Vets criticise government over badger cull

Defra has come under fire from vets over the success of the badger cull in reducing bovine TB, with the department being accused of providing “deliberately opaque” data and “barefaced lies” on incidents of bovine TB in cull zones.

Badger in the wild
Badger in the wild
Green World

A group of vets has accused the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) of lying about the effectiveness of its badger cull in Somerset and Gloucestershire in preventing the spread of bovine tuberculosis (TB).

Bovine TB has caused significant issues for farmers – 33,000 infected cows were killed last year – and costs taxpayers around £100 million in compensation every year. Badgers are carriers of the infection and have been subject to several culls in order to bring down their populations in the hope of halting the spread of the disease.

The current cull measures have been in place since 2013. Last year, 32,500 badgers were killed across the UK, with Gove announcing a dramatic increase in September in the scale of the cull to 42,000 badgers.

Back in September, Farming Minister George Eustice responded to a report by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) that suggested TB incidence in the Gloucestershire central cull zone had fallen from 10.4 per cent before culling to 5.6 per cent in year four of the cull – although it rose from 6.5 per cent to 12 per cent in the Gloucestershire buffer zone – while it had fallen from 24 per cent to 12 per cent in the Somerset central zone.

Eustice stated that the report’s findings were “evidence that our strategy for dealing with this slow-moving, insidious disease is delivering results”, despite the report saying that ‘these data alone cannot demonstrate whether the badger control policy is effective in reducing bovine TB in cattle’.

Speaking on the issue, Dr Iain McGill, a veterinary surgeon and director of the Prion Interest Group, a veterinary campaign group, told BBC News on Monday (12 November) that scientific evidence did not support Defra’s claims that the badger cull was working.

He said: "According to Defra's figures, they claim that they calculated that the incidence [of bovine TB] has reduced. But their calculations are unclear and deliberately opaque. And, indeed, the current situation in the cull zone says there is an increased prevalence.

"So, either their figures were calculated on an extremely inaccurate basis and they've got it very badly wrong, or they have actually gerrymandered those figures to make it look as if the incidence is falling when the evidence clearly shows that the prevalence has gone up. Badger culling has not worked. They are issuing barefaced lies in this matter."

The cost of badger culling stands at a total of £40 million to date, with £6.6 million spent last year alone, while the government is offering £700,000 over four years to allow groups to vaccinate badgers.

A new independent review commissioned by Gove released today (13 November) has suggested that it is ‘highly desirable’ to move to a strategy of vaccination of badgers rather than culling – though it concludes that culling has a ‘real but modest effect’ on the disease – and that cattle trading and poor biosecurity on farms is ‘severely hampering’ attempts to bring the epidemic under control.

The report, the authors of which were told by Gove not to assess whether badger culls were working, also criticised the standard ‘skin test’ used to assess whether cattle had TB, claiming that it misses many cases of the disease, resulting in infected cattle continuing to be moved around the country. Defra states that the test’s effectiveness lies between 52 and 100 per cent, while two new research papers state that its effectiveness in fact lies somewhere between 50 and 60 per cent.

Commenting on the criticism from vets, the Green Party's spokesperson on animal rights Keith Taylor MEP said: "I'm pleased to see vets challenging the government over its lies about the badger cull. They are among the very experts we need to see speaking out on this abuse of animals and science.

"The lies they have exposed are the same ones the Green Party has been calling out for months. Ministers' attempts to massage the stats and mislead the public has never been able to mask the truth that the badger cull is an extortionately expensive, inhumane project that continues to fail because it is premised on a bad reading of the science.

"Ideology, vested interests and obfuscation can only take a policy so far before it is exposed by its fundamental scientific failings. The Tories' war on wildlife must end. I am calling for the government to make the compassionate, scientifically sound and economically literate choice. Rather than condemning more badgers to long, painful and unnecessary deaths, the government needs to refocus its efforts on humane and evidence-based controls.”