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1,346 and counting

[This is the full piece I submitted and from which Mark Paine wrote the article published today in the Basingstoke Gazette. You can see the abridged article on the Gazette's website here.]

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the badger cull in England. The latest government figures reveal at least 33,627 badgers were shot dead in England during 2022.

What you may not know is that in 2021 the cull came to Hampshire or that it was expanded in 2022 when a new "Area 67" cull zone was added to the existing one in "Area 56". As things stand, badgers will continue to be shot in both areas during the late Summer/Autumn of 2023 and 2024 and, potentially, for years to come under suggested new proposals for "epidemiological culling".

You’re almost certainly unaware the “Area 56” cull zone, introduced in 2021, is neatly wrapped around Basingstoke with its approximate boundary stretching from Andover and Burbage in the West to Eversley in the East and all the way up to the Hampshire/Berkshire border around Newbury. Area 56 culling operations are directed from a tenant farm of the Englefield Estate in Mortimer which is, ironically, owned by the Minister of State at DEFRA responsible for the badger cull policy area. The second Hampshire badger cull zone, “Area 67”, ranges from the edge of the Dorset heathlands, across the New Forest National Park area and down to the Solent.

Nationally, the cull has led to the slaughter of over 210,000 badgers since it began in 2013. That’s thought to represent over 50% of the entire current population in the UK.

The Government’s stated aim is to kill between 70% and 95% of badgers in every cull area. Despite statements suggesting the cull is being phased out, 11 new zones were added to the programme in 2022, each with a 4-year timeframe, and DEFRA announced its intention to continue culling in England indefinitely thereafter “where the epidemiology justifies it”. There’s a DEFRA consultation due this summer after which we may have a clearer understanding of what that means.

You’d be forgiven for thinking badgers are protected by law - they are. Centuries of illegal persecution led to the Protection of Badgers Act, 1992, which made it an offence to interfere with a badger or its sett. Even so, the badger remains the most persecuted mammal in the UK according to annual wildlife crime statistics as well as the most frequently killed mammal on our roads each year.

Given their protected status, why are these iconic animals being shot under Government license in England on such a widespread basis? After all, they’ve lived with us since the last ice age and many ancient rural badger setts have been occupied for centuries. Until now.

Since 2013 it’s been Government policy to kill badgers as part of a programme to eradicate bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in England by 2038. It’s a policy so controversial, and unscientific, that the National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, the RSCPA and the British Veterinary Association (BVA) are all united against it. So are a great number of wildlife advocates, ecologists, scientists - including previous Government advisers on the subject - and, significantly, a growing number of UK farmers.

Such is the concern that badgers, and their habitats, are being systematically eradicated by the policy that the governing body of the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Habitats continues to consider a 2019 complaint lodged by Badger Trust, the Born Free Foundation and the Eurogroup for Animals as it waits to ensure DEFRA stands by previous assurances it’s given regarding its cull policy. It’s the first time a complaint against the UK Government has not been dismissed at the initial stage by the Convention’s Standing Committee.

An independently peer-reviewed, scientific study published in March 2022 in “Veterinary Record”, evaluating the impact of badger culling on bovine TB in cattle in the “high-risk” area of England, concluded that badger culling did nothing to affect herd bTB incidence or prevalence between 2009 and 2020.

Figures from DEFRA, released in March 2023, reveal slow year-on-year progress in reducing bovine TB nationally and between 2021 and 2022, new herd incidents increased by three per cent in England despite at least 33,627 badgers being killed in 2022 alone.

In Wales, there is no national badger cull programme and never has been, with the devolved government sticking to its view that “the science isn’t there”. In March this year, the Welsh government published its refreshed 5-year delivery plan to eradicate bovine TB. The publication included the news that “between 2009 and December 2022, new TB incidents fell by 49% in Welsh herds while prevalence decreased by 32%”. And badgers were left in peace.

Like its devolved counterpart in Wales, the Scottish government doesn’t support or permit culling either and Scotland has maintained official “TB-free” status since 2010 without the licensed slaughter of a single badger.

So what’s the deal in England? The statutory scientific advice to DEFRA in 2011, drawing on every piece of available evidence, was that culling badgers would not make a meaningful difference to rates of bovine TB in cattle. The weightiest evidence informing that advice came from the only “real-world” field study ever conducted in this area; the “Randomised Badger Culling Trial”. The Trial’s conclusion was that culling 70% of the entire badger population for a minimum period of four years could only be expected to reduce new herd bTB breakdowns by 16%, on average, “at best”.

Nick Cole, Founder and Chair of North East Hampshire Badger Group says “Measures focused on killing badgers simply can’t address the disease in cows because bTB isn’t primarily hosted or transmitted by badgers. In fact, 94% of all bovine TB cases arise from cattle-to-cattle infection. The remaining 6% are attributed to a range of sources, including ‘unknown’, and the disease is carried by a host of other non-badger species including cats, dogs, deer, foxes, hedgehogs, mice, sheep, llamas, alpacas and earthworms. It's even hosted by micro-organisms found in soil, allowing bovine TB to effectively survive in the ground itself for long periods of time.

The Government could license the slaughter of every badger, deer, fox, hedgehog, cat, dog, sheep, llama and alpaca in England and the disease would still persist in cattle without the removal of residual disease from within the herd and protection of the cattle from reinfection.”

Instead of culling badgers the Welsh Government relies on a more effective enforcement of biosecurity standards and much more rigorous disease testing than in England. In Wales, all herds are tested annually whereas, in England, some herds are tested only every four years. Both Wales and Scotland enforce stricter cattle movement controls, even within the same farm, than in England. In Wales “inconclusive” bTB test results are treated as positive and non-bovine livestock is tested on a one-off basis without waiting for an outbreak of disease.

Not only is testing more frequent in Wales, it’s also much more efficient, with a combination of tests undertaken to gain more reliable results. The Welsh government also links farmer compensation to farm biosecurity such that farmers are not fully compensated for cattle that test bTB positive if they haven’t abided by rules on cattle movement and other biosecurity measures. No such compliance with biosecurity “best practices” is required in England. It’s encouraged by DEFRA but not mandatory.

Whereas in England animals other than cattle are not routinely tested for bTB, in Wales badgers, deer and other livestock species are tested as well as cattle. And, instead of indiscriminately being shot, Welsh badgers are protected from disease via vaccination in key areas.

In Wales, one particularly persistent bTB hotspot has its origins in a deer herd introduced as an ornamental embellishment to the landscape more than twenty years ago. The strain of identifiable disease in the area still remains and the Welsh government recognises that badgers had no part to play at any time. Contrast that approach with a bTB outbreak in Cumbria where the strain of bacteria was identified as originating in cattle bought from an infected herd in Northern Ireland but which resulted in DEFRA immediately culling Cumbrian badgers as a consequence.

The official Hampshire cull numbers released by Defra in March revealed that 831 badgers have been shot and killed in Area 56 since August 2021 with a further 515 killed in Area 67 during 2022. That’s a total of 1,346 Hampshire badgers shot dead since August 2021. As things stand, culling will occur again in both locations this Autumn and again in 2024.

In May 2021 the government set out a provision for the UK Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr Christine Middlemiss, to recommend early termination for intensive cull licenses issued in 2021 and 2022 “after 2 or 3 years”. Since Area 56 began culling in September 2021, and completed a second cull in 2022, it is eligible to have its cull license terminated early. However, in March this year Dr Middlemiss announced that, having reviewed all the available data, early termination of the Area 56 cull would, in her view, be “sub-optimal for disease control”.

“It’s outrageous,” said Nick Cole. He’s written to Dr Middlemiss asking her to disclose the available data she reviewed and to reconsider her decision. “There’s not a shred of data or science which supports the continuation of culling in Area 56. The Animal Plant & Health Agency year-end epidemiology reports for Hampshire in both 2020 and 2021 show not a single badger tested positive for bovine TB in the county in either year. The 2020 report says the only non-bovine mammal that tested positive in Hampshire was a domestic cat which contracted the disease from eating raw pet food. Neither of those APHA reports found any cases of badgers as a confirmed source of cattle herd infection in 2020 or in 2021 either. And both reports cited cattle movements and residual herd infections to be the primary risks to Hampshire”.

In November 2022 DEFRA published a report entitled “APHA Bovine Tuberculosis in England in 2021 – Epidemiological analysis of the 2021 data and historical trends”. That report showed the weighted proportion of cattle herd infections in Hampshire that “might” be attributable to badgers was the lowest of all cull counties in the “high risk” or “edge” areas and lower than two counties in the “low risk” area where no culling has ever taken place.

And there’s more. The Defra commissioned “Detection of a local Mycobacterium bovis (bTB) reservoir using cattle surveillance data” report dated 19th May 2021 (the oft-quoted “Downs et al” report) aimed to identify badger-associated bovine TBreservoirs in the “edge” area (including Hampshire). The report reveals that that no badgers in Hampshire had ever tested positive for bovine TB prior to it being written in 2019.

“None of the 1,346 badgers killed under the Hampshire cull licenses to date have even been tested for bovine TB by Defra or the APHA. You can draw your own conclusions as to why that’s the case.”

“Based on the data, it’s unclear to anyone outside of Defra why the badger cull came to Hampshire in 2021 or why the kill target was increased by 115% in 2022. And it’s baffling that the UK Chief Veterinary Officer has concluded that a review of the data for Area 56 makes her think terminating the cull early would be “sub-optimal”. Not terminating it is an appalling act of wildlife persecution and even Ranil Jayawardena MP, the previous Secretary of State for Defra, is now asking difficult questions of his ministerial colleagues in the House of Commons when it comes to the Hampshire cull.

At a cost of £100 million per year, England’s failing bovine TB strategy is falling on the shoulders of taxpayers and farmers. Frankly, it’s negligent not to have introduced mandatory biosecurity and herd management protocols to control the disease more effectively in English cattle herds, as Wales and Scotland have done. It’s a disservice to English farmers not to provide support for them to upgrade infrastructure and reduce disease risk or to provide them with a more effective cattle testing and vaccination solution. Ultimately, badgers are paying the price for weak government policy and a failure by some farmers to even adhere to non-mandatory “best practice” guidelines. As we’ve seen across the border in both Wales and Scotland, it’s perfectly possible to keep cattle safe without pursuing what looks more and more like a deliberate strategy to exterminate what’s supposed to be a protected species”.

It remains to be seen whether badgers in Area 56 will be given a reprieve by DEFRA this year or at what level the 2023 cull targets for Hampshire will be set. In the meantime, evidence and concern mounts that the Government-licensed culling of huge numbers of a protected species has no justifiable scientific basis and that addressing the main reservoir and source of infections - cattle - would better serve farmers and their livestock.

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