Badger Cull: extension abandoned as targets are missed

The controversial badger cull in Gloucestershire finally ended on the 30th November.  The cull, originally intended to be carried out over a six-week period in the late summer, was granted an eight-week extension by Natural England, and was due to end on the 18th December. However, failure to kill the number of animals necessary to reach the minimum target led to this extended licence being revoked. A spokesperson from Natural England stated “There is no realistic prospect of the cull removing the number of badgers required by the licence.”

A ministerial statement released yesterday by Defra revealed the final figures from the cull. After an additional 5 weeks and 3 days of shooting, the marksmen working in Gloucestershire were only able to kill 921 badgers in total, fewer than 40% of the estimated population before the cull. When the original six-week pilot was announced, it had the target of reducing the badger population by 70%. Following the failure to achieve these numbers an extension was granted and the target changed to a minimum reduction of 58% in the badger population. Yesterdays statement shows that despite this revised minimum target, the number of badgers culled still fell short.

Badger culling is one part of the government’s plan to tackle the spread of bovine TB in the UK, with the long term goal of eradicating the disease within 25 years. Bovine TB is spread in part by badgers and has resulted in the compulsory slaughter of some 20,000 cattle in the last year.

The decade-long randomised badger culling trial (RBCT) found that culling badgers over a 4 year period could reduce the incidence of  bTB in cattle by around 16%. However, whereas the RBCT trials used trapping methods and took place over periods of 8 to 11 days, the Gloucestershire pilot was testing whether shooting free-running badgers could replicate this reduction.  Critics have suggested that the failure to achieve the minimum targets within the initial time-frame, along with the tendency for free-running badgers to flee to other areas, could actually lead to an increase in the incidence of bTB. Badger expert Professor Rosie Woodroffe explained that during the RBCT a 30% reduction in the badger population increased the incidence of bTB, while modest reductions in bTB were achieved with a 70% reduction in badger populations. The exact point at which culling begins to reduce bTB in cattle is still uncertain.

While the minimum target was missed, Defra maintain that the pilot cull was still successful. In yesterdays statement there is a lack of clarity regarding the nature of this success. The original six-week cull was planned to test the assumption that controlled shooting is a safe, humane and effective means of reducing the badger population. Missing the initial and revised targets would suggest failure in at least one of these criteria.  The aims of the eight-week extension differ, as it is stated the extension was granted to achieve “the earliest and greatest possible impact on bTB in the area”. With the aims of the pilot apparently altering while it was being conducted, it is unclear which specific aspects are considered to have been successful.

A similar pilot cull in Somerset earlier this year also failed to reach its target of a 70% reduction in badger population after a three-week extension.

Despite the short comings in the implementation of these pilot culls, and while their effect on the incidence of bTB remains to be seen, Defra announced that the four year cull in Gloucestershire and Somerset will proceed as planned. Information gathered during these pilots will now be considered by an external panel of experts before any decision is made about rolling-out the cull to other parts of England severely affected by bTB.