The badger cull has always been controversial. It has set wildlife groups and animal lovers against farmers. Many argue that it is being pursued against scientific opinion. And now the cull is struggling to meet its targets. The shooters in Somerset should have delivered 1,015 cadavers but so far they have piled up just 600.
What is going wrong? Defra chief Owen Paterson told the BBC: “the badgers have moved the goalposts.” Shame on badgers for not cooperating with a scheme to kill them!
This trial is not about increasing our scientific knowledge of bovine TB in the badger population. If that was the case, the government would be testing the carcases for TB. It is not. We will never know whether the dead brocks were disease carriers.
The trial is about the efficacy of shooting. And the result is that it is not efficacious.
Badgers need to shot in a very quick order to stop the disease spreading beyond the cull area. That’s where the six week period comes in. In Somerset, they have had to trap badgers in cages to shoot them, rather than just pick them off free range as planned. And even with this in place, they haven’t been able to kill enough. The shooters want to extend the cull by another two or three weeks. As Martin Harper of the RSPB says:
Shooting less than the target number increases the risk of making the bovine TB situation worse by stirring up the badger population (perturbation). The reason for limiting the culls to six weeks was because the science behind culling tells us that culling should be simultaneous across the cull zone. Extending the shooting over a long period is known to increase the risk of perturbation, therefore making the TB situation worse!
Paterson claims that the shortfall in corpses is due to the drop of the badger population. Only last October, Defra delayed the trial because there were twice as many badgers than previously thought. Now there are two-thirds as many and the cull target has been halved. The hard winter is undoubtedly a factor. But if badger numbers fluctuate so much, or our counting of them proves to be so imprecise, the scientific basis for the trials begins to evaporate.
Owen Paterson told parliament that the trial has nevertheless been a success:
Current indications suggest that the pilot has been safe, humane and effective in delivering a reduction in the badger population.
Many will argue that the methods are not humane, but what is unarguable is that the Somerset pilot has not met its targets. Blaming it onto the badgers just shows how little Defra and its ministers understand the wildlife they are culling.
As Professor Sir Patrick Bateson, president of the Zoological Society of London, told the press yesterday: “The government really is moving the goalposts… It is absolutely a mess.”
Yes, indeed. Its Paterson and his staff at Defra that are changing the rules of the game.
Bovine TB is serious. We will never eliminate it without building a national consensus based on science. We’ll never achieve that while Defra and its ministers claim that half-baked failing trials are a success, ignore the science and blame it all onto the badgers.
The truth is that the cull is incompetent—it has been described as such by the lord mayor of Oxford, and the whole May family, including Brian May, say that it is a disaster—but we should not ignore the fact that what is being done to badgers in the west country is morally reprehensible. It is ineffective and inefficient, and ignores scientific opinion. Why does the Secretary of State not resign?
The hon. Gentleman supported a Government who did nothing about the disease. Thanks to the policies of the Government he supported, 305,000 otherwise healthy cattle were hauled off to slaughter at a cost to the British taxpayer of £500 million. If we go on as he left it, the disease would double over nine years, we would be looking at a bill of £1 billion and we would not have a cattle industry. The pilots were set up to establish the safety, the humaneness and the efficiency of a controlled shooting by skilled marksmen. It is quite clear that, after the first six weeks, we have succeeded on all three criteria
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green):
It is indeed a tragedy that so many cattle have been slaughtered, but that does not make a badger cull right or effective. The Department is reported to be undertaking new research into the possible gassing of badgers. Will he confirm that that is the case? If so, what is the scope of the research, and why does he have cause to think that the 2005 DEFRA review, which found that gassing badgers could not be done humanely, is no longer valid?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. As I have just said, until we can establish vaccines we have to use the tools employed by other sensible countries to remove wildlife. Our TB strategy is clear about looking at other methods of removing wildlife. Yes, gassing is under consideration, but we will not use it unless it is proven to be safe, humane and effective.
* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Shropshire, and a former editor for Lib Dem Voice