Badgers moving goalposts? It’s the government that’s playing football with badger cull policy

Dead badger probably roadkillThe 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.

Update

There has been a lively discussion in the Commons this morning. Paterson told the House that gassing badgers is an option. From Hansard:

Mr Sheerman:
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?

Mr Paterson:
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?

Mr Paterson:
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

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25 Comments

  • Peter Watson 10th Oct '13 - 11:14am

    As the parallel thread on the lack of Lib Dem influence in DEFRA winds down, perhaps this is where I should ask, what is Lib Dem policy on the badger culling?
    Before the election Tim Farron, as the party’s spokesman on DEFRA matters, positioned the party as being in favour of a cull, and the party is one half of a coalition government that is promoting it with Lib Dem MPs whipped to support it.
    So, is the badger cull a Lib Dem thing?

  • Peter Watson
    “So, is the badger cull a Lib Dem thing?”

    When Labour had an opposition day debate calling for the cull not to go ahead, only 9 LibDems voted with Labour:

    http://www.publicwhip.org.uk/division.php?date=2013-06-05&number=21

    Gordon Birtwistle
    Paul Burstow
    John Hemming
    Martin Horwood
    Stephen Lloyd
    John Pugh
    Bob Russell
    Adrian Sanders
    Stephen Williams

    30 plus 1 tell all voted for the cull to proceed. I think that tells us all we need to know about what the LibDems think about the slaughter of badgers.

  • The position of the party is one which can only be described as being ‘on the fence”. It calls for an evidence based policy but fails entirely to take the large amount of evidence already available into account.

    There appears to be a split. Parliamentarians who represent rural areas are likely to be pro-cull, with others against. There are some parliamentarian champions in the party against a cull – Martin Horwood being one – and I have been following the issue on behalf of the Association of Liberal Democrat Engineers and Scientists, concluding that any claims of scientific basis for this cull and its methodology are false.

    Frankly, no goal posts have been moved. The government – and sadly our parliamentarians included – decided to ignore the real location of the goalposts before they kicked off. They appear to be the only ones who are surprised that the goal posts aren’t where they thought they’d be.

  • Did it feature in the Coalition Agreement?
    Martin B – Remember that around 27 or so Lib Dem MPs were on the Govt Payroll / PPSs. That would have skewed the results, as in most other votes. We will have to dig out the Hansard voting records. It is clear that the 18 who weren’t there / abstained, tipped the balance significantly. Remember also that there seems to be a real issue where Labour put forward an amendment that people are very careful about rebelling – whether this counts as “collective responsibility” or “Coalition loyalty” it certainly happens. And there is often plenty of anti-Labour rhetoric (not least on here) thrown around by Lib Dems to go with it.

  • Peter Watson 10th Oct '13 - 12:31pm

    I notice that Don Foster regretted being pressurised into voting for the badger cull by the Lib Dem chief whip (http://www.bathchronicle.co.uk/pressurised-voting-badger-cull-admits-Bath-MP-Don/story-19712630-detail/story.html). I hope the new Lib Dem chief whip is more sympathetic. (It’s Don Foster, by the way!)

    I have to say, the evidence (Farron’s official pre-election comments, a whipped vote, etc.) is that the badger cull is de facto Lib Dem policy despite no apparent support from members of the party. Thank goodness there are no other issues like that. 😉

  • I would ask LibDems to tell everyone loud and clear the badger cull has failed on ALL measures and they’ll work to end it as quickly and painlessly as possible.

    Anyone who knows anything about scientific method or governance knows it’s special interest pleading from the NFU Council, owners of shooting estates and Countryside Alliance sympathisers that has driven this badger killing. The project was never about reducing cattle bTB; it may have been about making pheasant production more profitable, removing badger setts from land that could then be developed or de-sensitising the public to future “culls” of our otters and raptors (including Golden Eagles).

    Few of us now believe anything Paterson, DEFRA or Natural England say unless there’s independent evidence to back it up.

    According to DEFRA, the shooters reported all but one badger was humanely shot – the bodies of badgers found by the Wounded Badger Patrols contradict them as do the numerous reports of badgers heard squealing in pain and (apparently) the disgusting comments the shooters put on their Facebook pages.

    It’s said the shooters were only able to kill 200 badgers by free-shooting – a massive failure; the remainder were cage-trapped, then shot. It’s also said the bill for cage-trapping has been passed on to tax-payers – that tab was to be picked up by the culling companies, wasn’t it? The Gloucestershire Police Commissioner is on record as saying the police don’t want the badger cull extended – they can’t afford the financial and social costs.

  • Tony Greaves 10th Oct '13 - 1:45pm

    The details of the costs of all this will no doubt be prised out in due course.

    When Andrew George was our DEFRA Commons co-chair he carried out a survey of LD MPs. I can’t remember the details but I recall that a majority were against a cull. Andrew also worked hard to get an agreed LD policy line which was based on scientific evidence, and on insisting that there were to be pilot culls instead of just going ahead on a wide scale (which is what the Tories and NFU wanted). (I was the Lords co-chair at the time and although opposed to the cull I went along with Andrew’s attempts to achieve consensus in the party and to moderate the policies of DEFRA – where we had no minister).

    I thought at the time that the assessment of the pilots would include an assessment of their effectiveness in reducing TB in cattle (rather than just the operational issues of safety etc). I would have to go back and look very carefully at what was said to assess whether we were duped or whether I (and I think other people) misunderstood what they said.

    Tony

  • Peter Watson – Or as David Evans would have it – Lib Dem Parliamentary policy, as opposed to party policy. I am sure a majority of members would support the idea canvassed here by Clued Up, but again we have an issue where the views in the Parliamentary party are differently balanced to those of the membership. We need to have a protocol for dealing with these situations, which have been more painful while we have “been in Government”.

  • Peter Chegwyn 10th Oct '13 - 5:45pm

    So if a majority of Lib Dem MPs were against a cull (as suggested by Tony above) why did a majority of Lib Dem MPs vote in favour of the cull?

    Another u-turn, hypocrisy, double standards or just slavish obedience to the whips?

    And why was the Lib Dem Farming Minister David Heath so supportive of the cull prior to his sacking by Clegg last week? (NFU Deputy President Meurig Raymond praising David Heath for being ‘very supportive’ on the badger cull).

    Once again a majority of Lib. Dem. MPs are totally out-of-touch with Lib. Dem. and public opinion outside Parliament and out-of-touch with the overwhelming majority of expert scientific opinion on the badger cull.

    Still, at least some elected Lib. Dems. have voted to oppose the cull, the Lib. Dem. Group on Hampshire County Council (myself included) voting unanimously to refuse permission for any extended cull on Hampshire County Council land and winning the vote – a Lib. Dem. motion condemning the cull being supported by Labour, UKIP and, surprisingly, a majority of Hampshire’s Conservative councillors who agreed that badger culling is not an effective way of tackling the problem of bovine TB.

  • Eddie Sammon 11th Oct '13 - 8:50am

    Thanks for posting Adrian. I nearly signed Adrian’s campaign because it sounds persuasive, but I know not to sign anything until I hear the other side of the story, so I found this website explaining the farmer’s side of the story, which is also persuasive:

    http://www.tbfreeengland.co.uk/home/

    The problem with Adrian’s campaign, with the greatest respect, is that he appears to be biased. I would be interested to know an unbiased opinion on this matter, because it is hard to make up your mind when you just have two biased arguments.

  • @Peter Chegwyn Hants decision is very commendable.However with regard to David Heath,Dominic Dyer, a prominent anti cull voice is suggesting via social media, that David opposed the extension of cull and this contributed to his downfall.I’ve no idea whether it’s true or not, but surely as reliable as anything Meurig Raymond has to say on this matter?

  • Andrew Colman 11th Oct '13 - 9:25am

    Very disappointed with the Lib Dems over this , the Badger call should have been vetoed at birth.

    Would have been far more sensible and cheaper in the long term to pursue vaccination instead.
    This cull is a cheap attempt to placate the ignorant farming lobby by “doing something” about bovine TB when predictions suggest culling will only reduce TB by about 16% in 7, years. I suggest the error margin in this to be large enough to indicate there is a high probability that TB will bot be reduced at all or could even increase.

    Looks like this cull is going to end in tears, and not just for the Badgers, Farmers are losing key public support, they will feel it when they next come to the general public looking for more sympathy and subsidy. The lib Dems too will suffer , the credibility of the Lib Dems as a green, compassionate and common sense party has been badly tarnished.

  • Eddie Sammon 11th Oct '13 - 9:32am

    Andrew, some people think the cattle vaccination is 10 years away. I don’t know what to think about this policy, but from a political point of view I will say that we shouldn’t be a sectional interests party. We need to be balanced and unbiased.

  • Peter Watson 11th Oct '13 - 10:06am

    @Adrian Sanders “Join my campaign against the cull http://adriansanders.org/badgers
    Done. I may be withholding my vote from the Lib Dems for the foreseeable future, but I am reassured to see something like this within the party
    P.S. My browser’s spelling check just taught me my first double ‘h’ word 🙂

  • Whatever one’s stance on this method of exterminating badgers is, would it not be more honest to avoid using the euphemism “cull”? Culling is something that is done to plants, and suggests a bloodless and perhaps harmless selection procedure.

    There is a perfectly good word in the English language for the systematic killing of animals. It is “slaughter.” If one says “badger slaughter” it becomes completely obvious to anyone what is going on, whereas “badger cull” obfuscates and misleads . There is no reason for people who support this policy — much less those who oppose it — to be opaque about what is going on by speaking euphemistically. If you are for slaughtering badgers, be proud enough about it and be honest enough to call yourself pro-slaughter.

  • Andrew Colman 11th Oct '13 - 3:40pm

    Eddie, There is already an effective TB vaccine for badgers and a partially effective vaccine for Cattle. Wales and other regions are already pursuing a vaccination based policy. Saw an article recently indicating that if Policing costs were taken into account, a badger vaccination programme would have been cheaper than culling. Off course the NFU did not like this suggesting the Police had a duty to support them (the NFU) m what ever they get up too!

  • @Eddie “We need to be balanced and unbiased.”
    A difficult place to be with respect to bovine TB and badgers…

  • @Andrew
    I thought one of the big issues with the TB vaccine is that current on farm testing methods (ie. cheap) can’t distinguish between a cow bTB and the vaccine.

    Personally, from talking with people who’ve worked in TB hospitals, I suspect that part of our problem is that we don’t really know that much about the life of TB, it does seem that we’ve discovered badgers and stopped searching.

  • Malcolm Todd 11th Oct '13 - 5:36pm

    If they’re finding it that hard to find badgers to shoot them, I don’t rate the chances of finding enough of them for an effective vaccination programme either. Still, worth a try. And an ineffective disease control plan that doesn’t involve killing thousands of otherwise harmless animals is a lot better than an ineffective disease control plan that does.

  • David White 11th Oct '13 - 5:40pm

    Objectively then, the entire cull is a waste of time and money. Relative to what was boasted about the results, beforehand, the results have proved to be a failure.

    Therefore, we, the taxpayers, are going waste yet more money on trying to get the final score right. And that means ‘right’ for Mr Paterson’s illusory ego.

    In the meantime, yet more ailing (or not) animals, both domestic and wild, will die for a cause that cannot be won by the means currently employed. If you disagree with me, please read the relevant, peer-reviewed research.

    The ConDem coalition policy on bovine TB would be hilarious – were it not such a tragic ego-trip.

  • Dave Page

    Ambivalent enough to just criticise the rhetoric coming from one side…typical LD equidistant but we will only criticise Labour

  • oh and Dave Page there was a study under the last Labour Government which said such a cull would in all likelihood be ineffective, so it does sort of fly in the face of the main trial done

    “detailed evaluation of RBCT and other scientific data highlights the limitations of badger culling as a control measure for cattle TB. The overall benefits of proactive culling were modest (representing an estimated 14 breakdowns prevented after culling 1,000km2 for five years), and were realised only after coordinated and sustained effort. While many other approaches to culling can be considered, available data suggest that none is likely to generate benefits substantially greater than those recorded in the RBCT, and many are likely to cause detrimental effects. Given its high costs and low benefits we therefore conclude that badger culling is unlikely to contribute usefully to the control of cattle TB in Britain, and recommend that TB control efforts focus on measures other than badger culling”.

  • Peter Chivall 12th Oct '13 - 11:47pm

    Sadly it’s another example of the Min. of Ag. tradition of being completely at the behest of the farming lobby (including shooting interests) carrying over into DEFRA and completely dominating any emvironmental or animal welfare principles. When you add in that Tory ministers tend to come from the same social and business groupings as the NFU and agribusiness it’s obvious that any misgivings David Heath may have had didn’t stand a chance. I heard it from an impeccable source that David Heath knew the cull would be a complete failure and was pushing for the Government to get European licensing for an existing effective badger TB vaccine. I’ll bet he’s glad he’s out of it now.

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