UK Government ‘ignoring scientific advice’ by sanctioning badger culling

Lord Krebs FRS, Chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, criticised the UK Government on the Radio Four ‘Today’ programme this morning, accusing ministers of ‘ignoring’ scientific evidence by sanctioning a badger cull. Secretary of State Caroline Spelman MP announced the cull on Tuesday in a statement to the House of Commons. Lord Krebs questioned why the National Farmers Union, also speaking on the programme, were in favour of a cull, when the evidence shows that farmers located nearby to the cull sites, but not themselves participating, would experience a higher incidence of the disease as a result of the intervention.

In delivering her statement to the Commons, Caroline Spelman stated that ‘doing nothing is not an option’, given the devastating impact of bovine TB on the livlihoods of farmers and of rural communities. Outlining why vaccination of badgers and cattle is not yet an option to control the disease, the Secretary of State commented that ‘a useable and approved cattle vaccine and oral badger vaccine are much farther away than we thought and we cannot say with any certainty if and when they will be ready‘. Instead, the proposal is for a controlled cull in England, with Natutal England issuing licenses to groups of farmers and landowners who then commit to paying, at their own expense, trained experts to shoot free running badgers across an area of 150 km2 for a minimum period of four years. There will be two pilots in year one, to assess the efficacy of shooting and whether badgers have been killed humanely.

The potential effectiveness of the cull is a hotly debated issue within science, as Professor Krebs’ appearance this morning illustrates. Professor Krebs oversaw an initial review of the evidence for the transmission of TB between cattle and badgers in 1997. As a result of his recommendations, the Independent Scientific Group (ISG) was established to oversee the 10-year Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT), which published its final report in 2007. The ISG showed that reactive culling increased the incidence of TB in cattle, making this unacceptable as a future policy option. Proactive culling, carried out over an area of 100 km2, reduced the incidence of bovine TB but this beneficial effect was offset by an increase in disease in un-culled areas. The group concluded that this was due to ‘perturbation’; the disruption of the badgers’ territorial social groups, causing the animals to roam and so spread the disease into uninfected areas.

The ISG concluded that badger culling could not meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain. And yet, Caroline Spelman was adamant in the House on Tuesday that Defra’s policy is science-led and evidence-based. The scientific community does seem to be split on this issue. Several members of the ISG wrote a letter to the Times on 13th July, calling for the ‘untested and risky’ approach of badger control by shooting to be carefully monitored, whilst nine other members of the ISG were cited by Caroline Spelman this week as supporting a badger cull.

A group of independent scientific experts assembled by the Defra Chief Scientific Advisor, and including Lord Krebs, met on 4th April this year to consider the evidence and make recommendations to Defra. This group concluded that the science base (the RBCT and subsequent follow-up studies) indicates that a proactive badger cull resulted in a beneficial effect compared to areas where no cull took place. Perturbation was transient and that 12-18 months after the cull, this effect subsided. However they concluded too that the more a badger policy deviates from the conditions of the RBCT, the more likely it is that the outcome will differ; this presumably includes shooting of free-running badgers, which was untested by the RBCT, which instead trapped badgers in cages before shooting them.

The experts conclude that culling must be coordinated and sustained, over a minimum area of 150km2 and for a minimum period of four years, to avoid making matters worse. They suggest that the incidence of disease could be reduced by 20-34% after nine and a half year period, but given the perturbation effect in the area surrounding the cull locations, the net benefit would be likely to be smaller (between 3% and 24%).

Professor Krebs argued this morning that the cost of a badger cull would far outweigh the benefits; given that the total disease incidence would be eight of herds experiencing TB breakdowns in hot-spots, compared to nine out of ten herds. Questions to Caroline Spelman in the Commons earlier this week revealed that Defra will need to pay £200,000 annually to cover extra cost of policing which will be needed to deal with protests against the cull, whilst Caroline Spelman herself commented that it would ‘cost a modest amount more’ to include culling within the measures needed to deal with bovine TB in Britain. The Secretary of State suggested that reducing the social impacts of herd breakdowns, to farmers and rural livlihoods, would outweigh these monetised costs.