Badger culling in the United Kingdom
Badger culling is a method used in parts of the United Kingdom to try to reduce the incidence of bovine tuberculosis (bTB). This disease can be passed to humans, but because of strict public health control measures, including milk pasteurisation and the BCG vaccine, bTB is not currently considered a significant risk to human health. The disease affects cattle and some wildlife, including badgers, and is spreading geographically, from isolated pockets in the late 1980s to cover relatively large areas of the west and south-west of England and Wales. At present, there is no UK-wide policy of badger culling, but as of October 2013, culling in England has been introduced into two pilot areas—mainly in west Gloucestershire and west Somerset.
There are conflicting reports about the extent to which culling will reduce the spread of the disease. Animal welfare groups such as the Badger Trust and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) are opposed to what they feel is random slaughter of badgers—which enjoy special legal protection in the UK—in return for what they describe as a relatively small impact on the disease. Others, including some farmers' organisations and the government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), are in favour of a policy of badger culling, because of the mounting costs of the disease to farmers, involving the mandatory slaughter and destruction of infected cattle, and because they feel that alternatives to culling are not cost-effective.
Spread and extent
Once an animal has contracted bTB, the disease spreads to other animals in the same group or herd when healthy animals come into contact with exhalations or excretions from infected ones. Modern cow housing arrangements, which have good ventilation, make this a relatively slow process in cattle but in older-style cow housing or in badger setts, it can spread more rapidly. Badgers range widely at night and one infected badger can spread bTB over a long distance. Badgers mark their territory with urine, which can contain a very high proportion of bTB bacteria. According to the RSPCA, the infection rate among badgers is 4-6%.
Cattle and badgers are not the only carriers. Bovine tuberculosis can also affect deer, dogs, cats, horses and goats, among others, although sheep are rarely infected. At the moment the disease is mostly concentrated in the south-west of England. It is thought to have re-emerged now because of the 2001 foot and mouth disease outbreak—foot and mouth led to thousands of cattle being slaughtered, and farmers all over the country had to buy new stock. There appears to have been undiscovered bovine tuberculosis in some of these replacement animals.
Alternatives to a cull
Under the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats the culling of badgers is only permitted as part of a bovine TB reduction strategy if there is no satisfactory alternative. The UK Government's DEFRA licensed a vaccine for badgers, dubbed the Badger BCG, in March 2010. The Badger BCG is only effective on animals that do not already have the disease, and it can only be delivered by injection. It is available on prescription, subject to a licence to trap badgers from Natural England, but only where injections are carried out by trained vaccinators. DEFRA funded a programme of vaccinations in 2010–11, and other organisations that have funded smaller vaccination programmes include the National Trust in Devon, the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, and a joint project by the National Farmers' Union and the Badger Trust.
Although vaccination is a recognised means to prevent the spread of the disease without killing wildlife, cattle that had been vaccinated would technically fail legally mandatory tuberculin tests, and therefore could not be declared officially tuberculosis-free, which is required by a 1964 European Economic Community directive. Given that there is as yet no bovine tuberculosis vaccine for cattle that does not interfere with the tuberculin tests, such vaccination is prohibited under EU law.
In October 2012, MPs voted 147 in favour of a motion to stop the cull and 28 against. The debate had been prompted by a petition on the government's e-petition website, which at the time had exceeded 150,000 signatories, and which had by June 2013 gathered around a quarter of a million signatories. By the time it closed on the 7th of September 2013 there were 303,929 signatures breaking the record for the largest number of people ever to sign a government e-petition. However, in England the government presently views badger vaccination as a necessary part of a package of measures for controlling bTB, because it estimates the cost of vaccination to be around £2,250 per square kilometre per annum, and notes that most landowners and farmers have little interest in paying this cost themselves.
In Wales, however, badger vaccination is carried out in preference to culling. Whilst a field trial into the vaccination of badgers is under way in the Republic of Ireland, as yet neither culling, nor vaccination is carried out in Northern Ireland, although the Northern Ireland Assembly has carried out a review into bovine tuberculosis that has recently recommended an immediate investigation into the viability of culling and/or vaccination. In autumn 2009, Scotland was declared officially tuberculosis-free under EU rules, so there are no proposals to cull badgers there.
The organism that causes bovine tuberculosis, Mycobacterium bovis, was discovered in 1882 but it took until 1950 for compulsory tests for the disease to be brought in. A programme of test-and-slaughter began and seemed successful. By 1960 it was thought that bovine tuberculosis might have been eradicated in the UK, until 1971 when a new population of tuberculous badgers was located in Gloucestershire. Subsequent experiments showed that bovine tuberculosis can be spread from badgers to cattle, and some farmers tried to cull badgers on their land, but wildlife protection groups lobbied Parliament. Parliament responded by passing the Badgers Act 1973, which made it an offence to attempt to kill, take, injure badgers or interfere with their setts without a licence. These laws are now enshrined in the Protection of Badgers Act 1992.
In 1997 an independent scientific body issued the Krebs Report. This concluded that there was a lack of evidence about whether badger culling would help to control the spread of bovine tuberculosis, and proposed a series of trials. The government then ordered an independently run series of trials, known as the Randomised Badger Culling Trials (RBCT). These trials, in which 11,000 badgers in selected areas were cage-trapped and killed, were carried out from 1998 to 2005 (although they were interrupted by the 2001 United Kingdom foot-and-mouth outbreak, which caused operations to be briefly suspended).
The final results of the trials, conducted by the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, were submitted in 2007 to David Miliband, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The report stated that "badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain. Indeed, some policies under consideration are likely to make matters worse rather than better". According to the report:
"detailed evaluation of RBCT and other scientific data highlights the limitations of badger culling as a control measure for cattle TB. The overall benefits of proactive culling were modest (representing an estimated 14 breakdowns prevented after culling 1,000km2 for five years), and were realised only after coordinated and sustained effort. While many other approaches to culling can be considered, available data suggest that none is likely to generate benefits substantially greater than those recorded in the RBCT, and many are likely to cause detrimental effects. Given its high costs and low benefits we therefore conclude that badger culling is unlikely to contribute usefully to the control of cattle TB in Britain, and recommend that TB control efforts focus on measures other than badger culling".
The report also warned that badger culling also led to increased infection within the badger colonies and the spread of infected badgers to previously uninfected areas, in what it called a perturbation effect. Whilst culling produced a decreased badger population locally, it disrupted the badgers’ territorial system, causing any surviving badgers to range more widely, which itself led to a substantial increase in the incidence of the disease, and its wider dispersal. It also reported that a culling policy "would incur costs that were between four and five times higher than the economic benefits gained" and "if the predicted detrimental effects in the surrounding areas are included, the overall benefits achieved would fall to approximately one-fortieth of the costs incurred". In summary, it argued that it would be more cost-effective to improve cattle control measures, with zoning and supervision of herds, than it would be to cull badgers.
After considering the report, and after consultation with other advisors, the then government's Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Sir David King, produced a report of his own which concluded that culling could indeed make a useful contribution to controlling bovine tuberculosis. This was criticised by scientists at the time, most notably in the editorial of "Nature", which implied King was being influenced by politics. In July 2008, Hilary Benn, who was at that time Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, refused to authorise a badger cull.
In 2009, the Welsh Assembly authorised a non-selective badger cull in the Tuberculosis Eradication (Wales) Order 2009; the Badger Trust sought a judicial review of the decision, but their application was declined. The Badger Trust appealed in Badger Trust v Welsh Ministers  EWCA Civ 807; the Court of Appeal ruled that the 2009 Order should be quashed.
After the 2010 general election, the new Welsh Environment Minister, John Griffiths, ordered a review of the scientific evidence in favour of and against a cull. The incoming DEFRA Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman, began her Bovine TB Eradication Programme for England, which she described as "a science-led cull of badgers in the worst-affected areas". The Badger Trust put it differently, saying "badgers are to be used as target practice". Shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh said it was prompted by "short-term political calculation".
The Badger Trust brought court action against the government. On 12 July 2012, their case was dismissed in the High Court; the Trust appealed unsuccessfully. Meanwhile, the Humane Society International pursued a parallel case through the European Courts which was also unsuccessful. Rural Economy and Land Use Programme fellow Angela Cassidy has identified one of the major forces underlying the opposition to badger culls as originating in the historically positive fictional depictions of badgers in British literature. Cassidy further noted that modern negative depictions have recently seen a resurgence.
As an attempt to reduce the economic costs of the cage-trapping methods used in the Randomised Badger Culling Trial, the cull in England allows "free shooting" (which means marksmen with firearms), a method which is hoped will be much less expensive than live trapping followed by humane killing. The proposed cull involves two pilot areas: one mainly in West Somerset and the other mainly in West Gloucestershire with a part in Southeast Herefordshire, at an estimated cost of £7 million per trial area. Up to 5,094 badgers may be shot. Licences to cull badgers under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 are presently available from Natural England, who require applicants to show that they have the skills, training and resources to cull in an efficient, humane and effective way, and to provide a Badger Control Plan. There are closed seasons during the cull, designed to prevent distress to animals or their dependent offspring.
Defra and Natural England were unwilling to divulge the methodology of the pilot culls. In a "Freedom of Information" decision, dated 6 August, the Information Commissioner’s Office found that DEFRA was wrong to apply the Environmental Information Regulations in defence of its refusal to disclose information about the pilot cull methodology. Defra originally intended to sample 240 badgers killed during the pilot culls but have now confirmed only 120 badgers targeted will be collected for examination of humaneness and that half of these badgers will be shot while caged. Thus only 1.1 percent of badgers killed by free shooting will be tested for humaneness of shooting. No badgers will be tested for Bovine TB.
Details of the ongoing pilot culls are not being released whilst they are taking place and DEFRA will not divulge how the success of the trials will be measured. As a result, scientists, the RSPCA and other animal charities have called for greater transparency over the pilot badger culls. Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has confirmed that the purpose of the pilot culls is to assess whether farmer-led culls deploying controlled shooting of badgers is suitable to be rolled out to up to 40 new areas over the next four years. Farming minister David Heath admitted in correspondence with Lord Krebs that the cull would "not be able to statistically determine either the effectiveness (in terms of badgers removed) or humaneness of controlled shooting". Lord Krebs, who led the Randomised Badger Culling Trial in the 1990s, said the two pilots "will not yield any useful information".
Effectiveness of the cull
Scientific experts agree that culling where there are "hard boundaries" to the cull zones, on a large and long-term scale, could yield modest benefits. If there are 'soft boundaries' allowing badgers to escape, then it will also make things worse for farmers bordering on the cull areas due to infected badgers dispersing: the so-called "perturbation" effect.
The Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) concluded "the form and duration of badger social perturbation is still poorly understood and significant changes to our assumption may alter the order of preference [of the proposed options]."  The Defra-commissioned FERA Report states: "Our modelling has shown that while the differences between the outcomes of strategies using culling and/or vaccinatingbadgers are quite modest (~15-40 CHBs prevented over 10 years), their risk profile is markedly different. Culling results in the known hazard of perturbation, leading to increased CHBs [Cattle Herd Breakdowns] in the periphery of the culling area. Culling also risks being ineffective or making the disease situation worse, if it is conducted partially (because of low compliance) or ineffectually (because of disruption or poor co-ordination) or it is stopped early (because of licensing issues). Vaccination carries no comparable risks or hazards."
The UK government claims that a sustained cull, conducted over a wide area in a co-ordinated and efficient manner, over a period of nine years, might achieve a 9-16% reduction in disease incidence. However, many scientists and a coalition of animal-welfare groups including the RSPCA, the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB, argue that a cull could risk local extermination of all badgers, and that a badger cull will not in any way solve the problem of bovine tuberculosis in cattle. The British Veterinary Association say that data collected from research in other countries, suggests that the control of the disease in farms has only been successfully carried out by dealing with both cattle and wild reservoirs of infection. However, in the introduction to the Final Report on the RBCT, the Chair of the Independent Scientific Group, John Bourne, states: "Scientific findings indicate that the rising incidence of disease can be reversed, and geographical spread contained, by the rigid application ofcattle-based control measures alone" (2007, Bovine TB: The Scientific Evidence. Final Report of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB,3-289). In practice it is very difficult to quantify the contribution any wildlife reservoir has to the spread of bovine tuberculosis, since culling is usually carried out alongside cattle control measures (using "all the tools in the tool box" approach):
"From Australian experience, Government has learnt that elimination of a wildlife host (feral Water Buffalo) needs to be followed by a long and extensive programme of cattle testing, slaughter, movement control and public awareness campaigns before bTB is eventually eradicated. And from New Zealand experience, population reduction of the wildlife host (possums) does not by itself reliably control bTB in cattle. In both Australia and New Zealand, Government was dealing with feral reservoirs of bTB rather than indigenous wildlife species, as is the case with the badger in this country" Wilsmore, A.J. and Taylor, N. M. (2005).
John Bourne has also argued that the planned cull is likely only to increase the incidence of bovine tuberculosis, and that there should instead be much greater emphasis on cattle farming controls. He claims that "the cattle controls in operation at the moment are totally ineffective", partly because the tuberculin test used in cattle is not accurate, causing test in herds to often show negative results even while still harbouring the disease. Referring to the group's final report, he further argues that whilst cattle can get tuberculosis from badgers, the true problem is the other way around: "Badger infections are following, not leading, TB infections in cattle". Overall, he says, the cull will only do more harm than good, because, "you just chase the badgers around, which makes TB worse".
It is unclear what has been spent so far on planning and preparing for each pilot cull and who exactly is paying for what, i.e. what taxpayers are paying for and what the farming industry is paying for. Costings of the culls have not factored in socio-economic costs, such as tourism and any potential boycotts of dairy products from the cull zones. Others opposed to the cull argue that for economic reasons the government have chosen the most inhumane approach to disease eradication. Tony Dean, Chairperson of the Gloucestershire Badger Group, warns that some badgers will not be killed outright: "You have got to be a good marksman to kill a badger outright, with one shot... Many of the badgers will be badly injured. They will go back underground after being shot, probably badly maimed. They will die a long lingering death underground from lead poisoning etc. We are going to have a lot of cubs left underground where their mothers have been shot above ground." He also suggests that domestic pets will be at risk in the cull areas, as some farmers will mistake black and white cats and dogs for badgers.
Many cull opponents cite vaccination of badgers and cattle as a better alternative to culling. In Wales, where a policy of vaccination in 2013 was into its second year, Stephen James, who is the National Farmers Union Cymru's spokesperson on the matter, argues that the economics of badger culling are "ridiculous" saying the cost per badger was £620. "That's a very expensive way of trying to control this disease when we know full well, from experience from other countries, that there are cheaper ways of doing it...if you vaccinate in the clean areas, around the edges of the endemic areas, then there's a better chance of it working."
The Badger Trust national charity, believes that vaccination will also be more likely to help eradicate the disease. Referring to further studies by Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) and the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA),the group claims that vaccination reduces the risk of unvaccinated badger cubs testing tuberculosis positive, because "by the time cubs emerge and are available for vaccination they might have already been exposed [and are therefore resistant] to TB". Steve Clark, a director of the group, has separately said that "vaccination also reduces the bacilli that is excreted by infected badgers. It doesn't cure them, but it reduces the possibility of any further infection...in the region of a 75% level of protection. The life span of a badger is about five years. So if you continue the vaccination project for five years, then the majority of animals that were there at the beginning will have died out and that vaccination programme is leading towards a clean and healthy badger population."
According to Dr Robbie McDonald, Head of Wildlife and Emerging Diseases at FERA (the lead wildlife scientist for Defra and responsible for research on badgers) the benefit of culling a population is outweighed by the detrimental effect on neighbouring populations of badgers. He is reported as saying that a huge number of badgers would have to be killed to make a difference and while it is cheap and easy to exterminate animals in the early days of a cull it gets harder and more expensive as time goes on.
Law and compensation
European badgers are not an endangered species, but they are among the most legally-protected wild animals in the UK, being shielded under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats.
The government had already paid substantial compensation to farmers because of the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 followed by the bluetongue outbreak in 2007, against the background of EC Directives 77/391 and 78/52 on eradication of tuberculosis, brucellosis or enzootic bovine leucosis. In the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak, a total of £1.4 billion in compensation was paid. The Cattle Compensation (England) Order 2006 (SI2006/168) was overturned when the High Court decided the Order was unlawful; in the test case farmers had been receiving compensation payments of around £1,000 on animals valued at over £3,000, but in extreme cases the discrepancy between animal value and compensation paid was over one thousand percent. This case was itself overturned on appeal in 2009.
A bovine tuberculosis outbreak on a farm leads to the slaughter of the infected cattle. The average cost of such an outbreak is around £30,000, of which the farmer pays around £10,000 and the public pays around £20,000 (mostly compensation for the value of the slaughtered animals, and testing costs). In 2011, about 26,000 cattle were slaughtered because of bTB, at a cost of £100 million to the taxpayer.
The cull will lead to additional policing costs. The trial culls in Gloucestershire and Somerset are projected to cost £4 million in additional policing costs, according to figures released by DEFRA in October 2012, over and above the £1 million cost of the aborted trials in 2012. DEFRA will pay this, with the police forces involved invoicing DEFRA after the trials are concluded. Police sources have declined to confirm the £4 million figure on the basis that it is too early to say.
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