Farmers are being led up the garden path…

Zoological Society Communicating Science Debate – ‘Is the coalition government’s proposal for a ‘science-led’ programme of badger control’ an effective way to reduce tuberculosis in cattle?’ – 9th November, London

It was a long way to travel for a debate primarily about proposals for badger culling in England – but it promised key speakers and I thought there would also be much that was relevant to Wales.  There was, and the information and arguments provided a resounding reminder of how misguided culling badgers is as an approach to TB – and how hollow the use of the term ‘science-led’.  This is, of course, a personal summary of the proceedings.

To set the scene – the lecture theatre was packed with an extension area opened up to accommodate the audience overspill. Veterinary students seemed to make up a fair proportion of the audience – I had walked up from the tube with a couple of them. There were some familiar faces from the Badger Trust and other partner organisations – and from Pembrokeshire. The Chair, Andrew George MP whose constituency is in a South West TB hotspot, asked at the outset for a show of hands from those supporting the DEFRA proposals. He counted 6 out of approximately 400 in the audience.

The stand out moment for me was an impassioned intervention from the floor by Professor Bourne, who chaired the Independent Science Group conducting the former Randomised Badger Culling Trials (RBCT). He said that whilst he found it reassuring that DEFRA had based their proposals on the RBCT they had stepped away from science in how they propose to implement the programme. He was very aware of the logistics involved in achieving 80% removal of badgers – it had involved dedicated teams working around the clock. To suggest farmers could do this was a  ‘by guess and by God approach’.  If they really intend to cull he said let the Government do it, spend a lot of money and accept that the returns won’t be great. He went on to say that he was distressed that DEFRA hadn’t had a coherent TB strategy over so many years and refuse to learn from the former eradication programme in this country in the 60s and from Australia’s experience. He called for an approach based on a ‘herd test’ leading to identification and quarantine of infected herds (for up to 2 years) – rather than the current inefficient individual animal testing. Without such stringent measures, he said, Australia made no progress – with it they made progress.  He ended by saying that ‘farmers are being led up the garden path’ by current policy and practice.

This was after four short presentations by Professor Bob Watson – Chief Scientific Adviser, Defra; Professor Christl Donelly – Imperial College London; Dr Rosie Woodroffe – Institue of Zoology; and Professor Quintin McKellor – Principal, Royal Veterinary College.

Some of the most pertinent points for us in Wales arose from the presentations by Professor Christl Donnelly and Dr Rosie Woodroffe. Both stressed the necessity of conducting culling simultaneously over the whole area in order not to increase the risk of TB incidence from internal perturbation of badgers – i.e. disruption of existing badger social groups causing badgers to roam more widely. If this is not done, they said, it is not just a question of a cull not helping, it could actually make the situation worse. In Wales the proposed cull area is 288sq km, some three times the size of the 100 sq km areas in the RBCT trials, for which we heard, several times, it took an enormous effort to achieve the required removal rate. It is double the area proposed by Defra – 150 sq km. So how on earth (literally) will simultaneous culling be possible over such a large and topographically challenging area?

Rosie Woodroffe expanded on the pitfalls of free shooting of badgers which is proposed as an option in both England and Wales – in contrast to the cage trapping and shooting solely employed by the RBCT. (Lack of evidence on open field shooting of badgers was raised initially by Professor Watson of Defra in his summary of their proposals.) She said that Defra proposes to license the shooting of free ranging badgers because it is cheaper. They cite £200/sq km/year as opposed to £2,500/sq km/year for cage trapping and shooting. So this will be seen as the much more affordable and attractive option by farmers. She reiterated the amount of work required by the RBCT to efficiently remove a high proportion of badgers and see any benefits from culling and said that scientists had explicitly cautioned against extrapolating RBCT results to other forms of culling. In her opinion the costings for free shooting were unrealistic. She said it would require marksmen to be out for 8 hours per night for 8 nights driving around with spotlights and rifles to achieve the required clearance on an average farm. On the Defra figures this would equate to labour costs of about £3.20 per hour! And how chilling that image is for those of us who live in the countryside and want ourselves and our animals to be able to move about freely without fear of random shooting.

She finished by saying, as did Professor Bourne subsequently, that the RBCT culling involved substantial expenditure for very modest benefit.  The Defra proposals were not ‘science-led’ as available scientific evidence does not support them and culling does not help TB ‘eradication’ as it increases the prevalence of TB in badgers. She was later asked, by George Monbiot, what are the options if culling won’t be effective in TB eradication? Was it to wait for the vaccine – and what would be the costs of this? She responded that vaccination is promising and will reduce the incidence and prevalence of TB. If ‘eradication’ is what is wanted then this is the route. Culling does not rapidly reduce the number of infected badgers – it takes about 4 years – so there is no big difference with vaccination in speed of effect.  The injectable badger vaccine should be used until the oral vaccine is available. (This is one of the big differences between the Defra and WAG proposals – vaccination is part of the proposals for England. Professor McKellar said that this option will be available to those landowners who do not want to cull.) Professor Watson was then asked how commited DEFRA were to use of the badger vaccine given that the number of trial areas had been reduced. He said that they could still learn everything they needed to learn from the single trial. They intended to use vaccination both within culling areas and in the ring area around them.

As I was leaving, a few minutes early in order to catch the train back to Pembrokeshire, Brian May stood up to say that they had all been talking about the science but he wanted to question the morality of killing wildlife for problems and associated financial losses etc that were not of their making ……. Brave man. I would have liked to have heard the responses to that. As I would like to have seen a repeat show of hands by those supporting the proposals to cull at the end. Somehow I can’t believe there would have been any change – the arguments for culling remain utterly unconvincing however they try to play it.

Yup – Farmers are being led up the garden path.

3 Responses to “Farmers are being led up the garden path…

  1. Professor Watston answered Brian May by saying that they had to keep to the science and the question of morality was for each individual to decide themselves. Brian May also said that as someone who had studied science at Imperial College London he still did not believe Defra’s proposals would work.

    The other worrying show of hands at the beginning was that only 10% of the audience had read the consultation document.
    The show of hands at the end in support of Defra’s proposals was 12 and the percentage of the audience who did not support Defra’s proposals was approximately 50% There were obviously members of the audience for example from Defra who were not in a position to vote. Why the others had not made up their mind may have been because the presentations were unable to give them sufficient information in the short time allowed and having not read the consultation document (it wan not an easy read) they simply were not in a position to make up their mind.
    I came away from the debate more concerned than ever. Keep up the good work in Wales. I’m a member of the Somerset Trust Badger Group

  2. Re Free range shooting. The Defra English consultation best financial case (which is marginal anyway) assumes 70% of badgers in the cull area will be despatched by the cheap free range method.If the £200 /sqk/year is an underestimate and (I believe ) the 70% is unachievable then the marginal financial case becomes totally uneconomic. Wonder how long before the pro cull farmers realise this and no doubt start demanding financial support from the taxpayer.

  3. How will a hard working farmer,working form dawn to dusk, have the time and energy to go shooting for 8 hours a night? The answer is he will allow anyone with a gun on his land to do it for “sport”. He will have plenty of takers judging by the increase in shooting in my bit of Ceredigion over the last 2 years. Will I be able to complain about the noise all night and the lights shining through my window? Last time this happened I called the police and an armed response unit turned up. I was told that as it was their land they could stand outside my property and shoot whenever they liked, even though a public road runs by. Surely not? We don’t have much wildlife now but it seems certain elements want to make it all extict, there’s no profit in wildlife.