The on-going pilot cull debacle

27 January 2014 | Badgergate

Some eight weeks have passed since the last cage trap was removed and the final shot rang out in West Gloucestershire. In the end, the eight-week extension to the pilot cull in Gloucestershire was called off early, ending officially at noon on Saturday 30 November 2013, while the three-week extension to the West Somerset pilot cull ran its full course until noon on Saturday 1 November 2013.

At the end of October, leaks, reportedly from Defra and Natural England, revealed important data about the conduct of both culls that has yet to be confirmed officially. During December and January, the controversy surrounding both pilot culls and their extensions intensified. Column inches in both the national and local press have increased exponentially with revelation after revelation by journalists keen to break through the secrecy that shrouds so many aspects of the pilot culls, from their true costs to their conduct, monitoring and effectiveness in terms of both the methods used and their impact on bovine TB control in cattle.

The Independent Expert Panel has yet to publish its report, due before the end of February. However, the Panel’s report will only cover the initial six-week pilot culls and not the extensions. This will undoubtedly bias the Panel’s findings. Not surprisingly, the Government has been accused of being ‘underhand’ and of ‘manipulating the studies’ in order to push through the roll-out of the badger culls later this year, regardless of the Panel’s findings.

More recently, official figures have revealed that “only a quarter of the badgers in the two pilot cull areas were killed in the way the schemes were designed to test”, i.e. by free shooting rather than cage-trapping. This means that one of the stated aims of the pilot culls – testing the effectiveness of freeshooting – failed within the first few weeks in both counties. Despite this, the culls continued.

Additionally, the actual costs of the two pilot culls have spiralled well beyond the original estimate included in Defra’s cost-benefit analysis, which was used to justify the pilot culls. Based on Defra’s own figures, the pilot culls are estimated to have cost nearly £7.3 million – an estimate that many believe to be conservative.

Many costs are still to be clarified, for example, the number of senior Defra staff employed full-time on the badger cull. This means the actual cost of the pilot culls may in fact be much higher – £10 million or more. But even taking the conservative estimate of £7.3 million based on Defra’s own figures and the best case scenario, Dr Tim Hounsome has calculated that it has cost £12,857/km² to save £714/km² – something that most rational people will find quite staggering.

It should also be remembered that in February 2013 the estimated badger populations in both counties were revised dramatically downwards. As a result, the actual cull targets (i.e. total number of badgers to be removed), which were based on killing at least 70% of badgers in the cull area, also became smaller. Yet, the cull failed to reach even these much lower cull targets. The Western Morning News has reported that Mr Paterson “admitted that cullers only managed to kill 39 per cent of badgers in the West Gloucestershire cull, missing both the original 70 per cent target, and the revised 58 per cent target”. In West Somerset, it’s estimated that 65% of the badger population could have been killed, but fewer badgers were killed during the extension than specified in the licence from Natural England. According to the Guardian, “The tally of just 90 additional badgers [killed during the W. Somerset extension) also contravenes the licence issued to authorise the extension, which specified that a “minimum number of 165” must be killed”.

Defra’s Chief Scientist, Ian Boyd, hasn’t commented publicly on the badger cull for many weeks so it has been Chief Vet, Nigel Gibbens’s turn to take the limelight when the Government cited him as their main scientific advisor in the making the decision to extend the culls. The decision by Natural England to grant extensions to the two cull companies generated a storm of protest as it went directly against the advice from Professor David Macdonald, the Chair of Natural England’s Scientific Advisory Committee, who had stated “My personal opinion as a biologist [is] not to continue the cull. One could not have significant comfort that the original proposals would deliver gains to farmers. Extending the cull would make the outcome even less predictable and even more unpromising.”

Despite rising costs, a cost-benefit ratio that makes no sense and a method that clearly doesn’t work (i.e. freeshooting), the NFU has publicly stated that it is “totally committed to seeing badger controls carried out in more areas where TB is rife.” It would appear value for money is no object to the NFU and public opinion and taxpayers’ bills count for even less. Meanwhile, Natural England has started the ball rolling by inviting applicants to submit an Expression of Interest (EOI) form. However, an intriguing article in The Ecologist in January 2014 wonders if the Government is in fact hatching an escape plan from the disastrous badger cull policy, and whether an alternative to the badger cull may be put forward in the coming months. We can but hope that reason will eventually prevail.

With so much yet to be revealed about the safety, humaneness, effectiveness and true costs of both pilot culls, all we can say is, watch this space.