Angela Smith: Government not following science on badger culls

I UNDERSTAND that farmers struggle very hard to secure a decent living. Their way of life is often very hard. Currently, many aspects of our agricultural sector are struggling to make ends meet.

Should badgers be culled to stop the spread of TB?
Should badgers be culled to stop the spread of TB?

I applaud those charities, including the Wildlife Trusts and the Save Me Trust, that have tried very hard — and are in many instances succeeding — to establish working relationships with farmers so that we have constructive attitudes and dialogue instead of the rather divisive debate that has characterised all the discussions on badger culling so far.

I will not repeat the
whole history of badger culling over the past four to six years. Suffice it to say that at the heart of all the debates, all the questions tabled in the House
of Commons on badger culling, and all the disquiet relating to badger culling, is a very deep sense of unease about the Government’s rather cavalier attitude towards the science on this issue.

I will start with the randomised badger culling trial. That 10-year project drew the conclusion, at the end of the period, that no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in England could be made through the use of badger culling. That was clear, and the Labour government in 2009-10 determined that culling was not the way forward and invested in vaccination programmes. The incoming government, as was their right, decided to act otherwise.

In April 2011, a panel of independent experts was convened to set clear parameters for pilot culls. What was really important about that period was that the Government had parameters that reflected the discipline established by the RBCT (Randomised Badger Culling Trial).

I am referring, of course, to the land boundaries for culling, the time period allowed for culling, the percentage of animals to be culled and the need for repeated culling over a period of years Despite significant opposition, the pilots were given the go-ahead, and they were located in west Somerset and west Gloucestershire.

For me, the first breach of the science was the decision to go against the conclusions drawn by the experts at the heart of the RBCT. The second breach came when ​the first round of culling in the two pilot areas took place in 2013, because the number of badgers killed in the allotted six-week period was nowhere near the target required to make the cull in any way effective and so the time period was extended.

The science was further breached when the independent experts panel reported on humaneness after the first
round of culling. It stated that at least seven per cent of the badgers killed were killed inhumanely. However, rather than responding constructively to the panel’s findings, Ministers disbanded the panel — and got rid of it.

That was followed in 2014 by new culling areas being announced. Let us remember that it was decided, when the parameters for the pilot culls were established, that a four-year culling period would be needed to demonstrate whether the approach would be effective. Despite all that, just two years into the pilot project, the practice of culling was extended.

Then, in 2015, the Government formally relaxed the criteria for culling in relation to the land area.

The required land area was at least 150 square metres in extent, but that was suddenly reduced to 100 square metres, despite the majority of those responding to the consultation saying that such a change would be wrong. There was relaxation of the criteria in relation to the period of time allowed for any one cull and the minimum land area used for culling; the recommendation
was that a minimum of 70 per cent of the land area in the zone would need to be used for the culling, but that criteria was relaxed.

In summary, as time has gone on, we have witnessed a blatant refusal by Government to follow the science. We need to see a thorough, independent assessment of the pilot culls. We also need the Government to make international comparisons, and not only with other culling practices.

Badgers are not possums.They are completely different creatures. The Government should be making international comparisons with countries that have focused on vaccination as an alternative, where vaccination is used, as it is with other species, to establish a critical mass of immunity.

That is the key point about vaccination. It is not about individuals necessarily; it is also about critical mass and ensuring immunity at a level that gives a country a sense of moving forward and eradicating diseases such as TB.

There are countries that have focused on vaccination as an alternative. We have heard a lot about Wales, where the approach appears to be working, and we know that Ireland is considering a shift to a different approach that would involve vaccination. Finally, and above everything, we need the Government to commit to abandoning culling if an independent evaluation of the pilot areas demonstrates a failure to deliver a meaningful, long-term reduction in the incidence of bovine TB.

Angela Smith is the Labour MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge who took part in a Parliamentary debate on badger culling. This is an edited version.