Defra releases results of the second year of badger culls

The Coalition Government’s policy of culling badgers as part of a package of measures to control the spread of Bovine TB across the UK has been one the most controversial ecological policy issues of this parliament. Just before Christmas, Defra released the results of the second year of culling trials, with the Secretary of State, Elizabeth Truss, reiterating that she is “determined to continue with a comprehensive Strategy that includes culling”, whilst also announcing the publication of a new Biosecurity Action Plan to help farmers minimise the spread of disease.

The second year of culling took place over a six week period starting in September 2014, again restricted to the two trial areas of West Somerset and West Gloucestershire. As the Randomised Badger Culling Trial and other studies have demonstrated, culling too few badgers can lead to an increase in bovine TB in cattle due to the perturbation effect, and as such the Government set targets for the numbers of badgers to be culled based on reducing badger density in each of the trial areas by at least 70%. In Somerset, the number of badgers culled during the six week period was 341, above the minimum target of 316, yet in Gloucestershire only 274 badgers were culled, well below the minimum target of 615.

In contrast to the previous year, the 2014 culling trial was not subject to oversight from an Independent Expert Panel. In 2013 the panel concluded that the culling trial was neither effective in achieving its targets nor in attaining acceptable levels of humaneness, and made a number of recommendations for how the cull could be improved. While the Government accepted the majority of the panel’s recommendations, it did not accept the recommended approach for assessing the effectiveness of culling using genetic methods. The 2014 cull was subject to an independent audit of the “processes, documentation, training and data collection” of the cull, with the auditor concluding that she was satisfied “that the data recorded is complete and accurate”. However, the auditor did not have access to the raw culling data held by contractors conducting the cull on behalf of the NHU, and as such did not assess the quality of this data.

In his advice to the Government on the outcome of the culling trials, Chief Veterinary Officer Nigel Gibbens concluded that the Somerset result “indicates that industry-led culling can, in the right circumstances, deliver the level of effectiveness required to be confident of achieving disease control benefits”, yet warned that “the benefits of reducing disease in cattle over the planned four year cull may not be realised” in Gloucestershire due to the lower level of badger population reduction. In the Defra statement accompanying the release of the results, the Government attributed the failure to achieve the culling target to “the challenges of extensive unlawful protest and intimidation”.

While the Government reiterated its intention to continue with a comprehensive strategy that includes culling, no details of future cull plans have been confirmed. However, it has released a joint Defra and industry Biosecurity Action Plan, which aims to reduce the risk of transmission of Bovine TB between cattle, and between cattle and badgers. The Action Plan aims to improve on and off farm biosecurity through a focus on five areas: knowledge and data, evidence, communication, education and training, and equipment.

The control of bovine TB and policy of culling badgers to reduce the spread of the disease is an issue that the BES will be looking at in more detail over the next few months. If you are interested in contributing to our work on this issue, please get in touch with the BES Policy Team.