Unexpected consequences of badger culling pilot scheme

As of the 6th October, the controversial badger culling that took place in Somerset came to an end. Designed to test the safety, humanness and effectiveness of shooting badgers, the culling pilots are part of government plans to control the spread of TB. However, after the numbers of badgers killed during this process has failed to reach Defra targets, it has now emerged that an extension has been requested in order to fulfil requirements.

In late summer of 2012, the badger population of West Somerset was estimated to be between 1,972 and 2,973 individuals. Using these estimates, Natural England therefore gave a licence to shoot 2,081 badgers, or at least 70% of the population, in the pilot culling scheme over a course of 6 weeks. However, as the cull began new estimates suggested that there were in fact only 1,450 badgers in the area, rendering the original Natural England licence target redundant. Despite this change in numbers, the original 70% target was kept. It has now been reported that in total 850 badgers have been killed, representing 58% of the new population estimates and an obvious shortcoming of the 70% target.

To counteract the below target outcomes of the cull, two unexpected solutions have resulted. In an attempt to kill more badgers before the 6 week deadline ended, the cage trapping method was also used. This method was initially not intended to be used; the pilot was designed to test the free shooting method only. Changing such methodology therefore seriously undermines the original purpose of the pilot cull and leads to uncertainty over the effectiveness shooting alone has in limited time periods. A second change that has resulted is the application for an extension on badger culling itself. While the Chief Veterinary Officer has said that the 58% of badgers that have been killed should ‘deliver clear disease benefits as part of a four year cull’, it is hoped that by extending the cull more badgers can be killed and therefore deliver more substantial benefit in slowing the spread of TB.

While Owen Paterson’s statement shows determination to continue the culling as part of a ‘rigorous and logical manner’, others are not so sure. Huw Irranca Davies has released a damaging article, accusing the government of ‘ignoring the evidence when it doesn’t fit their policy’. Scientists, who have already voiced their concerns over the lack of scientific evidence favouring a cull, have now warned that extending the cull could be detrimental to the initial aims of the cull and could even increase the spread of TB through badgers fleeing from gunmen.  By not meeting or exceeding the 70% threshold, Prof Rosie Woodruff warns that killing too few could actually increase the spread of TB.

The next few weeks will therefore be critical for the government to get right, especially as the results of the Gloucestershire cull are to be released next week. Such solutions that have resulted from the pilot in Somerset dangerously push this scheme to appear ad hoc and have already induced even more criticism. Without a clearly defined strategy, the government runs the risk of the debate not only being over whether culling itself is the right answer but whether the government’s current approach to how it is carried out is too.