Government U-turns on badger culls

Thousands more badgers set to die under government proposals to extend culling as part of its bovine TB control policy.

(c) Richard Hurrell

In an apparent major U-turn on its 2020 announcement that badger culling would be phased out in all but ‘exceptional’ circumstances, the government has published proposals which could see large numbers of badgers being targeted across swathes of England for many years to come.

The proposals, which were published on 14th March and are subject to public consultation ending on 22nd April, would allow what are termed ‘targeted badger interventions’ in ‘cluster areas’ in which cattle herds become infected with bovine TB, and where badgers are deemed to be part of the problem.

Responding to the news, Born Free’s Head of Policy Dr Mark Jones said: “England’s badgers have endured a decade of culling, which has seen around a quarter of a million of them brutally killed, with no clear disease control benefits for cattle. These new proposals could see badgers literally wiped out across huge areas of the country, apparently on the whim of the Chief Veterinary Officer and with little or no oversight, but with huge consequences for the welfare of targeted badgers and the health of the wider ecology. If implemented, they would represent a travesty for badgers and for wildlife management in this country, at a time when government is supposedly committed to protecting wildlife and wild spaces.”

The proposals are based on a deeply flawed interpretation of a recently published government-sponsored scientific paper highlighting significant reductions in bovine TB across existing badger cull areas, the authors of which admitted that it was not possible to determine the absolute impact of badger culling which has taken place alongside the introduction of cattle-based disease control measures. A paper published in the Veterinary Record in 2022, which directly compared badger cull areas with areas that had not culled, found that badger culling had no significant impact on bovine TB in cattle.

Dr Jones continued: “The government conveniently ignores peer-reviewed independent science which doesn’t support its policy, while producing, manipulating and misinterpreting its own funded research in order to suit its purposes. It has also failed to provide the information necessary to enable independent scientists and statisticians to check the validity of the government-sponsored research on which it relies. This is no way to pursue what it claims to be ‘evidence-based policy’. The consultation process is also likely to be little more than a sham, given that government has pursued its badger culling proposals following all previous consultations, regardless of the responses it has received from experts, wildlife groups and members of the public.”

The new proposals are also extremely vague on how ‘cluster areas’ will be identified, how large they might be, and how the role of badgers in the spread of bovine TB in such areas will be determined, relying heavily on the opinion of its Chief Veterinary Officer. While culling will be followed by badger vaccination on cluster areas, it is unclear from the proposals how long culling will be allowed to continue, or whether there will be any badgers left in such areas to vaccinate. Culling licenses will be issued directly by the Secretary of State at DEFRA, rather than by Natural England as has been the case until now, removing an additional layer of oversight and scrutiny.

So-called ‘controlled shooting’, the targeting of free roaming badgers with high-powered rifles at night, which was shown to cause significant suffering by the government’s own Independent Expert Panel and has been opposed on welfare grounds by the British Veterinary Association, will continue to be permitted as a method of killing badgers, alongside trapping and shooting. Born Free is calling for further scrutiny of the animal welfare implications of ‘controlled shooting’.

The Badger Trust and Wild Justice have issued a letter challenging the legal basis for the consultation on the proposals which Born Free supports.

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