The UK government is facing criticism from wildlife advocates after a report published Friday revealed that officials had shot almost 11,000 badgers between August and October, as part of a culling program to control the spread of bovine tuberculosis. Officials claimed that the cull was effective in its goal, while one scientist said there was “no basis” for such a claim and advocates argued that the badgers were being scapegoated for failures in the livestock industry.
2016 saw the expansion of the culling program to seven new areas this year, reaching Devon, Dorset, Cornwall, Somerset, Herefordshire, and Gloucestershire. The overall total of badgers killed since the program began in just two areas in 2013 has reached 14,800. Half of those killed in 2016 were shot without first being trapped, a method which the British Veterinary Associated declared inhumane in 2015.
Bovine TB is a serious problem in England, where 28,000 infected cattle were slaughtered in 2015, costing taxpayers over £100m annually. Badgers can be carriers of TB and transmit the disease to cows by way of their feces. Since it is impractical to test whether or not badgers are infected with TB, such culls end up killing healthy badgers as well.
One government commissioned trial performed from 1997 to 2007, overseen by independent scientists, found that badger culling failed to make any “meaningful contribution” to stopping the spread of TB in cattle. Officials have nonetheless maintained that with changes to the culling process, paired with measures to control the movement of cattle, would help to control bovine TB.
Environmental secretary Andrea Leadsom announced on Friday that the government would be applying for TB-free status for the half of England where TB is rarely found. The move would help farmers clarify the safe status of their meat and dairy products.
Leadsom said “We have much still to do in the worst-affected parts of the country, but this shows that our strategy – combining practical biosecurity measures, a robust cattle movement and testing regime, and badger control in areas where the disease is rife – is right and is working.”
Chief veterinary officer Nigel Gibbens said “culling can deliver the level of effectiveness required to be confident of achieving disease control benefits.”
In response to these claims, Professor Rosie Woodruff, a badger expert from the Zoological Society of London, said there was “no basis” for drawing such conclusions. She pointed to inconsistent data collecting, and a culling system in which minimums of badgers killed can change depending on how many were shot. In these cases, the disturbed remainder of the badger population can expand their range and spread TB even more widely.
“This means that there is really no way to tell what reduction in badger numbers was achieved by these culls. Culling that was consistently ineffective would look like a low badger density and prompt a reduced target. I would therefore consider the CVO’s conclusion to be based on extremely shaky evidence,” according to Woodruff.
Claire Bass, director of the Humane Society International/UK said:
“The truth is, they could wipe out every badger in England, and farmers would still be dealing with TB in cattle: it’s a disease of cattle, primarily spread by cattle, and it’s cattle-focused control measures that will stop it.”