Guest blog – Badger culling: time to work together? by Prof Rosie Woodroffe

Rosie Woodroffe is an ecologist and former member of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, which advised government on TB control for 10 years. She is a Senior Research Fellow at the Zoological Society of London and a Visiting Professor at Imperial College London. She is on Twitter at @rosiewoodroffe.

Badger culling: time to work together?

The culling of badgers, intended to reduce TB transmission to cattle, is the most contentious wildlife issue in Britain, and an international poster-child for problems at the interface between science and policy. So, it was exciting last month to see farmers and wildlife enthusiasts, vets and policymakers, independent and government scientists, and even a couple of MPs, all gather at Imperial College to consider the latest insights into TB control. The mood was constructive, the questioning intense but polite. There were no placards, no people dressed as badgers, no high-vis jackets. Everyone seemed to go away feeling they had learned something.

The science itself was uncompromising. James Wood of Cambridge University kicked off by explaining that the tuberculin test, currently used to detect infected cattle, in fact leaves a high proportion of infected animals to continue spreading disease. Worse still, tuberculin performs increasingly poorly where there is more infection. The only other test currently legal for use, the gamma interferon test, detects more infected cattle, but also generates more false positives. So, gamma interferon is unpopular with farmers, and costly for governments who have to compensate farmers for the extra slaughtered cattle. Tuberculin testing remains the primary method for detecting and removing infected cattle, and infected cattle remain in many herds even after the test-positive cattle have been slaughtered and the herd declared TB-free. Amie Adkin described a programme to limit spread between herds, by allowing farmers to buy in cattle only from herds of the same or higher infection status, but it remains voluntary.

These problems with cattle-based TB control mean that cattle-to-cattle transmission is still by far the most important source of new herd infections. Although transmission from badgers still grabs the headlines, Christl Donnelly explained that at most 25% (and more probably about 6%) of herds catch TB from badgers. However, because TB infection in cattle is difficult to detect and control, those herds which are infected by badgers go on to infect other herds, which in turn infect still more herds, causing new outbreaks which might not have occurred if badgers were not involved, but which would also not have occurred under a more effective cattle testing system.

Farmer-led badger culling is a central plank in England’s TB control strategy. Lucy Brunton from the government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency confirmed that so far these culls have not delivered any detectable changes in cattle TB. Scientifically this is not surprising at all; the time elapsed since the start of culling is not yet long enough for benefits to have emerged. What is more worrying is that Ministers have repeatedly referred to the culls as successful, claiming or implying that they are indeed reducing cattle TB. And, government has quietly committed to improving cattle testing preferentially in badger cull zones, making it impossible to tell whether farmer-led badger culling has any benefits.

In fact, the culls are “not going very well” according to Tim Coulson, a member of the Independent Expert Panel that was set up by Defra to evaluate the culls. Culls which kill too few badgers can increase cattle TB rather than reducing it, and so Defra’s policy explicitly aims to reduce badger numbers by at least 70%. In the first year of culling, intensive independent monitoring overseen by Coulson’s panel showed that this aim was missed by a wide margin. Since then, according to Coulson, both the independent monitoring and the intensive fieldwork have been abandoned, and government claims of “success” are based on achieving targets which have been set deliberately low, using methods rejected as unreliable by the independent panel, and modified mid-cull. Coulson termed this approach “non-science”. Statistician Prof Sheila Bird, a member of Defra’s Science Advisory Council, referred to Defra’s practices as using a “fiddle factor” and “moving the goalposts”.

Meanwhile, James O’Keefe explained that the Republic of Ireland is expecting to replace badger culling with vaccination in the near future, considering culling unsustainable in the long term. He remarked that, while badger culling appears to have helped reduce cattle TB in the Republic of Ireland, the densities thought to be needed to achieve this benefit – about 0.5 badgers/km2 across vast areas – would be far more difficult to achieve in Britain, where the initial density of badgers is much higher. (Nobody said this at the symposium but, for comparison, in Britain’s Randomised Badger Culling Trial mean badger density was roughly 5 badgers/km2, before culling reduced their numbers by approximately 70%, presumably to roughly 1.5 badgers/km2. Baseline badger densities in Britain have risen since then. This relatively high density contributes to the flow of badgers into cull zones from neighbouring lands, contributing to instability in the badger social system and hence to increased infection. This difference in baseline density probably explains why repeated culling consistently increased badger TB in England but consistently reduced it in Ireland).

As well as hearing all this scientific evidence about badger culling, participants in the symposium heard officials from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland all discussing various forms of culling policy. Is there hope for an evidence-based approach to this contentious issue?

Several participants exclaimed with delight at finding farmers, vets, scientists and wildlife groups all in the same room, with no raised voices. Imagine if such stakeholders could go on discussing the scientific evidence, evaluate it and, where it stands scrutiny, share, embrace, and act upon it. A policy based on a shared understanding of the scientific evidence could be both effective and uncontroversial. But the quest for a shared understanding demands leadership and, in England at least, that leadership is lacking. The symposium participants heard new evidence about the limitations of current cattle tests, prospects for better tests, the effects of vaccination on both cattle and badgers, the impacts (both positive and negative) of badger culling, and the mechanism of transmission between badgers and cattle (which can inform biosecurity plans): all key insights gained by scientists in the past decade. But just the day before, farming Minister George Eustice told parliament that “the science had been clear about what was required [to control TB] since the ’70s ”. Apparently, to him none of this new evidence is needed to inform policy. What’s the point of stakeholders trying to work together, if the person who ultimately decides on policy thinks they already know the answer?

Here’s a starting point. For the last few years, the Chief Veterinarian for Wales, Christianne Glossop, has led an exemplary campaign to control TB on Welsh farms, centred on improved cattle controls. At last month’s symposium, she announced a plan to humanely kill badgers on farms with persistent cattle TB, where badgers are found also to be infected. She followed these words by immediately calling on the participants not to polarise in response to her announcement, but to come together. And, yes, we should come together. We should come together to explain to her, to her boss Lesley Griffiths, and to the Welsh farmers they both serve, the scientific evidence which shows that small-scale badger culling is likely to undo all the success they have achieved. We should explain that TB testing badgers, like TB-testing cattle, leaves behind many infected animals. That killing even small numbers of badgers disrupts the behaviour of the survivors. That infected survivors, now ranging more widely, encounter more cattle herds, and probably also more badgers. That these changes help explain why small-scale culling has been shown to increase rates of TB infection in both badgers and cattle. That this scientific evidence is not the view of some maverick crackpot, but the consensus among scientists, including the chair of Defra’s Science Advisory Council. In short, that small-scale badger culling benefits noone – not farmers, not policymakers, and certainly not badgers. If wildlife advocates, farmers, and vets cannot agree that small-scale badger culling is a bad idea, the prospects of truly working together look remote indeed.


By Andrew Gray (local userpage) (p1140372) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
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35 Replies to “Guest blog – Badger culling: time to work together? by Prof Rosie Woodroffe”

  1. Having seen first hand how badly the cull has been conducted over the last 4 years by, it has to be said, nothing more than people who just like to kill wildlife with a chance to kill a protected species legally and what a terrible state many of the farms were in the cull zones, one has to consider that sorting out bTB isn't really the issue and never was.

    The most significant thing I witnessed was in fact the large areas which were completely devoid of cattle. By far the largest areas which had signed up to culling were in fact shooting estates. Miles of game bird pens surrounded by traps and snares of all types and largely devoid of any other wildlife. Now these estates could happily sign up to the cull and remove the last animal which irked the gamekeepers so much.

    These estates also allowed the fox hunts to run riot over their land and with the revelations of the Kimblewick hounds having TB and the many counties that hunts travel over one has to wonder if this is in fact another major source of the infection which should be stopped if they are serious about dealing with bTB.

    I can only conclude that there is a more sinister undertone to this whole sorry affair, the cleansing of our countryside of another of our iconic mammals. Intensive farming has left much of our countryside sterile, huge numbers of species both animals and birds are suffering and this has to change and the badger cull is the biggest national disgrace possible in that context. The Government is being blindly led by a non-elected corporate entity (the NFU) and using hired gun men from the CA to commit these atrocities in our countryside.

    It should be stopped immediately, but it won't be and thousands more animals are going to suffer and die.

    1. I very much agree with your assessment. I've always seen the lobbying for Badger culling as a Trojan Horse project by shooting interests. They were definitely responsible for agitating for farmers to push for Badger culling. I wondered was this was about. There seems likely 2 main motivations for the shooting industry to lobby for Badger culling.

      1) They want to be able to cull Badgers to protect gamebirds.

      2) The driven shooting industry is vehemently opposed to the legal protection of all wildlife, especially predators. They believe as landowners that they should have the right to determine what wildlife they kill. What I believe the shooting industry wants is for farmers to be allowed to cull protected Badgers to protect their economic interests, so in the future the shooting industry can argue that as this concession was given to farmers, that they should be allowed to kill legally protected raptors to protect their shooting interests. Remember the shooting industry have already done this. They won court cases which forced Natural England to issue licences allowing the killing of protected Common Buzzards on the grounds that angling interests were allowed to kill Cormorants, to protect their economic interests.

      I think this latter reason is the underlying motive for pushing for Badger culling. Therefore in the future we can expect to see shooting interests bringing court cases claiming it is discriminatory to allow angling interests to protect their economic interests by killing Cormorants, and allow farmers to kill Badgers to protect cattle and their economic interest, but to deny shooting interests the right to protect their economic interests from protected birds of prey etc, having an impact on their gamebirds. Note how the government has allowed shooting interests to class the management of gamebirds on shooting estates as an agricultural activity.

      I've never seen the promotion of Badger culling by the farming lobby and the Badger culling policy of this government as just about bTB in cattle. I think this explanation is something of a smokescreen. As Rosie Woodroffe demonstrates this argument does not stand up to scrutiny. There is at a certain level a lot of crossover between elements of the farming lobby, the landowning lobby, the shooting lobby, the CA, and the Conservative Party. In other words many members of this clique are landowners, farmers, shooters, Countryside Alliance members, and are active members of the Conservative Party. Some very influential individuals have a foot in each camp, or at the least allegiances to more than one lobby or organization.

      What this means in practise is that these groups do not need to lobby in the same way that other special interest groups usually have to lobby. As many influential individuals are senior members of all these lobby groups and organizations, it is more like them having a personal chat with their colleagues they deal with on a daily basis, rather than having to make a formal approach as a special interest group usually has to make. You only have to see how many of these camps some of the Royal Family are in, to understand the problem (which also makes you wonder how apolitical they really are).

      The point has been made that at least unlike David Cameron, Theresa May is not part of this clique. This is false analysis, because even if May is not from a farming, landowning and shooting background, many of her close colleagues and advisers are. This means they don't have to formally lobby her, they just have to bring it up when they're discussing other policy.

      1. Absolute rubbish!!! The shooting community and the badger cull are completely separate, but I guess you don’t like shooting then you can make a completely false assumption.

  2. " the mechanism of transmission between badgers and cattle (which can inform biosecurity plans)" I am sure it is out there somewhere but could you provide links to this section as well. This is an important section as it is the only real answer as badgers will always have TB (?) never mind better cattle tests.
    Then I read that killing badgers in places with persistent infections wont work, so biosecurity is the answer and if that is not 100% then what? they get out of cattle? You leave us hanging.

    1. "Then I read that killing badgers in places with persistent infections wont work, so biosecurity is the answer and if that is not 100% then what? they get out of cattle? You leave us hanging".

      I think the point made by Rosie was that small-scale culling in such areas would not only not work but would "undo all the success they have achieved [through improved cattle controls]". If the culling actually increases the risk of TB cross-infection then it should not be carried out even if there is no fully effective alternative control method available.

      1. I get the problem with badger culling. It was a genuine request for info on biosecurity that Rosie says was presented. Does it work?

  3. Well done, Rosie. A trenchant analysis.

    One might ask how the areas for badger killing are selected. Quite apart from the value of killing of badgers for disease control - which is, at best, unproven and quite possibly very damaging - there is the small matter of how these areas are chosen.

    According to Defra, the only disease-related criterion is that the areas must lie within the High Risk or Edge areas. The inference is that the risk to cattle is uniform across these areas. It is not. There are many areas within the High Risk areas where prevalence is low and discontinuous and much of the Edge area is hardly affected. Licensing systematic killing of badgers in areas where the prevalence is comparatively low (such as in West Dorset) indicates that the policy is not targeted at areas of greatest prevalence where it could be argued the benefit might be greatest. The reason for this is not given, but one cannot help think that areas for killing are selected on two criteria alone. That is, the willingness and ability of land occupiers to kill badgers and the degree to which the local police force is willing to Defra's bidding.

  4. Farmers are an important constituency for the present government, so adopt the populism Trump used: say what they want to hear, do what they want done, get their votes. The current government has much to lose by antagonising farmers, and nothing to gain in terms of the metric that matters - votes. You don't need science to define electoral strategy.

    1. Messi - that is how this government is behaving, but I don't think the analysis is correct. Farmers will vote Conservative almost whatever. There aren't many (any?) rural constituencies that are vulnerable to any farmer swing votes. There might not be many wildlife lovers compared with the population as a whole, but we outnumber farmers by at least a couple of orders of magnitude.

      1. Jim Morrison sang
        'They got the guns but we got the numbers'

        but got it wrong with next line
        'Gonna win, yeah, we're takin' over, come on!'

        It is an almost identical to the debate on banning driven grouse shooting.
        I don't know it the tory belief in landowner superiority or the fact that they or their chums own farms themselves, which leads to this anti scientific, anti democratic bias.

  5. I think with the present government, and the next one if things go as predicted, there is no chance of the badger cull being stopped. The most likely outcome is that it will be increased. Sorry to be negative but the decision will be one that farmers want. Unfortunately wildlife is not a priority to most people or politicians, whatever the science says.

    1. Paul - I agree that seems likely. And the likelihood is that bovine TB won't be resolved and the public will be paying a fortune for an ineffective and flawed policy. Welcome to post-fact England.

      1. I agree. It will not be resolved since the nature of the organism, the immune response it evokes and its multiple host range means that eradication is all but impossible without huge expenditure and prolonged and widespread killing of both main hosts. The Government's current approach is the way it is because orthodox animal disease control policy is almost always founded on an objective of eradication rather than control - that is, dealing with the hazard rather than the risk. Given that the stated, initial objective was the protection of public health and that this was achieved in the 1960s, primarily through the heat treatment of dairy products, then one must ask what the hell are we doing? There is a simple, cheap solution to the problem which is to adopt the risk-based approach as advocated by Torgersen. No killing of wildlife, de-regulation of disease control and the onus for putting safe food on the market delegated to farmers (as food producers) but properly overseen by the authorities. Simple, really. And lots cheaper. And no dead badgers.

        1. Great comment echoing what I have heard from baffled peeps with skin in the game and more than one synapse between them. More sense in the Torgerson & Torgerson paper than the rest of the guff in total. IMHO. You could apply that to the way Gubmints of all stripes have handled FMD and BSE an' all

        2. I would in p[art agree with this. Interestingly when imported plants or plants in garden centres are condemned and destroyed there is no compensation paid. Perhaps farmers would be more interested in a real solution if there were no compensation paid for slaughtered Tb infected cattle.

          1. Paul,well you got something wrong there
            No one absolutely no person on earth wants a solution more than the ordinary cattle farmer in U K who has a herd at risk of this disease.
            The after effects on the farm running are horrendous.
            Certainly even the Badger lovers do not even come close to those farmers in wanting a solution that solves it.
            Your idea that ordinary cattle farmers are not interested in a real solution just shows how much the ordinary person is out of touch with reality.
            What everyone seems to believe is so far removed from the truth that it beggars belief.

          2. I wonder if Dennis Ames could tell us please what he means by 'badger lovers'.

  6. In my view, I think btb has been used to uphold the desire by many farmers and interested groups to remove or reduce the badger population. I attended a farming conference where one farmer addressed the audience and proclaimed he had the right to kill badgers on his farm. Funny then, that the most recent DEFRA consultation has seen the land needed for culling reduced. Many farmers want the PBA removed.

    I'm afraid the scientists are missing the point in my view that the disease loophole is being used to simply kill badgers. I've spoken with many farmers in Gloucestershire, and most if them hate badgers with a vengeance. They see no value in them.

    Also, the cull started in Forthhampton, which has a large shooting estate. Why did the cull start here?

    If you walk in many parts of the cull zone the only sounds you hear are human made. Wildlife is rapidly declining and the general public simply have little or no interest in these issues other than the desire to have cheep food, but that comes at a high price.

    The Tories are simply being allowed to get away with it, and the lack of an effective opposition means that they can do what they want.

    1. Bill kusiar,surely self explanatory and I am one but as opposed to those with blinkered biased views as a retired dairy farmer who worried each time a BTB test was done on the farm that had a Badger Sett that we enjoyed having and seeing Badgers in the middle of the night in amongst the herd when we looked at calving cows I see things differently to most Badger lovers.
      For the first time ever Rosie supplied lots of facts and no wonder she did not supply any easy answers to the problem in my opinion.Fact must be there is no easy answer even though most contributors to comments on this blog regularly push answers that they think would solve BTB.
      There is no easy answer and to solve BTB needs farmers and conservationists to bite the bullet and get both Cattle and Badgers in a much better place disease wise.

  7. Surely there must come a point when the signatory to this expenditure from the public purse must demonstrate cost benefit of such strategies? Then the public can also factor in the already substantive sums paid to wealthy landowners in addition and see what the agri-welfare payments really are? Where is the public benefit from these payments? #stateofnature?

    There is a need for 'farmers' to win hearts and minds in support of real food (not processed) production so why would genuine country people seek to destroy wildlife they claim to look after? There is also a need for conservationists to alert a disinterested public about the financial costs as well as the barbaric levels of cruelty involved.

    The Government continue to fail farmers and badger? What next .... the return of hunting?

    Defra and Natural England are sending a message to other areas that badgers are fair game for diggers and baiters as we are seeing more incidences of digs and snares set illegally on known badger runs.

    1. Sorry, Nimby, much as I wish your were correct, the agricultural industry has not needed to "demonstrate" positive cost benefits since the end of rationing in the 50s. With most people being so detached from rural issues I doubt there will be much serious public discussion about why we're paying farmers and what for, even in the context of Brexit.

      As it happens I was walking in Wales over Easter - I saw no sign at all that landowners there have joined the dots between public subsidies and their legal obligations to not obstruct rights of way. Many if not most simply see the Defra cheque as an unquestioned entitlement, not anything that they owe any obligation back to taxpayers for. The farmers I know are amongst the least sympathetic when it comes to cuts to other people's state benefits, but they just don't view the payments they get from the taxpayer in the same way. It's a mindset thing.

  8. Badger culling allows the Vernon Dursley/Daily Mail reader types to feel like they are giving those leftie greens a kicking, and since the former are a key Bastard-Tory demographic it probably won't end soon. Promising to sating the desires of the crazed Daily Mail readers who want to be able to put people in their place (i.e. lower on the social scale) is something that will always get the Bastard's base out. Sadly. Science has got sod all to do with it.

  9. I am still concerned about the evolutionary effects of removing from the cattle population all those animals that show a good immune response to TB.

    1. Very much doubt TB in the human race would have been helped by evolution immune response.It was vaccination that saved us and depending on evolution immune response would very likely be a disaster for all concerned with cattle and these people peddling ideas about organic cattle being better at resisting disease are simply talking bull****.Diseases of all species are no respecter of fitness or anything else.

  10. Keep up the good work Rosie.
    I can't help but think working together with good science as your agenda is always going to be a struggle when you have a political party who's agenda is to use science only where it wants to and the rest of the time run a hateful and illogical campaign that appeases those with their own minority & commercial agendas and desire to run rough-shod over law and logic.
    The best chance right now for working together is for all non-Tory, (I also count UKIP as the merely working class attempt at Tory-ism) political parties to join forces and to send Mrs May the Christian and her sneering henchmen and women packing, not to return for a very long time!

    1. Rosie is an independent scientist, not an advocate for one course of action or other. Though, by default, her last paragraph does seem to indicate that larger scale culls might reduce bTB in those hotpot areas in Wales (depending on densities similar or not to Ireland) where neither impractical costly badger vaccination nor improved cattle biosecurity have successfully reduced bBT in cattle and badgers.
      We cull foxes, rats, deer, barnacle geese for all sorts of reasons. Working together requires us to try and attempt to agree common ground in how to reduce bBT not just contest every point of far from clear science wuth both ecological and socio-economic outcomes.


      1. Rob Yorke - as soon as I saw your name among the comments, I wondered what kind of spin you might try to put on Prof Woodroffe's very clear summary.
        You say that you do not approve of contesting every little point, but then you try to wring an endorsement 'by default' for your own position out of her piece, the main thrust of which is exactly the opposite.
        'Working together' with people who are determined not to give an inch, whatever the science may show, is unlikely to achieve much. Some things are just plain wrong-headed, and must be pointed out as such. Saying that we kill lots of other things is hardly an argument for killing more badgers!

  11. Thanks for a very informative blog, Rosie.

    As a policy professional what strikes me hardest is that I still have no idea what the real priorities are for controlling Btb. There must be some consensus on the ranking of different factors and there's no doubt badgers will be in there somewhere - but where ? Number 10 perhaps ? Certainly, I'd suspect, nowhere near the top 5, yet the whole debate is skewed by this silly, prejudiced squabble. And as I've said before it's not a victimless crime as far as farmers as much as badgers are concerned because every hour - let alone a whole room full for a day - of time the people trying to crack the problem spend on third order issues is time wasted from the headline priorities.

  12. Rosie - many thanks for an excellent blog, although I expected nothing less.
    If you're following the comments, could I just ask a favour? You point out very clearly the folly of the proposed initiation of badger culling in Wales, but it would be great if you could maybe elaborate a little on what has been done and achieved so far under the present Welsh campaign.

  13. The video in this link shows the Chief Veterinarian for Wales, Christianne Glossop, explaining her concerns regarding the "massive" confidence intervals for the reactive cull elements in the RBCT. I understand that it is largely on account of this data that Prof Woodroffe is saying that small-scale culling has been shown to increase rates of TB infection in cattle.

    I share Christianne Glossop's view.

    Concern regarding confidence intervals of RBCT reactive cull data

  14. we must stop all this scapegoating to Badgers the farmers leave their cattle and chickens in dark sheds and continue with intensive farming that gives the Badgers TB .


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