Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Badgers, Bovine TB and Bad Scientific Practice

Bovine tuberculosis is a long term epidemic in the South West of England that spreads fear across cattle farmers as cattle are slaughtered in attempt to control spread of the disease. With the potential of transmission from badgers or cattle to humans the badger cull pilot scheme was launched in 2013 with the aim to reduce Bovine Tuberculosis in the British cattle herds. Since the cull however, people have found themselves stuck between articles stating the apparent success of the cull, whilst other groups are actively campaigning to stop the apparently useless and meaningless destruction of one of Britain’s most iconic species. It is a shame that given the importance of this disease and amount of conflict rising between the two parties however, that clashing beliefs are probably a result of governmental ignorance to scientific practice. Throughout the pilot cull so far, little attention has been paid to scientific evidence and because of it we are still non-the-wiser as to whether the cull could successfully help to eradicate tuberculosis or not.
The threat of bovine tuberculosis in Britain is real. Since 2008, 227,835 cattle have been slaughtered in England as a result of this disease, and at the moment protecting the cattle with a vaccine is not a legal, or viable option either. Approximately 28,500 cattle per year have to be killed after testing positive for the bovine tuberculosis disease, and shockingly many of these deaths will be the result of an inconclusive test, meaning healthy cattle are being destroyed. There is also no legal vaccine due to the interference that will follow with the test either, meaning options for freeing the country of bovine tuberculosis and this economic burden on the industry are far and few between.
After a background of scientific evidence gathered to understand the connection between badgers and bovine tuberculosis, the government sanctioned the culling of badgers in the South West of England in 2013. In Gloucestershire, Somerset and Dorset, farmers were appointed to control badger populations via both cage trapping, and free shooting. In 2016, the culling areas were then widened to seven locations in addition to these previously existing areas. The number of license holders for the disposing of badgers were later increased 2016. Culling in these new areas will be carried out over the next four years, so you would hope this expansion would be a result of the successful pilot culls surely!? Unfortunately, due to a series of irresponsible errors on the government’s part, the answer to that is no. The disorganisation that has surrounded the cull means that we don’t even know if the cull is or is not successful, and because of this, both sides of the badger cull debate are up in arms.
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Well-grounded evidence behind the cull states that the control of badger populations must follow an all or nothing approach. Heavily reducing the badger population size in our countryside would help reduce bovine tuberculosis. However, culling small numbers of badgers in patchy areas would be unlikely to have the desired effect. Whilst undisturbed badger clans remain relatively stationary so disease does not spread quickly, culling will disrupt this system. Badgers evading the cull or moving into land vacated by the cull will have a larger range that could increase the spread of the disease. To sum it up, not conducted carefully, the bovine tuberculosis problem could actually be exacerbated by the culling rather than solved.
As the badger cull was and still is such a controversial movement, it would make sense that pilot tests were conducted with precision, vigilance and careful monitoring to gain enough information to either support or neglect this as a form of disease control. Unfortunately from the moment culling targets were set, the project was not treated with nearly enough sincerity. Following Independent Expert advice, a target to reduce population size by 70% was set in the three areas for 2013. To achieve this, a range was calculated based on population estimates, to cull between 1876 and 2584 badgers. This meant that if the lower limit of 1876 badgers were killed, there would only be a 1/40 chance that 70% of the population would have been killed. Of course in attempt to cut corners the government took the 1/40 chance in order to “remain realistic” in meeting given targets, and set for 1876 badgers to be killed in these areas. Even before a single badger was shot, not enough effort was being made to ensure the highest probability of success for the badger cull.
 If it wasn’t enough that the cull used a target that was unlikely to sufficiently control the badger population, this target was then given little chance of being met or adhered to. Firstly, culling was carried out by the farmers themselves, making an extra job for workers who may not have the adequate free time to effectively undertake the badger control. It came to no surprise then that in 2013, only between 37-51% of badgers were culled in Somerset, and between 43-51% in Gloucestershire. Furthermore, in 2014, the government discarded the Independent Expert monitoring of population size methods that revealed the previous year’s failures, and left the farming marksmen to assess the population size. In 2014 no published estimates of population sizes were achieved. Lastly, as the final nail in the badger culling coffin, restrictions on maximum cull duration, cull area size and percentage of accessible land, previously considered “unduly inflexible”, were proposed for abandonment by the government, as apparently no longer fundamental guidelines to the cull. It is no wonder that the catastrophe was soon followed by an announcement declaring that “despite killing badgers, cattle slaughtered for TB continue to rise in and around the area.” (DEFRA). Anger has since boiled from both sides, where the cull was neither taken seriously, or responsibly enough to be worth it.
Whilst it seems that there is little hope for the cull, new pilot areas are being rolled out across the country in what seems to be half hearted attempt to address bovine Tuberculosis in Britain. To certain members of the public, this movement has not been conducted to help the cattle industry, but as a means of being seen to be doing. The culling could provide a reasonable means of badger control, just as it is currently conducted with other species like deer and other forms of wildlife. Given the unscientific way the piloting procedure has been conducted however, the success of the badger cull seems dubious if the current practice is not given a serious shake-up. If the cull continues to follow suit as it has in the past three years, we can’t only hope for failure of the cull, but expect that we will not know the effectiveness of the cull at all, and cannot help to guide future wildlife con

 I would like to give credit to the resources used to write this article, and I would please urge you to carry on reading to form your own opinion on the matter. Thank you for reading.


  1. Hi Georgie - love your blog. My brother published this paper back in 2013 which might be of some interest to you. It also might be a bit out of date. It's totally over my head, of course!
    Jenny Rooney

    1. Hi Jenny, wow a publication in a paper that prolific, that's fantastic thank you for linking it to me. I've just had a quick look at the abstract as well and looks just like the kind of thing I'm looking for - a neutral account of everything is incredibly hard to come by. I will have a good look at it tonight, and glad you enjoyed the read :)

  2. My pleasure! Would be happy to introduce you to Charles at any point in the future. Like you he started out as a zoologist and is now a Prof at Jesus College, Oxford - he's a big old boffin but very friendly and could be a useful contact for you. xx

  3. That would be absolutely amazing I would love to speak to him! xx

  4. Just let me know when/how and I will fix it. Keep up your excellent work Georgie xx