Lessons must be learned to improve pilot badger culls

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A strategy to achieve TB free status by 2038 was announced by Environment Secretary Owen Paterson this week following findings by an independent panel which questioned the effectiveness of last year’s culls in Gloucestershire and Somerset, the first phase in a four-year culling programme in the areas.

The Independent Expert Panel chaired by Professor Ranald Munro confirmed that controlled shooting and cage trapping, fell short of pre-cull government aims to eliminate at least 70 per cent of local badger populations.

It is extremely likely that combined shooting and cage trapping removed less than 48.1 per cent of the badgers in Somerset and less than 39.1 per cent of the badgers in Gloucestershire, the panel found.

Shooting accuracy varied among contractors and resulted in a number of badgers taking longer than five minutes to die and others being hit but not retrieved. Such events should account for less than five per cent of badgers shot at during pilot culls, the panel reported, but it was “confident that this was not achieved”.

If culling is continued in the pilot areas, or in the event of roll-out elsewhere, standards of effectiveness and humaneness must be improved, it said.

Likely reasons for the failing to meet cull targets included landowners’ non-compliance, varying levels of ability and effort by those contracted to perform the culls, and the influence of protestor activity, the report said, adding that it could not recommend whether controlled shooting should be rolled out more widely because data is not available to show how much additional shooting effort would be required to achieve 70 per cent removal.

Applications to extend both pilot culls beyond six weeks were granted and the panel said evidence suggests that culling over a six-week period fails to meet the criteria of effectiveness set out by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said the Government’s updated strategy to combat bovine TB had taken into account the panel’s findings.

“The four-year culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire are pilots and we always expected to learn lessons from them. It is crucial we get this right. That is why we are taking a responsible approach, accepting recommendations from experts to make the pilots better.

“Doing nothing is not an option. Bovine TB is a terrible disease which is devastating our cattle and dairy industries and causing misery for many people in rural communities.”

The strategy outlines plans to strengthen cattle movement controls, introduce a grant-funded scheme for badger vaccination projects in the ‘edge area’ at the frontier of the disease, and improvements to the existing pilot culls. Improvements include more training for contractors, better planning to ensure culling is spread evenly across the areas in question and better data collection to assess progress.

But farmers will be bitterly disappointed by the decision not to roll badger culls out further afield to help reduce TB in other areas where the disease remains persistent and high, the National Farmers’ Union said.

NFU president Meurig Raymond said: “Statistics released by Defra show there were 4,815 new herds infected with TB in 2013 in Great Britain, with 32,620 cattle slaughtered in an attempt to control the disease. It is hugely important that any cattle controls go hand in hand with measures to tackle the disease in badgers. And culling must play a part in that where TB is rife.”

A strategy to achieve TB free status by 2038 was announced by Environment Secretary Owen Paterson this week following findings by an independent panel which questioned the effectiveness of last year’s culls in Gloucestershire and Somerset, the first phase in a four-year culling programme in the areas.

The Independent Expert Panel chaired by Professor Ranald Munro confirmed that controlled shooting and cage trapping, fell short of pre-cull government aims to eliminate at least 70 per cent of local badger populations.

It is extremely likely that combined shooting and cage trapping removed less than 48.1 per cent of the badgers in Somerset and less than 39.1 per cent of the badgers in Gloucestershire, the panel found.

Shooting accuracy varied among contractors and resulted in a number of badgers taking longer than five minutes to die and others being hit but not retrieved. Such events should account for less than five per cent of badgers shot at during pilot culls, the panel reported, but it was “confident that this was not achieved”.

If culling is continued in the pilot areas, or in the event of roll-out elsewhere, standards of effectiveness and humaneness must be improved, it said.

Likely reasons for the failing to meet cull targets included landowners’ non-compliance, varying levels of ability and effort by those contracted to perform the culls, and the influence of protestor activity, the report said, adding that it could not recommend whether controlled shooting should be rolled out more widely because data is not available to show how much additional shooting effort would be required to achieve 70 per cent removal.

Applications to extend both pilot culls beyond six weeks were granted and the panel said evidence suggests that culling over a six-week period fails to meet the criteria of effectiveness set out by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said the Government’s updated strategy to combat bovine TB had taken into account the panel’s findings.

“The four-year culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire are pilots and we always expected to learn lessons from them. It is crucial we get this right. That is why we are taking a responsible approach, accepting recommendations from experts to make the pilots better.

“Doing nothing is not an option. Bovine TB is a terrible disease which is devastating our cattle and dairy industries and causing misery for many people in rural communities.”

The strategy outlines plans to strengthen cattle movement controls, introduce a grant-funded scheme for badger vaccination projects in the ‘edge area’ at the frontier of the disease, and improvements to the existing pilot culls. Improvements include more training for contractors, better planning to ensure culling is spread evenly across the areas in question and better data collection to assess progress.

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