Graham Godwin-Pearson is the Bow Group’s Environment Research Fellow
Twitter was overwhelmed on Tuesday night when the controversial cull of badgers in the West country was extended, after marksmen failed to kill enough animals to reach their target. The simmering issue of badger culling continues stoke widespread controversy and disagreement in rural Britain, to which many in metropolitan areas are unaware.
The plan to kill 70 per cent of badgers in west Somerset and Gloucestershire by free shooting necessarily required accurate estimates of the badger population, which it seems DEFRA got wrong. The population estimates of 2,400 in Somerset and 3,400 in Gloucestershire have been revised down to 1,450 and 2,350 respectively, but even then marksmen fell short.
Last year, scientists, politicians and the Bow Group warned the Government that culling badgers would have a meaningless impact on BTB in cattle (12-16 per cent over 10 years), and could even worsen the spread of the disease in badgers if the method of free shooting was employed and the 70 per cent target wasn’t reached. Worse still, without proper, scientific analysis of the method or accurate knowledge of badger numbers, no meaningful conclusions could be drawn.
Despite this and the largest-ever Number 10 petition, the cull went ahead, but as we warned it was doomed from the start. Without accurate population figures and a much lower number of corpses, DEFRA has been forced to revise down the original estimates.
Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, now finds himself between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, a failed and unpopular policy from which MPs are distancing themselves; on the other, aggressive (and expensive) lobbying by the NFU to continue, based on their traditional, scorched-earth approach to wildlife management.
In a TV interview now rapdily circulating on social media, Paterson told the BBC that, “the badgers have moved the goalposts” and that the failures of the policy were impossible to predict, despite the Bow Group’s paper warning of this scenario more than a year ago. It is desperate language from an otherwise calm and collected minister.
Queen guitarist and anti-Badger cull campaigner Brian May, who wrote the foreword to the 2012 Bow Group Target paper on the subject, has called the approach an “utter failure” and a “farce”. The small number of badgers culled compared with the enormous cost of policing, has made the culling trials the most expensive in history.
The alternative, recommended in the Bow Group paper is to vaccinate badgers. Previous studies in Gloucestershire have shown that this method is far more effective (74 per cent reduction in BTB). A senior research fellow at the Institute of Zoology in London has calculated that trapping and vaccinating the animals is also now cheaper and the next 5 years are likely see huge increases in vaccine effectiveness. In addition, it’s more humane and far more popular with voters.
DEFRA knows this, but instead of digging itself deeper into the hole, they need to turn their back on the lobbyists, admit defeat and replace culling with vaccination.