Badger cull: licences reissued by Natural England

In 2011, it was announced that a badger cull would be implemented to attempt to curb the spread of bovine tuberculosis. Licences were issued last summer, with culls initially scheduled to take place last autumn. Due to the combination of a bad year for farmers, poor policy and the presence of higher numbers of badgers than previously calculated, they were postponed until spring 2013. Yesterday, badger cull licences for the original proposed areas in Gloucestershire and Somerset were reissued, with culls to start as soon as June.

The publication of the licences was announced yesterday by the environment secretary, Owen Paterson, at the National Farmers Union annual conference. The conditions of the culls were outlined by authorisation letters from Natural England, the licence issuers. Under the licences, badger populations must be reduced by at least 70% over six-week control operations carried out between June and January for four years in both areas. Across west Gloucestershire and west Somerset, between 4937 and 5094 badgers will be killed each year. The preparation of a third cull area in Dorset in the event of one of the original areas becoming unusable was also announced.

This policy remains as controversial as when it was first announced over 18 months ago. Research into the effectiveness of badger culling in reducing the spread of bovine TB has been carried out in the UK in a long-term, well-designed trial. Over the course of 10 years from 1997, an Independent Scientific Group on bovine TB Group oversaw the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) across 10 areas in England. The results, published in 2007, highlighted the ineffectiveness of ‘reactive’ culling (culling around farmland which had recently had outbreaks of TB), with an increase in the prevalence of TB in cattle where this occurred. ‘Proactive’ culling (culling across all accessible land), on the other hand, reduced the incidence of TB in cattle. This beneficial effect, however, was offset by perturbation – the increased movement of badgers to other areas after their social groups are disrupted.

This evidence was further considered by a group of independent scientific experts in April 2011, organised by the Chief Scientific Advisor at Defra. They confirmed the results of the RCBT, and that it provides the best scientific evidence available from which to predict the effects of a future culling policy. It was concluded that the detrimental effects of perturbation are not likely to be permanent, diminishing over 12-18 months. However, it was noted that this would only lead to levels of bovine TB similar to those seen in areas that were not culled at all.

The scientific experts also highlighted that the results of a future culling policy will differ, either positively or negatively, from the RCBT if different methods are utilised. The RCBT was government-led, and used cage- trapping as the sole method of culling. The licences issued yesterday deviate from these methods – the cull will be industry-led and free-shooting of badgers will be carried out. There could therefore be wide variability in the outcome of these pilot culls.

It is notable that Wales will not be proceeding with pilot culls to prevent the spread of bovine TB. Instead, a vaccination programme has been initiated, and will be complemented by a range of other measures, including epidemiological analysis of the disease in Wales. Yesterday, Owen Paterson stated that “these pilot culls are just one part of our approach to control and eradicate this dreadful disease…we are using everything at our disposal to get to grips with TB.” This might be the case behind the scenes, but the badger culls are certainly being heralded as the flagship policy for England. In steps laid out in 2009, the previous government was set to deliver a usable badger vaccine by 2015. This is now no longer the case, both due to research difficulties and the cancellation of five of the six badger vaccine trials by the coalition government.

It needs to be remembered that these pilot culls are just that; a pilot. The novel methods being used, and the nature of ecology, mean that the results of the trials cannot be fully gauged at the moment. Results similar to, or better than, the RCBT are possible, but can’t be guaranteed. Rigorous assessment and monitoring will therefore be required to understand their effectiveness before they can be implemented further. As it is possible that the trials may lead to no changes in the spread and prevalence of bovine TB in cattle, other methods to tackle bovine TB should not be abandoned. Although this would be costly in the short-term, the long-term payoffs could be much greater.