Badger-Killing Begins Again in England, Despite Evidence it Doesn't Help Cattle

A badger walks in woodland in Perthshire, Scotland, on April 17, 2014. Russell Cheyne / Reuters

For the second year in a row, hunters have begun killing badgers in two counties in southwest England for the alleged purpose of reducing the incidence of tuberculosis in cattle. The wild animals carry the disease, and can pass it on to cows.

The controversial "badger cull" in Gloucester and Somerset counties is supported by the government's Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) but fiercely resisted by animal rights activists, environmentalists and many scientists, who say it is unethical and will not help reduce disease in cattle.

That last conclusion is supported by an independent review of the first year of culling, which found that it wasn't effective or humane, the Guardian recently noted. This review led to a cancellation of a proposed expansion of badger-killing to 10 other areas. But despite the opposition, a second year of culling started yesterday (Sep. 9) in Gloucester and Somerset.

A previous 10-year study of badger culling in a different area of England—the largest of its kind—found that killing the animals had only a very small impact on rates of the disease in cows. In a two-page summary accompanying the study, the scientists wrote that intensive culling over a large area could reduce the incidence of bovine tuberculosis by 12 to 16 percent over a nine-year period, with the qualification that "it is not possible to give a very precise estimate."

However, the researchers continued, if not conducted properly and over a large area, a cull could have no benefit—or worse—actually lead to more cattle becoming infected.

In an earlier, longer summary of the findings, the scientists were more blunt: "Given its high costs and low benefits we therefore conclude that badger culling is unlikely to contribute usefully to the control of cattle tuberculosis in Britain, and recommend that tuberculosis control efforts focus on measures other than badger culling."

In addition, a number of leading scientists signed a letter in 2012 arguing the cull could actually help spread the disease in cattle. Amongst those who do not support the cull are Lord John Krebs, one of the "UK's most eminent scientists and the architect of the [aforementioned] landmark 10-year culling trials," and two former chief scientific advisors to the UK Government, Lord Robert May and Sir John Beddington, the Guardian noted.

One of the main issues with culling is that thinning the badger population disrupts that animal's social structure. This causes some badgers to move over larger areas than before—this is called the "perturbation effect"—thus potentially bringing infected animals into contact with more cattle.

But Liz Truss, the Secretary of State for DEFRA, defended the cull. "We are pursuing a comprehensive strategy supported by leading vets, which includes cattle movement controls, vaccinating badgers in edge areas and culling badgers where the disease is rife," she said. "This is vital for the future of our beef and dairy industries, and our nation's food security."

Many scientists have complained that the government hasn't consulted independent scientists—who tend to oppose the cull—or ignored scientific advice that they did receive.

For example, Rosie Woodroffe, a senior researcher at the Zoological Society of London, reported at The Conversation that an independent group of scientists found that the first year of culling was "far from effective." Instead of heeding this advice, Woodroffe argues, DEFRA's current plan for year two of the cull will involve collecting even less evidence than before, conducting the cull in a potentially more careless manner.

"Choosing—against formal expert advice—to collect inconsistent, inadequate and potentially biased data is an insult to evidence-based policymaking," she wrote.

In the absence of clear evidence that the cull is likely to help cattle, animal welfare arguments become more convincing. Badgers are social animals, and are known to be capable of feeling pain. Last year, as many as 18 percent of the animals were still alive five minutes after being shot, regarded by "inhumane" by the independent expert panel that reviewed the cull.