New plan of action to rid England of bTB

Last week, Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, announced that the controversial badger culls that have provoked heated debate the length and breadth of the country would not be expanded into other parts of England. Whilst culls will still take place in the original cull trial zones, a new strategy has been released which sets out the path to a bTB free England by 2038.

Having cost taxpayers an estimated £500million in the last decade and millions more for farmers, bTB in England has caused devastating effects upon the cattle industry and farming communities. Controlling the disease within the badger population has been a key focus for the current government, and in late summer of 2013, two pilot culls took place in Somerset and Gloucestershire to test the effectiveness, humanness and safety of shooting badgers, with the hope to then use culling in other parts of England affected with bTB.

However, with original culling targets missed, even with the culling duration being extended, and a recent report from the Independent Expert Panel on Badger Culling Pilots (IEP) criticising the altered methodologies during the culls and failure to meet its targets, the plans to extend culling to the other 10 proposed areas within England have been dropped. The report from the IEP recommended that if the culls were to be continued, the ‘standards of effectiveness and humanness must be improved’, that culls should take place over shorter time periods and that the accuracy of shooting needs to be improved to reduce the number of badgers that experience a painful death. Hopefully, this advice will be taken forward for the culls that will continue to take place in the pilot areas.

Whilst it is good news that the culls will not be rolled out to other areas, some have voiced opinions that continuing culling in the pilot areas is not effective and a waste of time and resources. Prof Rosie Woodroffe, who has been actively involved in this policy development, commented that ‘the pilots culls performed so poorly in effectiveness and humaneness, I would stop and invest in something more promising’. There are signs however, from the new bTB strategy, that other measures to control the spread of bTB will be funded, researched and taken forward. Whilst Owen Paterson has maintained that culling will still form part of the solution to a bTB free England, the failure of the pilot culls to perform as well as hoped appear to have motivated the government to consider other options in much greater depth and take action to improve current culling methods.

The bTB strategy is ambitious in its nature, aiming to rid the disease from England by 2038 and achieve ‘Officially bTB Free Status’. A series of targets and timelines are laid out within the strategy, with a range of ‘solutions’ being adapted and implemented in different ways in the three management zones that have been identified. These three management zones are High Risk Zones, Low Risk Zones and a Buffer Zone. The measures laid out within this strategy to achieve this overarching aim include:

  • Improving on farm and off farm biosecurity measures, advising and providing guidance to farmers and strengthening cattle movement controls.
  • Investing in and supporting projects that are developing vaccinations for badgers and cattle, and supporting research relating to early detection, diagnosis and alternative strategies.
  • Improving surveillance, herd testing and managing outbreaks on farms.

This new strategy considers, and has plans of action, for all aspects of the bTB problem and recognises that culling alone will not be the solution. Research and scientific studies appear to be at the centre of many of the measures that are laid out and this gives encouraging signs that the information such studies could provide will be used to develop appropriate solutions. This is particularly true in relation to the development of cattle vaccines and badger vaccines. Whether politics gets involved is another matter however. Hopefully the government has learned from its mistakes and that it recognises that science and the evidence it provides should be at the heart of any of their future plans to control bTB.