We recognise that dealing with bovine TB is a complex problem, with strongly held views on all sides. The Trust is uniquely placed in this issue with a strong interest in both farming and nature conservation. We have always been clear that we support an evidence-based approach to this important issue.
With this in mind, we have recently raised our concerns over the Government’s pilot badger culls taking place in Somerset and Gloucestershire.
Patrick Begg, who leads on bovine TB at the Trust, explains why:
The Trust’s position on tackling bovine TB is clear: we are in favour of what will work to solve the problem that is affecting so many of our tenants and farmers across the country.
We know from previous studies that this means increasing and intensifying surveillance to pick up infection early, introducing tighter controls on risky cattle movements, and improving biosecurity in farms.
To complement these efforts and to deal with the reservoir of disease in wildlife, we also believe that vaccination – of both badgers and cattle – will play a significant role. That is why we are testing the practicalities of vaccination, at our own cost, on our Killerton Estate in Devon.
However, we are also aware that a mass vaccination of badgers with current vaccines may prove challenging to realise in practice; it would be expensive and may not deliver the required effect.
Equally, we understand from both Professor John Krebs’ work and the subsequent analysis by Professor John Bourne, that a comprehensive badger cull could have a significant impact on the incidence of bovine TB – but only if a number of very stringent criteria were met, including intensity, longevity and geography.
We had hoped that the current pilot culls would produce credible evidence on the effectiveness of a humane cull. Indeed, we will be judging the outcomes of the pilots against the criteria for success set out by Professor Bourne in his review of the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT).
However, we are worried by:
- Uncertainties over, and changes in, the baseline badger population estimates. This dimension is fundamental if we are to understand whether the appropriate proportion of animals can be culled as per the criteria set following the RBCT;
- The lengthening of the pilot culls, which is again at the heart of the RBCT criteria for success. The RBCT quickly realised that culling should be constrained to as short a window as possible due to the experience of their own reactive culling, in which extended and sequential culling was quickly seen to significantly increase damaging perturbation effects and led to more, not fewer, bTB breakdowns in nearby herds;
- Changes to the culling methods being employed, where it is clear that free shooting by marksmen – the original preferred method and on which any financial argument was based – has been largely abandoned in favour of cage trapping and then dispatch; and
- The apparently now active discussion of other culling methods for any wider roll out, such as gassing and snaring: both have strong experimental evidence bases calling into question whether they can be humane.
We’ve recently written to Defra asking for their assurance that they are committed to meeting the criteria set out by Professor Bourne and upholding high standards of scientific rigour in the conduct and analysis of these pilots.