Shooting in the dark

This is probably the last word on this blog on badgers for a while – but who knows?

Today the Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman made the long-awaited announcement on badger culling in a House of Commons more interested in what was about to happen across the road in Portcullis House where phone-hacking would be the subject of discussion.

But this announcement was an important one, dealing as it does with the lives and emotions of many farmers and the lives and well-being of many badgers.  It was also an important announcement for Mrs Spelman as it is clearly one where it is impossible to please everyone.  And it is important in terms of how much weight we should give to the Tory Party’s Election Manifesto pledge to adopt a science-led approach to badger culling.

The government has said ‘yes’ to culling but only under licence in two pilot areas which have not yet been agreed.  Further consultation on safety, practicality and humaneness are to be undertaken.  Details from the Defra website – click here.

Here are some important words: ‘The Government will not attempt to eradicate the disease nationally by culling, and there would be no culling over the whole endemic area at the same time.‘.

The two pilot areas, if they go ahead, will have to be at least 150 square kilometres in size and farmers will have to be trained (at night school?) to carry out shooting in the dark.  Given that bTB is a problem, and a serious problem, in much of western England the area affected by bTB is huge.  The combined area of just four affected counties, Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Gloucestershire, is over 17,000 square kilometres (not all of that land is farmed of course).  Let’s say that about half of that land is farmed and has cattle on it – is that a reasonable guess?  And let’s say that the other affected counties in England double the area affected so that we could say, ballpark only, that 17,000 square kilometres of farmland are affected by bTB.  If the pilot areas for culling are much bigger than the minimum needed, let’s say three times as big, then about 900 square kilometres will enter a pilot cull area.  So, 900 out of 17,000 square kilometres will have some legal, licenced culling introduced.  This is as close to a no-cull policy as Defra could possibly have come before Ministers were drummed out of the NFU and CLA without ceremony.

And given that culling may well make things worse for farmers in the pilot areas if their efforts are not effective, and may well make things worse for fellow farmers on the edge of the pilot areas anyway, because of perturbation effects, many a farmer should welcome this announcement of an almost no-cull way forward.  If badger culling, in the dark, goes well, the existing science suggests a possible reduction in bTB of about 16% in hot-spots.  That’s by one sixth.  So in about 6% of the area affected by bTB badger-shooting may reduce bTB by about one sixth, so Defra has agreed to culling that might be expected to reduce the national incidence of bTB by about 1% (maybe a bit more because culling will be aimed at hot-spots).  And so we need measures to reduce the other 99%.

I am glad to see the emphasis being on strengthening cattle control measures thus ‘Measures to address bovine TB in cattle remain the cornerstone of efforts to control the disease right across the country, and existing measures will be strengthened.’.

And I’m also glad to see this statement:  ‘Ultimately, we want to be able to vaccinate both cattle and badgers, and we’re investing in research – but there are serious practical difficulties with the injectable badger vaccine, which is the only available option.  We are working hard to develop a cattle vaccine and an oral badger vaccine, but a usable and approved cattle vaccine and oral badger vaccine are much further away than we thought and we can’t say with any certainty if and when they will be ready. We simply can’t afford to keep waiting.‘.

Mrs Spelman also correctly judged, I believe, her words of sympathy for farmers and regret for having (in her mind) to cull any badgers at all.

All in all, this is clearly not the worst possible outcome for England’s badgers – although thousands face death because of it.  And, all in all, it does add up to a more potentially effective control strategy because of the strengthening of cattle and biosecurity measures envisaged and planned – and the continuing development of vaccines for cattle and badgers – and despite the totemic but essentially irrelevant (as far as national bTB levels are concerned) partial agreement to future pilot culling.

The NFU and CLA seem to be putting a brave face on what is as close to a no-cull policy as could be expected given the Tory Party Manifesto commitment (As part of a package of measures, we will introduce a carefully-managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of bTB .)  and the strength of feeling of the farming community with which all four Defra Ministers have strong links.

The Tories had stuck their necks out before the election in promising a cull and Jim Paice stoked the fires of expectation after the election (and cancelled vaccine trials which was a silly thing to do).  Given all that, there should be quite a lot of badgers breathing a small sigh of relief tonight although thousands of them may still be killed because Defra couldn’t quite stick to the science when it came down to it.

Now, I expect, the lawyers will have a field day – which rarely does any farmer, taxpayer or wildlife that much good.


That’s my last word on this subject for a while – but you have your say in comments.  But please, keep your comments short-ish, on topic and polite (or at least not close to libellous).

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11 Replies to “Shooting in the dark”

  1. Night shooting of Badgers ! Go ahead and try if you want but you will not get many !! Gassing whole sets is the only method that will work. Whilst the so called cull is going ahead it would be interesting to see if ground nesting birds do better.

    1. Andy – ground-nesting birds? Go ahead and try to find some if you want, day or night, but you will not get many! The West Country has very few lapwings or grey partridges and, amazingly, in dairying areas, very few skylarks either. Intensive dairying isn’t great for ground nesting birds. Silage fields are less diverse, less insect-rich and cut more frequently than hay fields used to be. If you want to make a field of winter wheat look good for wildlife, compare it with a silage field! And that’s why in the dairying West of England hares are unusual and certainly declined a lot (I’m not up to date on their numbers now) whereas in the arable East hares are running about all over the place.

      But what you suggest is true – it woud be interesting to see if there are any other differences. I’d start with fox numbers. Good evidence that badgers suppress fox numbers so expect to see more foxes in areas where badgers are culled. But foxes suppress weasels and stoats don’t they? so expect…. I’m not sure what you’d expect so your suggestion has merit.

  2. So much focus on factionalism. Evidence is that badger numbers are out of territorial balance . The mission to protect this single species has succeeded to the extent that their numbers are now unsustainable. In time, nature will do its own thing and numbers will decrease through disease……..oh, but the disease bit has begun hasn’t it? Trouble is, it’s a disease that transmits to humans. More badgers etc………..please can we bring some balance into conservation. The doctrinal hand of the conservationist can be just as damaging to nature’s balance as the bloody hand of the wildlife persecutor. Scotland has worked hard to achieve TB free status, let’s hope it can stay that way.

    1. Daye – out of territorial balance? Meaning what exactly?Unsustainable in time? Meaning what exactly? How many cases of bTB in humans?

  3. These poor people who think killing is the only way. With an industry in free fall due to lack of profit It seems the government is only interested in votes. Please hurry up with 3000 cows in a shed. The only way forward + Anaerobic digestion

  4. A non-cull under any other name.

    Thank you for the anaylsis of the numbers Mark, it’s pretty clear that this so called cull is nothing more than a sop to the rural vote, rather than any serious attempt to address the transmission of bTB by badgers.

    Are these licences going to be a mythical as the Raptor Control Licence that DEFRA are so unwilling to undersign?

    One of the most worrying aspects of this half- hearted approach is the effect of pertubation on livestock herds that currently are TB free. I venture to say that it is impossible to find a 150 kn area totally surrounded by “hard” borders

  5. I think it can be read several ways but it certainly isn’t a plan to eradicate TB. It is pretty thin on ways to improve the much criticised cattle testing and movement control side of things and thinner still on biosecurity. The commitment to vaccination research is good but the lukewarm approach to the injectable vaccine is very poor. 92% of the responses to their consultation supported vaccination, we have a vaccine available now it has been through successful field trials, it doesn’t risk making TB worse. It’s one of the only publicly acceptable tools in their tool kit but they don’t really want to use it. The problem is a political one. Mrs Spelman cancelled five of Labour’s vaccination trial areas. Big mistake. These could have been five areas with a years worth of progress towards herd immunity and another year before a roll out of culling if this was their preferred path.

    On culling we now have the sham of a years pilot. Mark, you’re a good scientist, if you were on the Scientific panel charged with assessing the effectiveness and humaneness of shooting do you really feel you would be able to make sound science-led decisions based on one years work in two areas?

  6. Apparently the licensed control will seek to remove over 70% of the badgers in any given area, but without breaching an unspecified maximum – in order to keep the cull compliant with the Bern convention. So how do you implement this level of population control without up to date population data?

    1. Rich – a belated welcome! to this blog. Good question – why not make it to the government consultation?

  7. Spelman’s strategy is one of the most entertaining fudges I’ve seen for a long time. The devil, as always, is in the detail.

    Marksmen will have to be trained to deer stalker standard to shoot the badgers. They may only shoot badgers side on, hitting a target area the size of a grapefruit on a very low-slung animal that’s not prone to keeping still. It’s do-able, but to do it over a large area in the required six weeks without accident or inhumane injury… ? Oh, and for safety reasons they will not be able to do it close to towns and villages. “Close” is not defined but, given that a rifle bullet can travel a mile in a second any meaningful safety limit will dramatically restrict the accessible area.

    Farmers will have to implement “mitigation” measures to reduce the perturbation effect on neighbouring farmers. These measures are not defined and I’m not aware that they even exist, unless Spelman is thinking of mile after mile of electric fence. On the key question of who pays the compensation if a farm breakdown outside the cull is attributed to perturbation, Spelman has nothing to say.

    The most significant clause, however, is that farmers will have to pay for the cull up front, by putting the cash in an escrow-type account for four years. If they start the cull and fail to complete it, the Government will purportedly step in to finish the job – could Tory MPs charge expenses for doing it? – and pursue farmers for the costs. So local farmers will have to put their money where the NFU’s mouth is; it’s a tall order.

    Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about all this is that Natural England, the conservation body, will have to sort it all out. It’s been a whipping boy for Defra’s budget stuff ups for years now and this will only add to its woes, bogging it down in a legal nightmare that will only harm its relationships with conservationists, farmers or, probably, both. For Spelman, Natural England is the equivalent of long grass and conservation will be the loser.

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