Dear Mr Reed, 2 – Badgers

Badger. Photo: Tim Melling

Dear Steve Reed, in just over three weeks time you may well be Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. If so, that will give you great opportunities to make the world a better place and that must be an exciting prospect. However, one hot potato will be firmly on your desk – the Badger cull.

When Labour was last in power, in 2010, Badger culling was off the agenda, but the Conservative 2010 election manifesto contained these words, ‘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.’  ‘Science-led’, ‘carefully managed’ and ‘a package of measures’ have all largely gone by the board but the writing was on the wall, or more precisely on page 97 of the 118-page Conservative manifesto published in April 2010 entitled Invitation to join the government of Britain that mass culling would be brought in. You will have to decide whether that policy remains in place.

Whatever you do, you will be praised by some, and fiercely criticised by others. It’s a big call – but it is a call, and it will be you who is forever associated with it.

I’m not here to tell you what you should decide but I am going to give you some advice on how to approach the decision. It’s pretty high level advice but it is meant to be helpful to you and your decision making.

First, this is a pretty complex scientific issue and that complexity isn’t helped by many wilfully ignoring the evidence. You aren’t a scientist and so it is perfectly reasonable for you to seek scientific advice from within and outside Defra. In fact, if you don’t seek that advice and take notice of it, then you are making a big mistake because, as with covid and foot and mouth disease, it is the science that will lead to solutions.

Second, you should downgrade any advice you get from those who say that Badgers are entirely blameless in the spread of bovine TB AND from those who say that Badgers are the main problem. My understanding (and you can downgrade my advice too, as I am not an expert on this, but only discard my advice if you get advice from someone who you think really knows their stuff) is that Badgers are part of the problem (they almost certainly transmit bTB to cattle (and get it from cattle)) but they are a small, but non-negligible part of the problem.

Third, I reckon, if you dig deep enough within Defra’s Badger activities of the past 14 years you will find plenty of evidence of lack of attention to the science and also evidence that the NFU has had a disproportionate amount of influence which has not been science-based and has not been helpful to the public good, nor to the efficient and quick resolution of the BTB issue. If I’m right, then you ought to be telling the public of the goings on under various Conservative Secretaries of State. Have a look and see if I’m right.

Fourth, have a look at the cattle tests that we are using to detect bTB. The SICCT skin test is the sole standard test for cattle in England. It’s very  unreliable and if we used better (albeit more expensive) tests we would find that there is a lot of undetected bTB in cattle. The information base is poor and that is a big impediment to dealing with the problem. Wales uses interferon gamma which is a much more reliably accurate test (other tests are available).

Fifth, go back to Sir Charles Godfray’s report on bTB and Badgers – click here – and ask him whether he still stands by this:

Our interpretation of the evidence is that the presence of infected badgers does pose a threat to local cattle herds. This interpretation reflects the broad consensus amongst epidemiologists who have studied the disease. Reducing this threat, by culling or non-lethal intervention, will thus help lower the incidence of the disease in cattle. If a decision is made not to cull, and if non-lethal interventions prove less effective, then progress towards eliminating the disease will be slower and complete elimination may be even more difficult.

And then ask him whether he still stands by this and whether he would like to expand on it at all:

A very unfortunate consequence of the controversy around badger culling and the politicisation of the debate has been a deflection of focus from what can be done by the individual farmer and by the livestock industry to help control the disease. In particular, the poor take up of on-farm biosecurity measures and the extent of trading in often high-risk cattle is, we believe, severely hampering disease control measures. All the industry bodies we spoke to recognised this as an issue and saw the need for industry to take more ownership of the problem. Implementing better control measures on the livestock side will mean short- to medium-term costs to the industry to achieve the greater goal of bovine TB elimination. The degree to which the industry as opposed to the state or the consumer bears these costs is a decision for ministers but it is wrong, we believe, to over-emphasise the role of wildlife and so avoid the need for the industry to take measures that have in the short-term negative financial consequences.

Sixth, you do need to get your head around this stuff in order to make sensible decisions. So you do need the very best scientific advice. You won’t get that solely by listening to Defra scientists, nor to Defra vets, nor to those who are most enamored of Badgers, nor to the farming lobby.  You need a mixed working group led by someone with such a high reputation for honesty and rectitude that their word will carry weight and be respected. They don’t have to be Badger experts, it would be better if they were experts in epidemiology or a similar discipline. But don’t be shy yourself about asking questions. If the boffins can’t answer your ‘intelligent layman’ questions then keep asking the questions until they can! And the question you should be asking is ‘What is the best way to reduce bTB in British cattle?’.


I guess what I’m saying is that this is a big scary subject and you are heading for some grief whatever you do. But getting it right is a big prize. I don’t think the outgoing government have done anything other than a poor job – it’s just another area where 14 years of a Tory administration has cost us all a fortune and not got us in a materially better position. Labour should do better – that’s your task.


I may go and do a bit more delivering of leaflets for my local Labour candidate Lee Barron now – click here – although I’m still aching a bit from yesterday’s exertions.

My earlier letter to Steve Reed is here – click here.  There will be a few more in the run up to the general election and, who knows, they may continue after that too.


3 Replies to “Dear Mr Reed, 2 – Badgers”

  1. Lovely piece Mark – Labour could immediately save over £12 million pa by its own account by not culling badgers – plenty to pay for blanket use of interferon gamma across English cattle, enhanced compensation to farmers and greatly improved hygiene.

    Meanwhile Labour could deploy the existing vaccine in cattle and the existing post vaccine tests (choose from Actiphage, Enferplex and DIVA) as used elsewhere in the world and lead the world.

    Then again they could remain stuck in the last century and fail to address bTB in cattle just like the Conservatives have…

  2. Far be it for me to disagree with my lady wife (Rosie Wood – above) and you, Mark, but you give much too much comfort to the badger killers here. Ninety -four percent of disease transmission is cow to cow. The remaining 6% may include badgers but is also attributable to other wildlife and to bacterium residues in soil. Badgers are not part of the problem, they are victims of farming prejudice, Ministerial tunnel vision and Defra civil servants failure to give proper advice. And while epidemiologists have a part to play, their theoretical models haven’t been helpful. I do, of course, agree that the endeavour should be science led and that better cattle testing is urgently required. Ultimately, bTB is a disease of cattle and can only be tackled in cattle. Kill every badger in England – and they’re halfway there already – and bTB will still be endemic in the UK cattle herd.
    On everything else – more power to your elbow!

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