I have spent most of my professional career studying the badger/bovine TB issue. I did so because I wanted to make a contribution to helping the farming industry solve a complex and intractable problem. One vitally important thing we have learnt after decades of rigorous scientific endeavour is what not to do – i.e. cull badgers.
Brian May took a brave step going into the lion’s den of a Farmers’ Weekly interview. His answers were informed and robust, but obviously not what the pro-culling lobby wanted to hear. Reading through the comments posted after the interview was published was a depressing experience, where it is clear that there is extreme polarisation in the pro- and anti-cull factions, leaving those who merely want to understand this complex issue confused and bewildered.
Farmers’ Weekly will not want to publish a long description of the scientific background from me, so I would like to offer a brief summary of the current position for the benefit of those who just want to know the basic facts:
Culling badgers has been shown scientifically to have both positive and negative impacts on cattle TB, such that in 2007 an Independent Scientific Group concluded that “culling badgers can make no meaningful contribution to the control of TB in cattle in Britain”. Since the end of the culling trial, the positive effects have waned more slowly than the negative effects, and this has led the government to re-examine the badger culling option. They have estimated that after four years of culling, five years on (nine years in total), there will be a 12-16% reduction in cattle TB. A major flaw in this estimate of what is undoubtedly a meagre benefit is that they have introduced some fundamental and dangerous changes to the culling procedure that, in the view of expert scientific opinion, will increase the negative effects.
These changes include the shooting of free ranging badgers with shotguns and rifles – an untried and untested method, and the allowance of six weeks for culling to take place. In the culling trial a maximum of 12 days was set in order to avoid immigration and emigration during the cull, something that will lead to the disruptive “perturbation” effects and a potential negative impact. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that once they begin, the trials will never be able to show what impact they have had on cattle TB because they are not being designed as an experiment.
Apart from these fundamental flaws, neither Defra or Natural England have said precisely how they will assess the 70% target for culling badgers, and neither have they given sufficient reassurance on the safety aspects of shooting or how badger welfare can be effectively monitored.
The pilot culls are shaping up for a public relations disaster for the farming industry and the government. I just hope they never happen for the sake of farmers and their cattle. It matters not so much for the ephemeral entity of a government.
Dr Chris Cheeseman