Badgershambles: Just how has the badger cull gone so wrong?

How did an ostensibly straightforward exercise in disease control become a byword for farcical official incompetence? 

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It had all the qualities of a true British farce: marksmen being employed by the Government to run around the countryside at night, pursued by a hardy bunch of protesters, aiming not just to kill badgers but to score a greater death toll than the total number of creatures available to be shot at.

And then to top it all, the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson put an image in our brains more typical to the surreal imagination of Paul Merton on Have I Got News For You: some dastardly badgers turning up at a football pitch and mischievously shifting the goal while nobody was looking.

Owen Paterson was widely mocked for blaming the failure of his trial badger cull to hit its elimination target on the animals themselves “moving the goalposts”. Critics accused him of being the chief removal man – with Professor Sir Patrick Bateson of Cambridge University and the Zoological Society of London adopting the language to argue he had not only been involved in “moving the goalposts” but also “changing the rules” of the game.

Who would have thought a badger cull could be so difficult? Never mind whether you believe killing badgers is a good way to reduce bovine tuberculosis in cattle, or simply object to the cull on moral grounds – surely the actual cull itself would be easy enough to execute.

Not so, Mr Paterson indicated this week, as he admitted that a trial which has just finished in Somerset had failed on two counts.

First, a few days before the six-week trial ended, he discovered that previous estimates of the badger population in the culling zone were widely off the mark – it was actually 1,450 rather than the 2,400 calculated a year earlier.

Second, he admitted that shooting nocturnal badgers as they ran around in the dark was actually pretty hard, meaning that his marksmen had not been able to kill enough to ensure the cull’s effectiveness. This was despite significantly reducing their target from 1,680 (difficult to achieve if only 1,450 badgers are there in the first place, according to that revised estimate) to 1,015, representing 70 per cent of the reduced population. This proportion is regarded as key to the cull’s success, killing most of the badgers without wiping out the local population altogether.

An estimated population drop of this magnitude in just a year clearly raises questions about a culling strategy predicated on such a precise percentage of killings – especially when killing the animals is so difficult.

And although Mr Paterson puts the steep population decline down to deaths stemming from the cold winter and the bovine TB he is attempting to curb, the drastic recalculation raises questions about how reliable the estimates are, whether the latest number is correct, and why, if he knew badger populations fluctuate, he didn’t wait for the results of the latest census before beginning the cull.

But while the difficulty of executing a badger cull may come as a surprise to the lay person, Mr Paterson should have seen it coming.

After all, the debate over how best to control TB in badgers – which are widely seen as helping to spread the disease among cattle - has been rumbling along since 1971, when a population of badgers in Gloucestershire was found to be infected by the disease.

In the early days, farmers responded by shooting badgers on their land, until the Badgers Act of 1973 made it an offence to kill the animal but permitted licenced culling. Gassing badger setts became the preferred option for licence-holders – at that time with cyanide – although this was outlawed as inhumane in 1982. At this point, the Government switched to trapping badgers in cages and shooting them.

But all this culling activity was pretty low level. The debate really began in earnest in 1997 when Lord Krebs issued his landmark report, which concluded that there was “compelling evidence” that badgers helped spread TB among cattle but said further study was needed to determine whether culling them would reduce the disease among cows.

His research led to a series of landmark trials, known as the Randomised Badger Culling Trials (RBCT), in which the creatures were cage-trapped and killed between 1998 and 2005.

This brings us to the other main problem with the cull. Not only is it extremely difficult to execute, but even if the population is accurately estimated and the right number are killed, many scientists believe the cull will still not work – and may even make the problem worse.

The RBCT findings are the main reason for this view. They conclude that “badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain. Indeed, some policies under consideration are likely to make matters worse rather than better.”

This was because a cull would help to spread the disease further because badgers would flee and carry the disease to new areas, while others may come from elsewhere to colonise the gap left by those that have been killed.

Concerns about how effective a cull would be at addressing bovine TB in cattle haven’t stopped Mr Paterson from pursuing his policy with vigour. Nor have warnings about how difficult it is to accurately estimate the local badger population, or how difficult they might be to kill. For marksmen with no experience of shooting these animals, it was surely never going to be easy to hit them in the heart or lung area while they are running for their lives.

The Environment Secretary failed to be put off last October, when he postponed the cull by about nine months after being told that the local badger population was much higher than he previously thought. This made the task of killing 70 per cent of them before they go underground for the winter that much harder – and he took the view it was better to play it safe and leave it until this summer.

But that is the only constraint the Environment Secretary has shown. While those around him described the trial cull as a mess, Mr Paterson said it had been a success. The Somerset cull had proved that the badgers could be killed effectively, humanely and safely, he said, and had managed to reduce the population by 59 per cent. Although not 70 per cent, this level “will deliver clear disease benefits”, he said, adding that he had applied to extend the cull to finish the job and hit the 70 per cent target.

In so doing, a jubilant Mr Paterson looked set to perpetuate the shambles. Experts say that the extension will merely serve to increase the so-called perturbation effect, spreading the disease even further afield.

Although opinion remains fiercely divided, more eminent scientists oppose the cull than back it. They advocate a range of alternatives such as vaccinations for badgers and for cows, contraceptives for badgers to reduce their birthrate, and stricter controls on moving potentially infected cattle around the country.

Such measures are either not ready yet, or are regarded as too expensive, and Mr Paterson doesn’t have time or money. However, given that 38,000 infected cattle were slaughtered last year at a cost of more than £100m to the taxpayer, he cannot be seen to be doing nothing.

He is certainly taking action, but as with many choices in politics, it may turn out to be counter-productive.

Not a black and white issue

Against the cull

Ama Menec, 48, wildlife sculptor, living in Devon. Member of the Wounded Badger Patrol (a protest group that patrols the cull zones looking to help wounded badgers)

“What has shocked me most has been the effect of all this on the local community. I haven’t seen this degree of division and conflict in the UK since the miners’ strike in the 1980s. Neighbour is pitted against neighbour, farmer against farmer, farmers against villagers, and farmers against the National Farmers’ Union.

"To say the atmosphere is tense would be a huge understatement; at times it is positively terrifying. There is nothing so frightening as to find oneself in the pitch dark, surrounded by an unknown number of shooters who can see you in their night vision gear, but who you cannot see at all, especially when you have no way out to safety.”

Dr Deborah Jones, 65, former editor of the ‘Catholic Herald’ and now a charity worker and editor of ‘The Ark’. Member of the Wounded Badger Patrol

“Armed with no more than a flask of coffee, map, torch and, essentially, mobile phone, I meet the half-dozen others on duty that night, trudge the footpaths across and beside fields and look out for signs of badger activity.

“Each of us has a duty, mine being to telephone immediately on finding a wounded badger for the local wildlife rescue centre or RSCPA.

“So far the patrol has found only one, but was too late to save it. Most nights are uneventful, with occasional visits from the police to check that all is well, although there are shadowy figures standing on the crest of the sloping field which we regularly patrol, watching us through night vision apparatus.”

Laurence Moor, 39, research manager

“I’ve been an active hunt saboteur with North and East London Huntsabs for 15 years, saving hunted animals in East Anglia from organised fox hunts, both before and after the hunting ban in 2004.

“All kinds of people have been protesting against the cull, and all have been helping save lives. Hunt sabs from all over the country have been out in force across Somerset and Gloucestershire every day and night of the cull, using hi-tech night vision equipment (kindly donated by well-wishers) to locate shooters setting up to kill, and intervening non-violently by approaching them with light and sound, alerting them to our presence until they pack up and leave the badgers alone.”

For the cull

The Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, 57, lives in North Shropshire

“Let’s be clear. Bovine TB imposes a shattering financial and emotional cost on our farmers, their families and communities. This will only get worse if we continue the cowardly policy of inaction pursued by Labour in government. Let me tell you, there is no easy solution.

“Despite £15.5m being spent on vaccine research, there was no workable solution in the short term. We must, therefore, learn from the experience of other countries.

“We have to use every tool at our disposal and that’s why we’re trialling a badger cull. We need healthy wildlife living alongside healthy cattle.

“Only if we work to eradicate the reservoir of TB in our badgers will we have the strong and prosperous dairy industry the public wishes to see.”

Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), 50, lives in East Bedfordshire

“After the Secretary of State’s comments today [Wednesday], I want to thank those involved in carrying out what is a very important first step on the long road towards eradicating TB in cattle, in badgers and from our countryside.

“Safety and humanness are very important tests. The knowledge learned from these two badger cull pilot areas will be invaluable in helping to deliver future rollout of badger control operations in areas where the incidence of TB is rife.

"Our absolute focus, and that of everyone involved, is disease control.

"These badger cull pilots are a very important first step in what is a 25-year strategy to eradicate this terrible and infectious disease.”

Nigel Gibbens, the government’s chief vetinerary officer, 55, lives in London

“Understandably, many people object to culling badgers, but this decision by ministers was taken based on the best available scientific evidence after more than 15 years of intensive research.

“Evidence from other countries with bovine TB, such as Australia and New Zealand, shows that TB in cattle cannot be controlled without also controlling the disease in wildlife that act as a reservoir for the disease.

“Research in England has demonstrated that cattle and badgers transmit the disease to each other. It also showed culling badgers leads to a reduction of the disease in cattle if it is carried out over a large enough area and for a sufficient length of time.”