Wildlife experts warn that badger populations will continue to be decimated by culling until at least 2025 – despite recent reports implying that shooting would cease next year.
Environment Secretary George Eustice recently unveiled the Government’s new proposals for controlling bovine TB (bTB), including an intention to phase out badger culling.
The Government and many farmers blame badgers for spreading bTB, which led to the compulsory slaughter of more than 27,000 cattle last year. Attempts to control the disease have resulted in more than 140,000 badgers having been shot since 2013.
Media reports following the Government announcement included: End of the badger cull as Government announces no new licenses by 2022 in the Daily Mail; New mass badger culls to be banned after 2022, says minister in the Guardian; and Badger cull to be effectively banned from 2022, Environment Secretary announces in the Telegraph.
However, conservationists argue that such reporting is misleading, as intensive cull licences are issued for four years, with new licences likely to still be issued this year and next. Even once those licences have expired, supplementary culling may be permitted for a further five years – although this could be reduced to two under the new proposals. This means intensive culling is likely to last until 2025, and supplementary culling until 2027 or even 2030.
On the same day as the consultation was announced, Government figures revealed 2020 to have been the bloodiest year for badgers to date, with 38,642 animals shot dead.
Professor Rosie Woodroffe, a former Government Advisor on bTB, calculated that we have probably not yet even reached a peak in culling. Assuming 10 new licences are granted in both 2021 and 2022, badger deaths are likely to increase to over 40,000 in 2022 before dropping – a total figure throughout the cull of more than 276,000, of which more than 46 per cent have yet to die.
To put this figure into context, the total badger population of England and Wales in 2017 was estimated at between 391,000 and 581,000.
Professor Woodroffe said: “To summarise: [the] consultation concerns not so much the end of culling, or even really the beginning of the end, but (to quote Churchill) the end of the beginning.”
Wildlife advocates fear that culling could be driving badgers to the brink of extinction in some areas of England, particularly in the South West, where the strategy has been pursued the longest. These concerns are being considered by the international Berne Convention, which is expected to issue an update in July.
The Government insists the badger cull is an effective tool in its strategy to eliminate bTB, and points to a decline in cases of 51 per cent over four years in badger cull zones.
Mr Eustice stated: “The farming community has invested heavily in badger culling, which the evidence shows has played a critical role in helping to start turning the tide on this terrible disease.”
Stuart Roberts, Deputy President of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said: “Bovine TB continues to devastate farming families up and down the country, causing huge strain mentally, emotionally and financially for farmers. Thousands of farms have seen generations of cattle slaughtered because of the disease, crippling their livelihoods instantly.
“The government’s 25-year TB eradication strategy has provided some real hope to those farmers and it is clearly delivering successful results. The badger cull has played an enormous role in that.”
However, the effectiveness of the badger cull in reducing bTB is refuted by the Badger Trust, which points instead to the importance of increased testing of cattle and restrictions on livestock movement.
The charity stated: “Badger Trust does not accept the continual assertion from Government, repeated several times in the consultation documents, that ‘the culls are working’ and that the reductions in observed cattle TB can in any way be attributed to culling badgers.
“It is obvious to any rational observer that more tests identifying more disease will lead to more cattle slaughtered and then less disease within the national herd. This trend is further reinforced by continual improvements in the frequency and quality of testing and more stringent rules on pre- and post-movement testing over the last five years.”
The Badger Trust also points out that out of 994 culled badgers tested for bTB in 2016, less than 5 per cent were found to have the disease. However, the Government has always resisted calls for more widespread testing of culled badgers.
Dawn Varley, Acting CEO of the Badger Trust, said: “The Government’s approach to bTB mirrors their approach to the Covid crisis. By continually prioritising business and economic interests, and cherry-picking the science to suit their political agenda, they have let both diseases get dangerously out of control, certainly to the point where the UK performance on controlling bTB is the worst in Europe or in any other developed nation.”
However, Dominic Dyer of animal charity Born Free, manages to find reasons to view the latest developments optimistically - despite admitting that huge numbers of badgers remain in the firing line.
The author of Badgered to Death pointed to a growing emphasis from the Government on vaccinating both cattle and badgers against bTB. Farmers have previously resisted a cattle vaccine as this prevents livestock being sold to Europe; however, this obstacle looks set to be removed by the Government’s move to ban live exports.
Badger vaccination has been viewed with suspicion by many farmers, who point to limited evidence for its effectiveness in reducing bTB. However, Mr Dyer refers to this as “a Trumpian argument”.
“There is strong evidence that vaccinating badgers reduces TB in badger populations by 70 per cent,” he said. “Where the evidence is less strong is over whether that has an effect on TB in cows – but that suggests it isn’t the badgers that are causing TB in cows in the first place, which means we shouldn’t have been culling them in the first place!”
Mr Dyer also hopes that Professor Woodroffe’s prediction of 20 new culling licences over the next two years will prove an overestimate, pointing partly to the influence of the Prime Minister’s fiancée Carrie Symonds, who is Patron of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation.
“The badger cull is increasingly viewed as politically toxic,” he said. “Boris Johnson does not need NFU support in the way his predecessors did, and his partner does have an influence.”
The strength of public opinion against culling badgers can be gauged by a recent petition to ban shooting of the animals, which passed the 100 000 signature threshold for it to be debated in Parliament.
Mr Dyer added: “Things are moving in the right direction – although we need to keep the pressure up. The recent intake of Tory MPs tends to be anti-hunting. There is even a backbench group of vegan Tory MPs!”