Dealing with the consequences of badger protection legislation a Position paper
Bovine TB in cattle has escalated out of control since 1997 when the incoming Labour government introduced a moratorium on all badger culling in England and Wales excepting the Randomised Badger Culling Trials which ended in 2005. The following position paper is therefore prompted by the failure of DEFRA to research, formulate and implement a realistic strategy for the control of bovine TB since then.
Summary of VAWM's conclusions
- VAWM regrets the introduction of badger protection legislation. It was introduced to protect a species whose conservation status was not threatened, nor likely to become so. Badgers have no natural predators within the UK and their numbers have increased many-fold with disastrous consequences. The spread of high bTB prevalence areas to one third of the country is but one. Furthermore, as they reach carrying capacity, individual badgers are living highly stressed lives and their welfare is inferior to that which their predecessors would have experienced before they were “protected”.
- The malign effects of protection were not a necessary consequence of the legislation per se. There always was and continues to be the provision for farmers to apply for licences to cull nuisance social groups and destroy their setts. The problem has been Natural England's (NE) reluctance to issue them.
- No significant reduction of badger-associated problems can be expected without acceptance for the need to cull. This is not to suggest that improved cattle measures and oral badger vaccination in edge areas might not also play a role in bTB control, merely that, without culling, they would largely be a waste of time and money. Further bTB transmission is far from the only problem created by the uncontrolled population.
- It is recommended that, in high disease prevalence areas, culling should be sett-based. A prerequisite of sett-based culling is the prompt licensing of an effective and humane fumigant. Once available, sett fumigation will allow a more efficient and much cheaper means of control. Undertaken at appropriate times of year, it should minimise any problems of perturbation. However, it is recognised that, in summer, most infected badgers tend to spend a high proportion of their days in outlying holes or even above ground.
- In high disease areas, selectivity would either require the use of qPCR (quantitative polymerase chain reaction test) to identify infected social groups or would be based on cattle sentinels (reactive culling) or both.
- Should no fumigant be identified as suitable for licensing, culling would need to be based on trapping and free shooting. Under the latter circumstances, the percentage of animals killed per social group would be likely to be lower and consequential perturbation higher. However, this has not been enough to prevent a very significant reduction of bTB breakdowns in the Republic of Ireland, which has been undertaken by means of selective culling without fumigation of setts. Nevertheless, given the much higher badger densities in England, the absence of licensed fumigant may suggest that proactive culling would be more appropriate.
Recommendations pertaining to the NE's approach to licensing
- NE should adopt different policies as regards to licensing for bTB- free areas on the one hand and high disease prevalence and edge areas on the other.
- In the former, NE should assume that the nuisance criterion will always be met when a) landowners of shooting estates can demonstrate that they are releasing ground roosting birds such as partridges and b) whenever landowners can reasonably assert that they are attempting to manage habitat to conserve those species of conservation concern which are likely to suffer from the presence of badgers. In other situations, it should be necessary to prove nuisance or damage before licences are issued. Methods of culling (e.g. trapping or shooting) should be agreed, but avoidance of perturbation need not be of concern.
- In high disease or edge areas, NE should issue licences automatically and without equivocation at the behest of officers of the State Veterinary Service. Should a fumigant be licensed, it is recommended that it should be mandatory to cull any badger social groups on land grazed by recent breakdown herds when badgers are judged to be the most likely sources of transmission. Veterinary officers should, in addition, be able to obtain licences to cull social groups that are shown to be infected by qPCR, provided that the farmer agrees. If a sett fumigant is not approved, licensing would best be restricted to circumscribed areas of minimum size of, say, 100 sq. km minimum, provided the overwhelming majority of farmers within it endorsed the decision to cull. In other words, licences would require similar conditions to those that currently apply to existing proactive trapping and free shooting trial areas.
- Farmers should meet the majority of cull costs, but not the associated policing costs, made necessary by anti-cull protestors. Licenses should be issued free of charge to qualifying farmers and landowners.
Criticisms of existing policy or implementation thereof.
VAWM's position is fully consistent with current Government policy in respect of M.bovis control (culling in high prevalence areas, oral vaccination around edges, assuming an effective vaccine becomes available, and improvements in cattle testing and movement regimes). It goes further in recommending that culling should become easier in currently disease-free areas.
VAWM is not however enthusiastic about the widespread deployment of the Badger BCG vaccine in England and Wales, which appears to be driven rather by public opinion than scientific evidence. Experimental evidence of vaccine efficacy is equivocal, safety for the target species is questionable and evidence of efficacy has not been forthcoming from the field over 3 years, indeed several herd breakdowns have been reported from different areas where the vaccine has been deployed.
VAWM's principal criticism relates to implementation of what it regards to be the most important aspect of the policy, namely culling.
While there may be a declaration that culling is part of a control programme, there would seem to be little enthusiasm for its implementation. The very limited culling trials that are taking place are being undertaken and financed by farmers. Meanwhile, erstwhile Government expert advisors are mounting a vocal public campaign against the trials, inciting violent protests against those attempting the culling. Further, the cullers have been faced with an array of bureaucratic hurdles which make their task unnecessarily difficult and costly. One is tempted to wonder whether the apparently half-hearted approach to implementation is the result of Government's fears over the unpopularity of culling or whether it is a sign that some of its civil servants and civil-servant appointed outside expert advisors are deliberately being obstructive and delaying progress.
In fact, VAWM, as the name suggests, concerns itself with the welfare, husbandry and conservation of a balanced wildlife population in the context of a largely man-made environment. As such, its members are uncomfortable with the proactive cull approach because it is indiscriminate. Failing a satisfactory licensed alternative, it can and does accept the necessity for proactive culling while regretting the necessity for such a crude approach. To this extent, VAWM members have some sympathy with the views of those objecting to the culls as currently carried out. It seems obvious that culling should be sett-based for reasons of efficacy, efficiency and economy. This also enables the targeting of social groups of badgers that are, themselves, most likely to be infected. Of itself, cull selectivity should reduce public hostility to culling. However, it must be recognised that the best method to cull selectively is sett fumigation. The idea of gassing animals underground may be so repugnant to some that it outweighs the public relations advantage of selective over indiscriminate culling. However, it remains VAWM's position that sett fumigation has the potential to provide more humane deaths for badgers than the alternatives of trapping and free shooting. This, of course, presupposes that an appropriate fumigant is identified by testing and subsequently licensed for use.
Sett fumigant testing and licensing
It is the VAWM view that failure promptly to replace cymag with a more humane alternative when use of the former was banned was the single most important factor contributing to loss of control of M.bovis. This led to culling by trapping and the ill-fated RBCTs, which were poorly conducted, badly interpreted and which, in the public mind, led to the belief that culling was largely ineffective because of perturbation effects.
Defra's approach to sett-fumigant research has been snail-like. A committee reporting in 2005 had been deliberating at length on various culling methods. The view was expressed that sett fumigants were very unlikely to prove satisfactory because it would probably be impossible to achieve sufficient gas concentrations throughout complex setts. However, the committee concluded that it might be worth looking at carbon monoxide while rejecting carbon dioxide out of hand. Subsequent carbon monoxide-based research initially suggested that the committee's earlier views were correct. However, by 2006, researchers were reporting good results and recommended that their method was ready to be tested in occupied setts. Since then, there has been very little publically-available information on the subject. Defra officials suggest that research into sett fumigation is ongoing, but refuse to divulge any details until it is completed. At one stage, there was mention of high expansion nitrogen foam becoming a candidate fumigant, but, shortly thereafter, came the announcement that the foam was no longer a candidate, despite the fact that VAWM has independent evidence that there was no testing of nitrogen foam before the decision to drop it was taken. A VAWM enquiry to a Defra official a couple of years ago did elicit a response that occupied-sett testing of carbon monoxide would have to be preceded by monitoring in empty setts and that nobody had worked out how to do this. It was also stated that no independent research organisations appeared willing to work on fumigation of occupied setts for fear of potential threats from animal rights terrorists. Further enquiries, including offers to take responsibility for organising an appropriate research programme into the subject, from VAWM, both to Defra civil servants and, directly, to the Chief Veterinary Officer were met with unhelpful responses. VAWM was informed that its offer to take responsibility for the relevant research was unnecessary because Defra already had an active research programme looking into both carbon monoxide and high expansion nitrogen foam. A VAWM member subsequently wrote to the CVO to question whether there existed the possibility that he was being misled by his civil servants, given the prior announcement that nitrogen foam had been discussed but that research had been discontinued before any trials had been undertaken. No response was received. Attempts to glean information on interim research results (if, indeed, there are any) and requests to meet and discuss the subject with the relevant researchers have been totally rebuffed. VAWM was informed that the research was ongoing, but that no information would be divulged until the project was completed. VAWM would be delighted to think that there was, indeed, an active research programme. However, lack of reported progress since 2006 leads some members to the suspicion that there is no intention to complete, assuming the research programme exists all.
Having gained nothing of value from correspondence with Defra officials and the CVO, VAWM's secretary, Dr Lewis Thomas, wrote directly to the Secretary of State and requested a meeting. His letter received no personal response, but, instead, was diverted back to the same officials who had previously been so unhelpful and who responded in the same unhelpful manner. Is this a case of officials stonewalling on behalf of their Minister or, alternatively, are they deliberately misleading her?
VAWM has members who have long and detailed knowledge on the subject of M.bovis and its control and its collective expertise matches or exceeds that of many of the expert advisors that Defra has appointed. Members have enjoyed friendly and frank discussions with researchers working on all aspects of M.bovis control except those who work on culling (if, indeed, they exist at all).
VAWM sets out its proposals for M.bovis control in this document. The background for its stance is explained in the appendices listed below. VAWM would welcome discussion with other relevant scientists and is willing to be challenged over its views and modify them should any of them be shown to be incorrect. It would also welcome the opportunity to challenge the views of some others. To the extent that VAWM's approach could be said to be novel, it would seem reasonable, at least, for the Government to allocate and fund a trial area for demonstration purposes. It is not intended that VAWM members should undertake the research, merely have joint planning and advisory roles.
VAWM, once again, requests a meeting with the SoS so that the issues raised can be discussed. It is the organisation's wish to work “within the big tent” rather than to campaign and fight from the outside.
The detailed arguments underpinning VAWM's position above are provided in appendices with the following titles, which can be provided on request:
- Effects of badger protection legislation on damage to other wildlife and to human interests (excluding the subject of tuberculosis).
- Animal welfare effects of badger protection legislation.
- Badgers, cattle and the concept of Ro.
- Thoughts on badger culling and alternative strategies for control of tuberculosis in cattle.
- A consideration of badger culling methods and strategies.
- Pros and cons of three potential sett fumigants.