current affairs

Badger cull extension following failure to reach ‘targets’

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has reported that the Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) marksmen of the pilot badger culls have failed to meet their 70% ‘target&r

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has reported that the Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) marksmen of the pilot badger culls have failed to meet their 70% ‘target’, and that plans for up to a three-week extension are now being considered by Natural England. The hugely ironic and paradoxical use of the word ‘natural’ in relation to this content is the first point for reflection, and this is only the introductory paragraph. The culls were introduced in an attempt to tackle bovine TB in cattle, a disease which has been gradually increasing since the 1980s.

Inaccurate original figures

The culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire appear not to have gone to plan, with Paterson informing the House of Commons that 850 badgers have been shot in Somerset out of the intended 2,081. He reported this as a ‘reduction’ of the local badger population of just under 60%. This apparent confusion in numbers arose from the 2012 figures of the badger population, on which the estimation this year, after a particularly harsh winter, were based. The environment secretary reports that the population estimations in Somerset, originally at 2,400, are now being revised to 1,450. Similarly in Gloucestershire, the numbers have been decreased from 3,400 to 2,350. It would appear, as Wendy Higgins of Humane Society International stated, that winter has been more successful at reducing badger numbers than Defra.

As a result of these findings, the target number of deaths has decreased to 2,600 for both the Gloucestershire and Somerset areas combined. To kill the intended 70% of badgers dwelling in Somerset, 1,015 is now the figure shooters are striving for.

However, it has been stated that failure to meet the 70% target could result in more transmission of TB to cattle, as a result of the fleeing badgers dispersing over a broader land area. In an operation which could result in appalling outcomes such as this, it would appear that adequate prior knowledge and a higher level of planning by officials was required.  Additionally, in response to initial suggestions of alternatives to controlled badger deaths, Owen replied that farmers could ‘not afford to wait’, although that appears to be precisely what he is suggesting they do now.

The colossal costs of culling

While all this is going on, opponents to the cull across the country are becoming more infuriated and impassioned by the minute. Clearly, the culls are not working. In response to these accusations, Owen has been thoroughly mocked for blaming the failings on the badgers themselves, stating that the ‘badgers have moved the goalpost’. He speaks as if they are his rival local footie team, and not the defenceless, vulnerable creatures he fails to recognise that they are.

The culls were set to cost £2m, although different reports state that the policing costs alone were set to cost £2m themselves. Either way, these culls are set to cost millions. If this mass killing is going to cost £2m in total, and officials plan to kill around 2,000 badgers, this results in a £1000 cost per badger, per death. This, surely, is ludicrous. Another report details how the planned 4-year cull will cost the taxpayer £6.4m, although it is doubtful that anyone would be shocked if this figure dramatically increases by the time this slaughter is over.

The unexplored alternatives

In addition, Mary Creagh, the shadow secretary of state for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, listed one additional cost (amongst many) of £700,000 per year, for the humaneness monitoring of the culls. Doesn’t this seem like a ridiculously redundant expense? As badgers are predominantly nocturnal, the marksmen are conducting the shootings at night. To avoid the badgers’ awareness of the spotlight, they are utilising coloured filters, which significantly reduce visibility. This means that an accurate first shot of the heart-lung area of the body is a lot more unlikely, usually resulting in a non-instant death, and the need for a second shot. Consequently, the animal suffers more, or even manages to escape, leaving it critically wounded and enduring a prolonged, painful death. How Defra, the NFU and other supporters so adamantly maintain that these culls are ‘humane’ is completely beyond me.

In light of all these factors, does it not appear that officials need to seek an alternative? Former UK government scientific advisor Professor Lord Krebs commissioned a £50m longitudinal study into the effects of badger culling, in which thousands of badgers were killed between 1997 and 2007. He concluded, and has restated his findings again this year, that culling has no impact in the long run.

Some counties have chosen to inoculate badgers as an alternative. In Devon, the National Trust is two years into a four-year scheme costing about £80,000 a year, resulting in an overall cost of £320,000, a lot less than the staggering £2m cull cost. Helen Trotman, of Shropshire Wildlife Trust, states ‘we know it works, we know it reduces infection in badgers’. However, this approach is not without its disapprovals. Critics argue that we are yet to see results on nearby cattle, and that the cost remains an issue.

But what seems the glaringly obvious alternative, which there has not been enough discussion or consideration of, is the immunisation of cattle. This solution, apparently, is widely accepted by both pro and anti-cull activists. It has been reported that this would be effective, acceptably cheap and humane. The utilitarian in all of us wins; farmers are happy (probably), cattle are disease free, and badgers are not mindlessly slaughtered in their thousands. However, immunisation of cattle against bovine TB is currently banned under EU legislation, due to it causing difficulties when checking for infection in the animals. Exasperating, to say the absolute least.

Speak out

After all this is said, it is all too easy for me to sit at my laptop, in my flat in South London, and not have to worry about my cattle herd being wiped out by tuberculosis. As avid and long-term a supporter as I am of animal welfare and animal rights, I am sure my opinion would be completely different if I were a farmer in Gloucestershire. With such strong opinions on issues such as this, my article was always going to be inextricably biased.

However, the fact still remains that I, along with millions of other petition-signers, fail to see the good that will come of these mass slaughters. There is no apparent scientific evidence to support such actions, on the contrary, there is scientific evidence to suggest such actions are completely futile, and will upset our frangible ecosystem even further. More research and more funding should be given to investigating and developing inoculations for cattle, or badgers, resulting in a far more balanced, affordable, utilitarian and, most important of all, humane outcome for all involved in this crisis. As stated by the Badger Trust, we must speak out now for badgers, before it’s too late!