It’s been another week full of controversy in the story of the ongoing badger cull in England.
Defra launched the badger cull in two areas – West Gloucestershire and West Somerset – to assess whether free-shooting is an efficient, safe and humane way to kill these wild animals. And if it deems these trials successful, it will roll out more culls in other areas in a bid to reduce the spread of bovine tuberculosis in cattle.
Defra points to the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) http://www.defra.gov.uk/animal-diseases/a-z/bovine-tb/badgers/culling/ 1997-2007. The results of this trial suggest that badgers can spread bTB to cattle and that culling badgers in areas of high bTB incidence could reduce the disease in cattle by up to 16 per cent over a period of nine years.
On Tuesday, it was announced that the Somerset cull had come to an end. Environment secretary Owen Paterson said that some 850 badgers had been killed over the six-week cull period out of an initial target of 2,081. This article from the BBC is a useful summary of the week’s activity. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-24443110
Mr Paterson said that the cull had been a success and that the initial cull targets in both Gloucestershire and Somerset were too high because badger numbers had been overestimated. Defra have produced a revised target of 1,450 (Somerset) and 2,340 (Glos) and asked Natural England for an extension to the badger cull to meet these new targets.
There have been reports that cage traps – previously thought to be too expensive – have been used to assist the badger cull. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/oct/07/badger-cull-bovine-tb
When questioned on BBC Spotlight about this change of plan, Mr Paterson said: “The badgers have moved the goalposts.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-24462613
He went on to explain: “We're dealing with a wild animal, subject to the vagaries of the weather and disease and breeding patterns."
Defra is confident that the cull has been a success:
“Current indications suggest that the pilot has been safe, humane and effective in delivering a reduction in the badger population of just under 60 per cent. The Chief Veterinary Officer has advised that this reduction will deliver clear disease benefits as part of a four year cull.” https://www.gov.uk/government/news/badger-cull-extension-application-in-somerset
The National Farmers Union is also strongly supportive of current measures. President Peter Kendal said: “The knowledge learned from these two badger cull pilot areas will be invaluable in helping to deliver future roll out of badger control operations in areas where the incidence of TB is rife.
“Our absolute focus, and that of everyone involved, is disease control. More than 38,000 cattle were slaughtered in Great Britain in 2012 because of bovine TB. These badger cull pilots are a very important first step in what is a 25-year strategy to eradicate this terrible and infectious disease.”
Some supporters of the badger cull have questioned the methods used in the pilot areas. An editorial in the Western Daily Press, for example, asked whether “shooting free-running badgers with rifles and shotguns is an efficient and acceptable way to tackle the crisis of bovine TB”.
“The Western Daily Press has consistently argued that the scourge of bovine TB and the misery it causes to so many farming families cannot be tackled without the culling of wild animals. We applauded this Government when it showed the courage Labour so lacked in pressing ahead with a cull. We ask now, however, whether it isn't time to review the method. Ministers must know too that the need for action on this issue is as urgent as ever.” http://www.thisissomerset.co.uk/Western-Daily-Press-Badger-cull-maths-muddled/story-19913205-detail/story.html#ixzz2hOzcdWjq
Opponents of the cull claim that the trial cull has been a failure. Professor Rosie Woodruffe who worked on the original RBCT, said: "When you kill badgers two things happen. The first is there are fewer badgers, but you also change the behaviour of badgers so they are more infectious to cattle. They are more likely to travel, they are mixing more with badgers from other social groups.
"Our evidence from the randomised culling trials was that when culls took longer than a month we saw an even greater increase in the proportion of infected. If this was my decision I would be stopping now.” www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/10367057/Environment-minister-The-badgers-have-moved-the-goalposts.html
Maria Eagle, Labour’s shadow environment secretary, said: “The extension of these badger cull trials demonstrates that the Government’s approach is not working, which is hardly surprising when it was not based on any scientific evidence.” www.politicshome.com/uk/article/86191/labour_extending_badger_cull_could_exacerbate_spread_of_tb_%E2%80%93_maria_eagle.html
Meanwhile, Owen Paterson has not ruled out the use of gas as a means of culling badgers more effectively “but we will not use it unless it is proven to be safe, humane, and effective.”
TV presenter Simon King tweeted this in response: Simon King @TVsSimonKing
"Killing badgers to combat bTB is ineffective. Gassing badgers is inexcusable. What madness do we face now?"
Sky News reported that it had received reports that some farmers are already illegally trialling gassing of badgers in some areas.
A decision on whether the cull period will be extended – and for how long – is expected early next week.
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