Bovine TB: Fact, Fantasy & Politics

Why we should care about independent monitoring of the badger cull

  • Author: Badgergate
  • Published: 15-09-2014 at 02:25:27

As we face a second year of badger culls in the United Kingdom, I am reminded of a popular definition of insanity: to repeat the same mistakes while expecting different results.

Does the government really expect this year’s badger culls to be a success when the first year’s culls were a failure?

Unfortunately, as there is no independent monitoring of the badger culls in 2014, we are unlikely to ever know whether they are a success or not.

Apart from being essential to the scientific process, independent and transparent scrutiny is a cornerstone of democratic societies. It allows us to assess whether governments are delivering on their stated policy objectives and using public funds wisely. Independent monitoring thus allows us to hold governments to account. History shows, however, that governments cannot be relied upon to monitor their own activities objectively, as the vested interests of those in power almost inevitably lead to biases as to how data are gathered and results reported. An objective and transparent monitoring strategy with independent oversight is especially critical for a government-designed, farmer-led badger cull, particularly given the many failures of last year’s cull, not least the very high costs involved, borne largely by the taxpayer.

The original stated aims of the pilot badger culls were to test assumptions about the effectiveness, humaneness and safety of ‘controlled’ shooting as a method of culling free-ranging badgers at night. Specifically, the government wanted to test:

In order to ensure scientific objective assessment of these criteria, the government appointed an independent panel of experts to design the data collection methods and oversee analysis and results.  This independent expert panel (IEP) was drawn from senior scientists covering a range of appropriate skills, including knowledge and experience of the challenges involved in monitoring secretive nocturnal mammals and assessing the likely level of suffering based on post mortem examination. We could debate whether it was even worth testing a method that 31 wildlife disease experts had already stated risked "becoming a costly distraction from nationwide TB control." But at least there were stated targets and a process in place for independent assessment.

After the first year of the pilot badger culls, the IEP analysed and assessed the data, and concluded that the cull did not meet the government’s targets for humaneness and effectiveness. The IEP’s criticisms are not minor academic points. The badger cull licences were specifically granted for the "purpose of preventing the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB)".

The effectiveness target of a minimum reduction of 70% of the badger population at each site was put in place because results from the Randomised Badger Cull Trial suggested that a reduction of less than this risks increasing TB in cattle. This is because of a raised risk of disease transmission due to increased movement of badgers caused by social disruption (known as perturbation) can outweigh any lowering of disease transmission due to a reduction in badger density.

If too few badgers are killed, and TB incidence rises as a result, the government could be responsible for spreading TB in cattle, as well as for the widespread slaughter of a nationally and internationally protected native species for no benefit. The former runs counter to its stated TB eradication policy, and the latter risks breaching the Bern Convention (the legally binding European convention governing biodiversity conservation).

The coalition government responded to the IEP’s conclusions by sacking the panel. It is probably not entirely surprising that the government wishes to avoid any further independent examination of what may prove to be a disastrous and financially costly policy. But in a well-functioning democracy, the conclusions of the IEP should have resulted in an immediate halt of the badger cull, and a careful reassessment of the strategy. At the very least, given the major problems identified by the IEP, we would expect strict adoption of the IEP’s recommendations in any future culling operations, should these be continued. After all, why persist with an intervention that could actually result in an increase in the very disease that the government is trying to eradicate?

So where are we now?

The government claimed that the second year of badger culls “will start with the IEP’s recommended improvements in place”.  A more detailed analysis of their response suggests otherwise. In particular, the IEP explicitly recommended that the same type and quantity of data collected in the first year of the cull needed to be collected in future years, with continued independent oversight.

However, in this second year of culling, the government has put in place only limited oversight of whether the badger culls are humane, and is no longer measuring a key index of likely suffering – time to death. Moreover there will be absolutely no independent oversight of whether the culls are effective.  Shockingly, monitoring of the effectiveness of the second year’s culls will rely on contractor-collected data, although these fail to meet any criteria on objectivity. Furthermore, the IEP found that contractor data from the first year’s culls were completely unreliable.

Indeed, the IEP was quite scathing about the data provided by contractors, and found the quality and reliability so poor that they did not use it to draw any conclusions. For example, some contractors were recording themselves as conducting shifts less than one minute in length, while another contractor was out for 32 days uninterrupted. Moreover, questions in the House of Lords show that, according to contractor data, more badgers were culled than shots fired.

Rather than badgers being lined up to be shot, as was suggested by Baroness Northover, this raises the serious suspicion that badgers killed elsewhere were being included as part of the cull - a suspicion supported by a recently launched criminal investigation into an alleged incident of a contractor shooting badgers on a golf course outside the cull zone. The same investigation is looking into 10 contractors who allegedly used night sights to stalk the animals illegally, an activity known to pose a significant risk to public safety.

What is clear is that, even when contractors were aware that they were being monitored, they could not be relied upon to accurately record even basic information such as their own shift lengths or the number of shots fired.  Given this, any other information provided by contractors, such as specific information relating to badger shooting events, has little credibility. In other words, the government’s proposed monitoring strategy for the second year of the badger culls is neither independent, as it depends on subjective contractor collected data, nor scientific, since these data have been shown to have little value.

Continuing the badger cull without either independent oversight or reliable monitoring data begs the question whether the government is interested in knowing:

  1. Whether the badger culls are actually effective at controlling TB in cattle? and
  2. Whether they are a good use of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money?
Indeed, the following quote reported by Professor John Bourne, Chair of the Independent Scientific Group, Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT), seems to be increasingly pertinent:

“I think the most interesting observation was made to me by a senior politician who said ‘fine, John, we accept your science, but we have to offer the farmers a carrot, and the only carrot we can possibly give them is culling badgers”.

Not only are the government’s badger culls “an insult to evidence-based policymaking,” they have also become, as predicted, a “costly distraction” to the real task of combatting TB.

It's time to stop using badgers for barter in an increasingly costly and senseless cull and to get serious about implementing a truly evidence-based policy to control bovine TB in cattle. Perhaps the British government should consider applying the same rigour to its delivery of evidence-based approaches to bovine TB control as it does to delivering evidence-based medicine?