Badger debate

I listened to all of Monday’s badger cull debate.  It was a far better discussion than the previous one on badgers and infinitely better than the one on banning driven grouse shooting.

Better though it was, it is interesting to see and listen to politicians debating science as those involved in the debate could not possibly be regarded as experts on the subject. I was particularly struck by the paucity of ecological understanding emanating from Richard Drax (Harrow, Sandhurst and The Coldstream Guards) who seems to think that Badgers are hoovering up Wood Warblers. ‘Those are the facts’ said Mr Drax presumably on the basis of his long term study of predator-prey relationships. It’s easy to mock – indeed, very easy when an MP spouts such ill-informed nonsense.

Paul Flynn introduced the subject of the debate with passion and a pretty good grasp of the evidence.

Sue Hayman did OK as the Labour spokesperson and she was ably helped by Rachael Maskell and Angela Smith. Angela Smith in particular made a forceful contribution highlighting the government’s move away from a science-based approach – do read what she said in the transcript.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown was more sensible than usual, I thought, although he has set a low baseline of expectation and always reacts very badly to challenge.  When he agreed with his colleague Mr Drax,  or Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax as perhaps we ought to call him, about the impacts of the Badger on ground-nesting birds, and was challenged for the source of his knowledge he reverted to the ‘I live in the countryside you know’ argument and said ‘Well, the source is evident to any countryman out there’ and, obviously, that should be an end to it. Be off you scientific townies or I’ll give you a good horse whipping!

I can’t help myself being quite impressed by George Eustice’s performance under some pressure in these debates.  I don’t really want to be impressed – but I can’t help myself.  I don’t agree with him, but he performs infinitely better than Therese Coffey did in the grouse shooting debate.

If you were an optimist, then there were some signs, just signs, that the government was being nudged to a slightly more sensible position through this process. There was far less stridency and a bit more common ground. Maybe. Perhaps.

This debate won’t have done any harm at all and several MPs rightly praised Simon King for getting so many signatures (108, 319) on such a subject.

I do wonder whether MPs ever get much feedback on their performance in these and other debates. If your MP took part then you could tell them what you thought of them. But it would be fascinating to see an independent panel of scientists comment on the speeches. I wonder what Lord Krebs and Rosie Woodroffe, for example, thought of the debate?

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18 Replies to “Badger debate”

  1. Hi Mark; Thanks for the namecheck! The debate was followed by a day-long symposium on the latest science on the topic, which two MPs attended (well done Angela Smith and Bill Wiggin!!). I'd be happy to do a guest blog on the current state of play.

  2. The lack of reporting on this debate shows how poorly served we are by the media. As far as I know, there was nothing on the BBC and the Times was the only national newspaper with coverage. The great British public would probably not have been impressed with the contribution of Mr Drax, but remain unenlightened. It's no wonder people have so little engagement with parliamentary democracy when puff pieces are broadcast constantly, but significant debates are routinely ignored.

  3. I attended the Westminster debate, passing through the flowers and sadness of last weeks murderous event to a muted Westminster. My take - it was yet another very low par performance from Eustice who did not answer in any detail the questioning from Anglea Smith and Paul Monaghan or the excellent Roger Gale on the government benches for that matter. On the key point on the fallibilty of the tuberculin skin test and the need for widespread gamma interferon testing, he limply said ' we will be using it more'. I.e. a few places including the badger Pilot killing zones in Gloucestershire, Somerset and Dorset etc., where any effect of badger culling or lack of it will be masked as a result. He said that he was only following the chief vets advice. The chief vet, the following day at the bTB Symposium at Imperial College, repeated the vague 'we will be using it more' lines with no commitment to the widespread level of use seen in Wales, where bTB herd breakdowns are actually coming down and where badgers have been left alone.

    But the scientific elephant in the room at the bTB Symposium the next day, was that since recent publications on cattle bTB test effectiveness, it can be seen that analysis of the effect of badger culling on herd breakdowns should combine data on 'unconfirmed' as well as 'confirmed' breakdown of herds, as a measure of new herd bTB infection and not just 'confirmed' breakdowns only. It is now known that the tuberculin skin test shows extremely few false positives. On that basis, the RBCT results shows that killing badgers proactively (everywhere) in an zone has no significant effect on bTB cattle breakdown. Badgers are no more indicated as responsible for passing bTB to cattle than trees are.

    The research community appear in delayed shock rather than denial over the skin test fallibility discoveries, and the huge implications. Eustice has been aware for several months but has declined to respond. As the 2011 government bTB policy is routed completely in the RBCT analysis however, there is now (in addition to other departures from the policy) need for a formal Policy Suspension and review, probably for legal reasons, it might be foolish to continue.

    As John Krebs, the architect of the RBCT or 'Krebs Trials' is reported to have said recently "we must acknowledge as scientists that we don't always get it right. Models make assumptions, labels slip in freezers". Therese Coffey, my MP, who is also a scientist might now follow this, although she too insists that she follows the chief vets opinion.

    This was a great week for science and in fact should be for badgers, but not for farmers who bear the brunt of everyone else's inability to give them the support that they really need and that is long overdue.

    1. Tom,maybe this proves Badgers more likely to pass BTB to cattle than trees.
      25 reactors, many of which were young heifers about to come into the herd. These heifers were grazing in the field on the day the moribund badger was found wandering on 7th November 2014. See below. The test was thorough and performed by a vet who has never tested on the farm before.
      By the way English
      vets interpretation of testing of cattle may vary but in general they consider the test in England is accurate if applied properly to the animal and the vet I spoke to two days ago when helping with BTB test said test was same in England and Wales but interpreted slightly differently.
      It seems it is accurate in the sense it does not miss any BTB but may err on the side of safety.
      Of course Welsh Government claims all sorts of things by selecting the figure showing less new outbreaks and says improved testing is responsible for the actual number of cattle slaughtered increased by something like 23%.A LIKELY STORY,lets judge in another year.
      Really ironic critics do not believe English Government when publishing figures but believe the Welsh.HO HO HO.
      I am not in favour of this cull and as I will be helping test cattle tomorrow think this proves that I am in touch(hands on actually EM)with cattle testing.
      I do agree trees do not infect cattle with BTB.
      Finally would CP have the same outlook if Badgers were infecting his Poodles or are they more valuable than farmers cattle who the farmer mostly tends twice a day EVERY DAY OF THE YEAR.

      1. 'the vet I spoke to two days ago when helping with BTB test said test was same in England and Wales but interpreted slightly differently'

        That is absolute nonsense Dennis, sorry, but it is.

          Looks to me that the Interferon-Gamma test is not exclusive to Wales which is just what anyone would expect and is used in England in many instances if thought to be a necessary.
          This whole business about the Badger cull starts off in a ridiculous manner by many contributors stating it is against scientific advice.Can they not understand that the Government have many good scientists advising them and why peddle the notion that pressure from farmers is the reason for the cull.
          I just know you would disagree with all of that but all farmers want is clean cattle and clean Badgers.
          The compensation gets nowhere near the cost of losing animals and following upheaval of farmers having it found in their herds.
          I have repeatedly said I am not in favour of this cull but Badger lovers should not distort the facts

          1. Nobody is claiming Interferon-Gamma testing is exclusive to Wales, farmers can choose to use the test if they wish but they have to pay for it as it is more expensive. In Wales the Govt. pays for it.

          2. Given Prof John Bourne in the ISG report, based on detailed analysis of the only large scale, rigorous controlled trial of badger culling, the RBCT, said "badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain”, it is puzzling why you claim it is ridiculous to say the cull is against scientific advice.
            Also, as you keep saying you are against the cull, why are you arguing so strongly in favour of it?
            That said, remembering your magnificent double century at the Oval back in 76 against the mighty Windies, All is forgiven;) The sight of Michael "whispering death" Holding ghosting in from the pavilion end still gives me nightmares!

  4. Tom - thanks for a very interesting comment. Your final sentence 'give the farmers the support they really need' is hugely important - on a completely different scale as we face creating a new agricultural support policy from scratch. As we've seen with the whole badger saga farmers don't do much to help themselves - the badger cull has effectively diverted attention from the many other things that might/needed to be done and no doubt we'll face the same sort of tactics over big changes to farming. The bottom line, which no one seems interested in talking about, is, in fact, the bottom line: farmers are struggling, and especially dairy farmers whose whole existence is threatened by supermarket wars over milk prices. We really do need to recognise that this is not a level playing field: the megalithic food industry has been all too ready to be supplied at ever decreasing prices by thousands of small, competing, uncoordinated businesses. At the same time, price scares are stoked up even as the proportion of income we spend on food goes ever lower, and as the food industry works hard to get us to eat more and more high margin, salt and sugar filled processed foods.

    And the worst of it all is that the level of debate - and crippling shortage of expertise around Government - makes the prospect of the sort of positive change which is achievable well within current budgets vanishingly unlikely.

    1. Dr,you almost deliberately misrepepresent anything I have said.
      I have not said that the cull is against scientific advice,I said that the Government has many good scientists.
      That must mean they have done the cull on their advice surely,of course the no cull people(yes I am against this type of cull)rubbish the other scientists ideas.That is ridiculous as it seems they only listen to scientists when it suits them.If you search and search you will find no evidence of me ever ever arguing in favour of this cull but arguing that facts that are correct about BTB are being twisted.

      Ernest,it comes down to this,do I believe you or do I believe the vet.
      Here is my reason for believing the vet.
      You have very little actual testing experience of BTB testing of cattle in all probability compared to the vet,you just have a bit of looking on the internet and choosing which bit of it you will quote.
      The vet is a senior partner in a practice very well respected covering a large area and used by farmers for over sixty years.
      This practice has seen my herd before we retired through getting clear of Brucelosis Abotion in the 70s when the eradication was needed then advised us through the trauma of several cows getting BSE in the 90s which lots of the general public said things like it is the farmers own fault bla bla bla.Nothing further from the truth,simply farmers in good faith were buying feed from reputable companies that the Meat and Bone meal content had not been treated properly whereas for certainly decades it had been included in feeds but treated properly.
      Of course this practice had seen us through many clear BTB tests and never a faiure of even one animal while we always had a Badger Sett on the farm.They had also of course helped with herd health for 28 years.
      The vet has obviously got the knowledge of testing almost daily and he obviouly meets vets from all over the UK plus he gets loads of communication from Government department and vet journals.
      I think it is obvious that your rather disrespectful saying of what he said is nonsence by this difference in experience between yourself and the vet means that you should show more respect to experts in their field.

      1. Dennis,

        I live and work in an area right on the front line of bTB, and during the course of a typical week I'll sit round the kitchen table on anywhere between 3-12 different livestock farms, and predictably bTB is a common source of discussion. bTB is also a common topic at the two farmer discussion groups of which I am a member. About 4-5 years ago I sat through an interesting presentation by a very prominent vet on the very subject. Clearly they are different tests, the only similarity is that they are both based on immunological response - but the method of testing is very different. SICCT is a skin test, IFN-γ is a blood test carried in a lab.

        I'm not sure why you feel so strongly about IFN-γ, surely a test which is proven to be around 10% more sensitive is to be welcomed and not dismissed out of hand?!

  5. I don't suppose it will happen but there is a good case to be made for all MPs to have to undergo mandatory training when they enter Parliament covering such things as basic numeracy, the interpretation of statistical data (and the pitfalls of misinterpretation) and the evaluation for evidence (anecdote vs controlled experiments and properly designed trials for example). It might just reduce some of the scientific illiteracy that seems to be so prevalent in the House of Commons.

    1. Graham Stringer and Peter Lilley understand numbers. Caroline Lucas can only say "Two", and for most of them the only number that matters is their majority. However they can also count their way to the Bank, laughing.

  6. How could you have missed the best bit Mark, when Richard Drax claimed (fact I say, fact!) that badgers "responsible for the loss of Nightingales".

    There I was thinking it was Drax's own Government who were the main threat, with their plans to build a 5000 house new town on Government-owned land, which supports the UK's largest Nightingale population, at Lodge Hill.

  7. Having watched all the debates since the Badger Culls conception, there is little doubt that the argument that props it is up is fragmenting, with a greater awareness of flawed justification and the absence of any tangible benefit. With further demonising derisory claims of imaginary negative impact attributed to the much maligned badger by Richard Drax, whilst claiming truth for his wild unsubstantiated statements, debate once more descends into farce, but the difference being it was recognised as such and called into question. Even attempts to rescue the point with the old countryman wisdom argument failed to have the credence it once had. Eustice’s verbal skills were tested to their rather shaky limit as he sensed that the debate and supportive argument had lost the day for how do you defend the indefensible when it is also not working.


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