fantastic to see widening support for the fight against badger culling and we will be in regular contact with Wild Justice as the cases develop.

There is no doubt about the intensely cruel aspects of the culls, but they are also flawed for a range of technical and legal reasons. With support from The Badger Trust, Tom Langton is now launching an appeal for a new legal case challenging aspects of failed, incomplete or irrational consideration in Defra’s ‘Next Steps’ 5th March policy guidance. Problems include the ignoring of key recommendations of the 2018 ‘Godfray report’, and the confining to a minor role of badger vaccination, both now and in the future. Additional grounds  relate to unaddressed consideration of ecological impacts of wildlife disturbance upon designated nature reserves.

It is important also to challenge the more recently and newly-invented approaches to badger culling in the Low Risk Area (LRA) of the north and east of England. In Cumbria, cattle brought over from Northern Ireland a few years ago with the bovine TB 17z strain have infected badgers locally. Here there is no restraint to the number of badgers killed. The approach shows the frightening sign of badger massacres to come, as alluded to in the 2020 policy if this approach cannot be stopped.

The poor epidemiology and the speculative ‘risk pathways’ approach of the Animal Plant and Health Agency add up to a policy out of control that must be halted. The licenses issued this June should be revoked and no new licenses issued this year, including for Derbyshire where culling was prevented last year.  The policies should be withdrawn and rethought over a minimum two-year cessation period with advice from stakeholders who have been overlooked.

Otherwise badgers face an unprecedented slaughter over the next two years and beyond, with the door to prolonged mass killing (as in R. o. Ireland since 2004) opening up and no mechanism in place to bring it to an end. These terrible policies must be challenged. Please help us try to help the badgers and promote effective approaches to bovine TB control with a donation if you can. Thank You.

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Wild Justice Joins Badger Cull Legal Fight

It is excellent and very welcome news that the formidable force of Wild Justice is today announcing a legal challenge to welfare aspects of the highly controversial English badger culls. The challenge against Natural England and Defra is that the badger cull does not meet acceptable animal welfare standards.

Despite the long term failure of Defra’s Bovine tuberculosis policies to bring about any significant decline in the disease, badger culling has accelerated over the last twelve months. Recently Defra Minister George Eustice confirmed the government’s wish to spend the next two years killing record numbers of our iconic protected species.

The planned Appeal for the new case/s being brought by Tom Langton against the new (March 5th 2020) bTb policy is poised to launch shortly. We encourage everyone in the Badger Crowd to get behind both appeals to ensure they are fully funded and successful.

You can get details of the Wild Justice Appeal here.