TB in cattle soared by 130% in key zone last year – showing badger cull expansion plan flawed, say scientists

Announcing expansion of wildlife shooting while Parliament is not sitting could be illegal, experts warn

Jane Dalton
Tuesday 10 September 2019 11:13 BST
Thousands of badgers shot are likely to have suffered "immense pain" before dying, experts say
Thousands of badgers shot are likely to have suffered "immense pain" before dying, experts say (iStock)

Bovine tuberculosis rates in one of England’s main badger cull areas shot up by 130 per cent last year and are higher than when culls began, it has been revealed – just hours before the government is due to announce an expansion of the cull.

Experts including vets and former government advisers called for the planned cull widening to be cancelled, warning that announcing it while Parliament was prorogued could be illegal.

Last year’s increase in TB rates demonstrated a “disastrous failure” of the policy of shooting badgers dead in an effort to tackle the disease in cattle, they said.

And in an urgent eleventh-hour plea, they also wrote to the government’s chief veterinary officer, Christine Middlemiss, saying she has “a responsibility” to intervene.

Plans to expand the badger cull were based on outdated information – from 2017 – but the new, 2018 statistics should be taken into account, said Iain McGill, a former government agriculture scientist.

Opponents of the cull claim up to 50,000 badgers could be killed this year if the expansion goes ahead – nearly double the number last year.

Official data obtained under Freedom of Information laws showed confirmed incidents of bovine TB in the Gloucestershire culling zone went up by 130 per cent over 2017, from 10 to 23.

Since pilots of culling began in Gloucestershire in 2013, the badger population in the area has dropped sharply, so the increased TB outbreaks suggest the government is focusing on the wrong issue, Dr McGill told The Independent. He believes culling should be replaced by changes to cattle testing, and cattle vaccination and treatment.

The experts wrote to Tony Juniper, the head of Natural England, which issues licences, that up to a quarter – 9,000 – of badgers shot are likely to have suffered “immense pain”.

Dr McGill, the lead signatory of the letter to Natural England, said: “After all this brutality, TB in cattle is actually worse. Badger culling has been a disastrous failure.

“The public will be flabbergasted by these figures because the vast majority don’t support culling in view of the extremely strong scientific evidence that it hasn’t worked.

“I think what’s going on is a scientific fraud.”

When he later asked for figures on TB prevalence – a more powerful indicator – officials at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) refused to give it, citing public interest, Dr McGill said.

“They are trying to force through this badger cull before a full analysis of available data precisely because they know how bad the science looks for this cataclysmic policy.

“There is a huge sense of urgency here – Mr Juniper and Christine Middlemiss need to come before Parliament and the nation to make a statement on this policy before Parliament is prorogued.

“For the cull to be announced this year with no parliamentary scrutiny would be unconstitutional and possibly illegal.”

Dominic Dyer, chief executive of the Badger Trust, has also called for the “largest destruction of a protected species” to be cancelled while Parliament is not sitting.

“By the time it returns most of the badgers will have been killed,” he said.

Prof Ranald Munro, the former chairman of an independent expert group appointed by the government to assess the trials, has warned the policy is causing “huge suffering”.

A Defra spokesperson said: “Bovine TB remains one of the greatest animal health threats to the UK, causing devastation for hard-working farmers and rural communities.

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“There is no single measure that will provide an easy answer to beating the disease. That is why we are pursuing a range of interventions to eradicate the disease by 2038, including tighter cattle movement controls, regular testing and vaccinations.”

The government says it is considering a report of a TB strategy review led by Sir Charles Godfray, which includes badger vaccination, and will publish its response later this year.

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