Dominic Dyer is Policy Advisor for the Born Free Foundation, author of Badgered to Death ‘The People and Politics of the Badger Cull’ and was CEO of the Badger Trust from 2013 to 2020.
Boris, the badgers and the politics of culling
Sir David King undermines the Randomised Badger Culling Trial
Over the past 10 months, the former Government Chief Scientist, Professor Sir David King, has become a leading critic of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Professor King has condemned the government for being too slow to enter into lockdowns and being too quick to loosen Covid-19 disease reduction measures, as a result of putting economic and political interests ahead of science and public health concerns.
Despite this new-found commitment to defending the role of science over short-term political and economic interests, Professor King is not above criticism when it comes to playing politics over science on disease control issues, particularly in the case of bovine TB and badgers.
Between 1998 and 2007, a Labour Government undertook the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT), which became the largest and most complex field research programme undertaken anywhere in the world, on the issue of bovine TB and badgers.
The RBCT cost over £49 million in public funds and resulted in the death of 11,000 badgers. The Independent Scientific Group headed by Professor John Bourne, which reviewed the results of the RBCT, found that although badgers were a source of bovine TB in cattle, culling them was not the answer to lowering the spread of the disease in cattle.
In a letter to the Defra Secretary David Miliband, Professor Bourne wrote:
“While badgers are clearly a source of cattle TB, careful evaluation of our data indicates that badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain. Indeed, some policies under consideration are likely to make matters worse rather than better. Scientific findings indicate that the rising incidence of disease can be reversed, and geographical spread contained, by rapid application of cattle – based measures”
This crucial statement would have brought an end to the badger culling debate, without the last-minute intervention of the Government Chief Scientist Sir David King, who raised serious concerns about Professor Bourne’s recommendations.
In an unprecedented move, Professor King publicly undermined Professor Bourne and other members of the Independent Scientific Group at the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee on 24 October 2007, by claiming that although cattle control measures remained essential, widespread removal of badgers could reduce the overall TB rate in cattle. Professor King told the Committee
“If this done in large enough areas, if we can reduce the perturbation of badgers by using wherever possible natural boundaries, and if we can do this over a sustained period of time, as said in the report, we would expect that the incidence of TB in cattle would be reduced, and we would need to couple this with action on cattle as well”
Professor Bourne reacted with some anger over Professor King’s intervention, saying his recommendations were influenced by political and economic interests rather than science.
In an editorial on the dispute in Nature, the scientific journal remarked that “political factors will ultimately overrule scientific ones, when a government takes a decision in a contentious field”
Whatever the rights or wrongs of Professor King’s intervention on the results of the RBCT, his actions helped pave the way for the incoming coalition Government headed by David Cameron in 2010, to move forward with a badger-culling policy which, a decade on, has now resulted in the largest destruction of a protected species in Britain on record.
Politics from the start of the cull policy
At every step in the expansion of the badger cull, short term economic and political interests have removed any effective scrutiny of the policy on scientific, humaneness or public costs grounds.
At the very start of the badger cull in 2013, the Defra Secretary, Owen Patterson and the NFU President, Peter Kendall, agreed not to not carry out any post mortems on shot badgers to ascertain the level of TB in the badger population. They realised that any test results released showing a low level of TB in badgers, would undermine political and public support for the hugely controversial culling policy.
This was a clearly a wise decision from their perspective, as since 2013 over 140,000 badgers have killed as a result of the cull policy but only 994 of these dead badgers have been tested for TB (in 2016) and only 4% of those were found to have any sign of infection.
Despite setting up an Independent Expert Panel in 2013 to ascertain the effectiveness and humaneness of controlled shooting as a culling method, Owen Patterson disbanded the panel in 2014, after its first and only report indicated that between 7% and 23% of badgers which were shot took over 5 minutes to die of blood loss and organ failure.
Although the British Veterinary Association has called for an end to controlled shooting, as it considers this culling method to be inhumane, a majority of the 35,034 badgers killed in 2019 and 38,642 in 2020 were by this method, which is far cheaper for the cull contractors, than trapping and shooting badgers.
Despite badger vaccination being a viable non – lethal alternative to reducing bovine TB in badgers, the government has made very little effort to promote its scientific value to farmers and landowners or to provide the necessary funding and training support for an increase in the level of badger vaccination across England.
Enter the Prime Minister
Indeed, it is the issue of badger vaccination in Derbyshire that has exposed the political decision making at the heart of the badger cull policy.
In September 2019 the Government decided not to issue a badger cull licence in Derbyshire, much to the surprise and anger of the National Farmers Union and cull contractors, who had met all the requirements for a cull licence under the Natural England approval process.
Despite all the protests, campaigns, political lobbying, High Court legal challenges and significant media interest, Derbyshire was the first time the government had intervened to withhold a badger cull licence, since the policy started in 2013.
Culling badgers in Derbyshire was always going to be particularly controversial, in view of the fact the county has the largest and most successful badger vaccination project in England, being undertaken by the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, with over £200,000 of public funding under the DEFRA Edge Vaccination Scheme.
In making the decision not to issue a cull licence, Defra publicly stated that the government needed more time to consider how best to manage the co-existence of badger vaccination projects with other TB control methods in the edge area in Derbyshire.
However, the NFU believed this was a smoke screen for what had been a political intervention by the Prime Minister in the decision-making process, under the influence of his fiancée Carrie Symonds, who had publicly opposed the badger cull policy in her capacity as a Patron of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation.
Their concerns on this issue were fuelled by media speculation on my discussions (as CEO of the Badger Trust) with Carrie Symonds on badger culling in Downing Street in August 2019 and by the Defra Secretary Theresa Villiers, who admitted that Downing Street were involved in the Derbyshire cull licence decision, when pressed on the issue at the Oxford Farming Conference in January 2020.
Under significant pressure from the cull contractors and livestock farmers and vets in Derbyshire, the NFU finally decided to take the high-risk strategy of a Judicial Review challenge against the Defra Secretary in the High Court, on the Derbyshire badger cull decision.
The Judicial Review hearing was held on 1 April online, in view of Covid-19 lockdown measures and the judgment was finally handed down on the 13 May.
What made the final judgment by Mrs Justice Andrews fascinating, was that it lifted the lid on the politics of the badger cull issue within Downing Street and Defra.
Mrs Justice Andrews stated that if only scientific considerations had been relevant to the decision to issue a badger cull licence in Derbyshire, the National Farmers Union would have had a very strong case. The judge even went as far to say “there was the clearest possible disease control justification for permitting culling in Derbyshire and that the culling company had satisfied Natural England that they met the criteria in the guidance.”
However, Mrs Justice Andrews went on to say the decision not to issue a licence was not taken on purely scientific grounds, it was taken on political grounds as well.
As the NFU thought, the judgement confirmed that the Prime Minister took a personal interest in the badger cull policy and the situation in Derbyshire. He intervened twice with the Defra Farm Minister responsible for the cull policy, George Eustice, raising serious concerns about the issue of any new cull licences in 2019 and the danger of vaccinated badgers being killed if a cull licence was issued in Derbyshire.
The Minister of State for the Environment and International Development, Lord Zac Goldsmith, also intervened on the matter of the Derbyshire badger cull licence with George Eustice, to say he supported the recommendations in the Sir Charles Godfray TB Review, on a shift in balance from badger culling to badger vaccination going forward.
These political interventions were crucial in the final decision not to issue a badger cull licence in Derbyshire, but Mrs Justice Andrews did not accept the National Farmers Union view that these were unlawful.
She stated in her judgment, that even if the decision was characterised as a capitulation to the anti-culling lobby (which she did not accept), a political judgement had to be made.
More importantly, Mrs Justice Andrews accepted that the decision not to issue a cull licence was a difficult one, which involved complex political and ethical value judgements, which are ultimately matters that can only be decided by democratically accountable decision makers, up to and including the Prime Minister.
What the future holds
The National Farmers Union and farming press predictably reacted with anger to losing the Judicial Review challenge on the Derbyshire cull licence.
The NFU Deputy President Stuart Roberts said
“I am shocked and dismayed by the decision of the High Court. The actions of the government last September amounted to a complete U turn on established government policy. The eleventh-hour direction by the Secretary of State was made against absolutely all the scientific and veterinary advice”
In an editorial Farmers Weekly stated
“One of the government’s most often repeated mantras is “we are guided by the science.” It is therefore frustrating in the extreme to find out that it was the Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s intervention following discussions with his fiancée Carrie Symonds that led to the last-minute abandonment of the planned badger cull in Derbyshire last year.”
But what the National Farmers Union and Farmers Weekly failed to say, is that the badger cull policy has always largely been about short term political and economic interests, rather than science.
The policy was created by the National Farmers Union and the government largely in secret as a political fig leaf to the farming industry. Badgers have been demonised for political purposes and are now being killed at monstrous rate to appease a dairy and livestock industry who have failed to effectively tackle bovine TB in cattle for over 4 decades.
Boris Johnson might have been influenced by the views of his fiancée Carrie Symonds to a degree, but as a politician he fully understands that the badger cull policy is hugely costly, of questionable scientific effectiveness and very cruel. Given a choice he would much rather see badgers vaccinated against bovine TB than culled and this view is shared by most MPs in Parliament, regardless of political party.
The badger cull policy is now at a cross roads. The Government has to decide if it is serious about finding an exit strategy from culling or not. The Sir Charles Godfray TB Review lays out a path for badger culling to be phased out in favour of badger and cattle TB vaccination combined with improved TB testing, bio-security and cattle movement controls.
Finding an exit door to badger culling
However, the Government missed an opportunity to pull open the exit door in the immediate aftermath of its response to the Sir Charles Godfray Review in March 2020, which coincided with the Covid -19 pandemic and national lockdown.
Despite calls to halt new cull licenses in view of the danger of allowing hundreds of cull contractors to operate across wide areas of England and the resulting pressure on police resources, under the pressure from the NFU the Government committed to a further expansion of the badger cull at the height of the pandemic.
This led to 11 new badger cull licences being issued in September 2020, resulting in 38,462 badgers being shot, bringing the total killed since 2013 to over 140,000.
This unprecedented mass destruction of protected species is now estimated to have cost the public purse over £70 million as result of policing, equipment, training, monitoring and legal defence costs. Despite the huge cruelty and costs of the policy, the government has provided no reliable scientific evidence to prove that badger culling alone is having a significant impact on lowering the level of bovine TB in cattle in or around the cull zones, which now stretch from Cornwall to Cumbria.
The peer-reviewed studies released on the effectiveness of the badger cull to date show culling could be helping reduce bovine TB in some cull zones, but in others cull areas, mass badger killing is resulting in no reduction or in some cases increases in bovine TB in cattle.
This hardly justifies pushing a protected species to the verge of local extinction in parts of the British Isles it has inhabited since the Ice Age.
As the culling of badgers under 4-year licenses came to a close in the late autumn of 2020, the badger cull was seen as increasingly politically toxic in Downing Street and on the Tory backbenches.
In November, Dominic Cummings and his sidekick Lee Cain were ejected from their positions of power and influence in Downing Street, with Carrie Symonds seen as key player in their removal in what many commentators called the ‘Carrie Coup’
Carrie has undoubtedly increased her power and influence in Downing Street as a result of their departure and she seems to be comfortable with the media regularly drawing attention to her influence over the Prime Minister on environment and animal welfare policy. Indeed, if you read most of the recent coverage in the Telegraph, Times and Mail on the badger cull policy, you will the get the clear impression that Carrie is a key decision maker in relation to bringing a final end to badger killing.
From the Prime Minister’s perspective, it might well be that his brush with death as a result of Covid-19 and his new-found love of vaccination as the most effective means to end the pandemic, has influenced his thinking on bovine TB and badgers as well.
There can be no doubt that the Prime Minister under the influence of his fiancée, has been increasing the pressure on the Defra Secretary George Eustice to make a clear commitment to end the mass slaughter of badgers by the next election in 2024.
It therefore come as no surprise to see that on the 27 January 2021, the day the badger cull figures for 2020 were finally announced, George Eustice made a statement to House of Commons that the government will launch a public consultation on an exit strategy from the badger cull policy, in favour of vaccinating badgers and cattle against bovine TB, alongside cattle control measures.
Subject to final approval following the consultation, the government have confirmed that no new 4-year cull licences will be issued after 2022. All supplementary cull licences currently in operation will not be extended beyond 4 years and any new supplementary cull licences will be issued for 2 years only. The Defra Chief Veterinary Officer will also be given the authority to intervene to stop any new cull licences, before they complete a 4-year period of culling.
Badger culling will not stop immediately even if all these proposals are fully implemented and under existing and new cull licences in 2021 and 2022, over 120,000 badgers could still be shot before the badger cull finally comes to an end.
However, it is now likely that the number of new badger cull licences issued over the next 2 years will decline as the licensing criteria from Natural England is tightened and farmers and landowners withdraw new applications for cull licences, over the uncertainty that they will run for a 4-year period.
The decision to allow the Defra Chief Vet to withdraw new badger cull licences, could well enable Ministers to intervene to stop culling in areas of England without the risk of Judicial Review challenges from the National Farmers Union, as happened following the government decision to withdraw a badger cull licence in Derbyshire in 2019. The ending of supplementary badger cull licences after 2 years, will also move more cull areas into badger vaccination in the years ahead.
The government move to end live animal exports following the UK’s departure from the EU could also speed up the implementation of a cattle bovine TB vaccination programme in England, as an alternative to culling. The UK’s departure from the EU will also now remove tens of millions of Euros from the Defra bovine TB control budget, which is also increasing the financial pressure to end the hugely costly badger cull policy.
The badger cull is far from over, but if the government proposals are implemented, they will lead to a significant reduction in the number of badgers being killed in the years ahead and bring a final end to the cull policy, probably by polling day in the 2024 General Election.
David Cameron played politics with the badger cull to win rural votes, and Theresa May continued the badger killing to appease the industrial farming lobby and keep them on side ahead of leaving the EU.
After almost half a century of playing the badger blame game in the effort to reduce bovine TB in cattle, it might take the unusual partnership between a libertarian Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his animal-defending fiancée Carrie Symonds, to halt this cruel, ineffective and hugely costly policy and bring an end to one of the darkest chapters in the history of farming and wildlife protection in Britain.
Randomised Badger Culling Trial : House of Commons Library Report
Sir David King : Bio from Government website
Sir David King : Intervention findings RBCT
Nature Editorial : Sir David King intervention on RBCT (playing politics with science)
Nature Editorial : Sir David King response defending his actions
Independent Expert Group : Report 2013 cull pilot
Judicial Review Derbyshire cull licence : NFU response to judgement
Judicial Review Derbyshire cull licence: Guardian: Carrie Symonds influence on decision
Judicial Review Derbyshire cull licence: Guardian: Reaction to final judgement
Judicial Review Derbyshire cull licence: Farmers Weekly: Derbyshire badger cull canned after Johnson influence, papers reveal
Farmers Weekly: Reaction to final judgement
Daily Mail : Defra Badger cull policy announcement
Daily Telegraph : Defra cull policy announcement
Farmers Guardian : Influence Carrie Symonds