RSPCA calls for end to badger cull as ‘landmark’ study finds it has not cut TB in cattle

‘This is what farm vets, farmers and the public should have been told regarding this animal health emergency,’ says biologist author

Jane Dalton
Friday 18 March 2022 15:16
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Analysis suggests badger culling is not effective against the spread of TB

The badger cull did not contribute to a significant fall in levels of cattle tuberculosis, a “landmark” report has found.

The peer-reviewed findings prompted the RSPCA to call for an immediate and permanent halt to the government’s culling programme.

But the government disputes the study’s conclusions, saying the data has been manipulated by the authors, who have campaigned against the cull.

Between the start of the cull in 2013 and the end of 2020, it’s estimated more than 140,000 badgers were shot dead, mostly in west and southwest England, in an attempt to eradicate the disease in cattle.

In 2020-21, more than 27,000 cattle in England had to be slaughtered to tackle the disease, which costs farmers thousands of pounds.

Badgers are carriers for TB, but the science over how to tackle it is hotly contested.

The government has always insisted that the cull programme, costing more than £100m, has successfully reduced the disease.

A 2019 study in Nature showed “statistically significant” drops in cattle TB incidence in Gloucestershire and Somerset after four years of culling.

But the authors of the new research say they looked at a much larger number of herds and badgers across a wider region and for a longer period, 10 years.

Cull opponents have long argued that culling makes surviving animals flee the area, potentially carrying the disease with them, so spreading it more widely.

The new paper, published in the journal Veterinary Record, based on the government’s own data, concludes there was no detectable link between the culling of badgers and any decline in the level of bovine TB in cattle herds.

The study authors, ecologist Thomas Langton and vets Mark Jones and Iain McGill, have all campaigned previously against the cull - and the government hit back, saying the paper had been produced to fit their agenda and that its cull strategy is working.

The research compared the prevalence of bovine TB in cull and non-cull areas in high-risk zones between 2013 and 2019.

The authors said their analyses showed that while the disease peaked and began to decline, there was no statistical evidence that the rate and nature of the decline was different in the two types of area.

The fall in TB rates was instead down to the introduction of cattle-based measures including more intensive testing and movement controls, the paper’s authors said.

The government has previously promised to end culling, replacing it with vaccines, and is carrying out cattle vaccine trials. But the programme has continued and the mass shooting of badgers is still planned to go on until at least 2025. Ministers have promised that this year will be the last when four-year licences are issued.

Tom Langton, principal author and consulting biologist of the new report, said: “As the bovine TB epidemic continues to spread across England, government claims on badger culling ‘having worked’ are supposition, using small amounts of data from small areas over short periods.

“Here, we have a real-world analysis, using extensive data from across England’s high-risk area, supported by comprehensive statistical analysis.

“It is what farm veterinarians, farmers and the public should already have been told regarding this continuing animal health emergency.

“Hard-working beef and dairy farmers should be given the advice and support that they need, to protect hundreds of thousands of domestic and wild animal lives and to prevent ruined farming livelihoods.”

Emma Slawinski, of the RSPCA, said:  “We warmly welcome this landmark study. In the face of this conclusive evidence, the government should immediately call a permanent halt to its cruel, ineffective and arbitrary programme based around the mass slaughter of badgers, and focus on cattle-based solutions.

“For too long the government has chosen to look the other way as it determinedly pursued an ill-conceived course of action with no scientific basis and no success, instead promoting cruelty and wasting time and money.”

A government spokesperson said: “This paper has been produced to fit a clear campaign agenda and manipulates data in a way that makes it impossible to see the actual effects of badger culling on reducing TB rates.

“It is disappointing to see it published in a scientific journal.”

Government figures show that the overall TB rate in England fell last year.

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