Natural England yesterday issued the first license to cull badgers, under the Coalition Government’s controversial plan to allow free-shooting of the animals by consortia of farmers. Rather than vaccinate badgers, as is being trialled in Wales, in England the Government plans to issue licenses in two pilot areas, Somerset and Gloucestershire, to assess the success of culling up to 70% of badgers in infected zones. Eventually, an article in the Guardian on Sunday suggests, this could lead to up to 100,000 badgers being killed across infected areas in England; a third of the UK population. The purpose of the cull is to prevent the spread of tuberculosis from badgers to cattle: bovine TB resulted in 26,000 cattle being slaughtered in 2011.
A consortium of farmers in a 300 square kilometre area in West Gloucestershire has been granted permission to shoot 70% of badgers on their land, over a continuous period of six weeks and for up to four years in a row. The 10-year Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT), led by Lord Krebs, found that trapping and shooting badgers led to a reduction in incidences of bovine TB by 16% in infected areas. However, the efficacy of free shooting, favoured by the Government as it is cheaper, has not been tested before as a means of controlling the spread of bovine TB from badgers to cattle.
At least 70% of badgers in an affected area must be killed over a sustained period to prevent the incidence of the disease actually increasing through ‘perturbation‘; the spread of TB between badger populations due to the dispersal of animals from disrupted social groups. For this reason, the areas for which licenses are issued must also be surrounded by ‘hard’ barriers such as roads or rivers; although at a meeting attended by the BES in 2008, a leading scientist, Dr Chris Cheeseman, suggested that even these barriers may not be impermeable to the spread of the animals.
Lord Krebs, speaking to the BBC yesterday, described the Government’s culling plans as ‘crazy’, suggesting ‘I would rather go down the vaccination and biosecurity route rather than this crazy scheme that may deliver very small advantage’. Lord Krebs has previously criticised the Government for ‘ignoring’ scientific advice in sanctioning a cull. The badger cull is likely to be very costly for farmers, due to the need for additional security against protests when culling is taking place, along with the need to pay professional marksmen to shoot the animals. The Government’s impact assessment concluded that the cull was likely to cost the farmers more money than simply bearing the loss of cattle to bovine TB.
A report produced by the Independent Scientific Group assessing the RBCT concluded in 2008 that badger culling was likely to be an uneconomical solution to the control of bovine TB. A study commissioned by Defra and produced by Imperial College and the Zoological Society of London in 2010, examining the aftermath of the RBCT found that the benefits of culling were unlikely to be sustained over the longer term, with any beneficial effects disappearing four years after the culling ended.
In response to a successful legal challenge by the Badger Trust the Welsh Government cancelled its plans for a badger cull and is instead developing vaccines. According to the Guardian, the Labour Government in the UK suggested that a vaccine would be ready by 2015. On taking office, the Coalition cancelled five out of six vaccine development programmes. Further legal challenges to the issuing of licenses by Natural England, including in the European courts, are likely to be on the horizon.