In the past two years, more than 67,000 Badgers have been killed under a government programme which claims to have as its aim the eradication of bovine Tb in cattle. About two thirds of these Badgers are shot (free shooting, sometimes called controlled shooting) and one third are trapped and then shot.
Free shooting is licensed by Natural England and its legality is being challenged by Wild Justice.
Whatever you think about the Badger cull in terms of its effectiveness, I assume that most people would want such a massive body count to be delivered as humanely as possible. Alick Simmons, a former DEFRA Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer, has written about such issues on this blog several times and about the Badger cull in particular here).
Back in March 2014, DEFRA (under Owen Patterson) received a report from an independent expert panel chaired, in the end, by Sir Ranald Munro (the IEP report). That report looked at many aspects of the Badger cull including animal welfare aspects.
Based to some extent on studies of gunshots in humans, the IEP took 5 minutes as a threshold for a humane death by shooting and 95% of Badgers as a threshold for how many Badgers should die in that period as a threshold for the cull being humane. Five minutes is a long time but in humans the onset of extreme pain from firearm injuries can be that long.
In the studies on which they reported, where trained observers accompanied shooters into the field and observed deaths of Badgers, the good news was that just over half of Badgers died within 10 seconds of being shot. However, it was ‘extremely likely [ie 95-100% probability] that between 7.4% and 22.8% of badgers that were shot at were still alive after 5 min, and therefore at risk of experiencing marked pain‘ and so the 95% criterion was not met.
Shooting free-living animals is a messy business, some take a long time to die (the longest observed out of 69 shots observed with thermal imaging equipment until the animal stopped moving was 13 minutes 34 seconds). Although many shot Badgers were seen to die in seconds others were wounded and could not be observed until the point of death (whenever that was) because they ran off into cover or disappeared down setts. Importantly, some Badgers that the shooters assumed they had missed were subsequently found to have been hit but injured.
In their recommendations, the IEP states that it considers that for the Badger cull to be humane the total of Badgers that are not recoverd after being shot at (the non-recovery rate, NRR) plus the number of Badgers known to take more than 5 minutes to die should together form less than 5% of the Badgers shot at.
Natural England license Badger culls. Natural England have not defined an alternative criterion for a humane cull. Natural England produces an annual report on the Badger cull which does not enumerate the number of Badgers which take more than 5 minutes to die but does give the NRR.
The NRRs in recent years have been as follows:
Natural England does not report on the proportion of Badgers that take more than five minutes to die, but only on the NRR. But the NRR alone is routinely twice as high as the NRR and ‘percentage of Badgers taking more than 5 minutes to die’ should be together to meet the criterion recommended by the IEP.
It is difficult, in my opinion, to give the Badger cull high marks on animal welfare criteria when it comes nowhere near meeting the criteria recommended by the IEP and Natural England, DEFRA and the NFU appear to be perfectly happy with this state of affairs.
More on this subject soon.