In October 2012, DEFRA announced that the planned Badger Cull would be postponed. Not for any of the multitude of reasons scientists laid out that detailed why the cull was a bad policy, but because their estimates of 2-3,000 within the two cull zones was wrong. The total population for the two regions (West Somerset and West Gloucestershire) was 7,900. This made the cost of the cull at that point unmanageable, especially as the cull had to be carried out before the badgers went into hibernation.
The key figure for the cull is 70%. This is the total of the population that must be culled in order to reduce bovine tuberculosis (bTB) within the cull zone (by around 13% at best). Less than 70%, and there is a high risk that the perturbation of badger populations by the culling process will actually see bTB in cattle increase. 70% of 7,900 is 5,530, of which 3,010 are in Somerset, 2,420 in Gloucestershire. DEFRA actually set the target at 4,940, 2,100 in Somerset, 2800 in Gloucestershire.
There have been rumours over the past fortnight that the cull is nowhere near its target figure, and yesterday it was confirmed that the cull in Somerset has managed just 850 kills. That’s less than half the required amount.
However, DEFRA’s response to this was, in part, to reduce the estimated number of badgers, and with it the number that need to be killed (to 1,020 in Somerset and 1,650 in Gloucestershire). They say that the figures were based on 2012 data, and the harsh winter of 2012/13 must have reduced the total population size. Even with this target being reduced by half, the cull still isn’t meeting the target.
So, now the teams carrying out the cull are asking for an extension. Another 2-3 weeks to try get the revised target. You may remember the 2012 cull was postponed around this point because there was little time to make the target before the badgers went into hibernation. So even with the extension, the chances are they’ll fail to meet targets. Not that any of this will prevent DEFRA claiming this has been a success.
By this point, you may be getting bamboozled by numbers and thinking none of this seems to add up. You’d be right. That’s because the consistent pattern throughout this ‘trial’ is one of utter chaos. At no point have numbers been estimated correctly. They have never had a baseline, never known how many badgers were infected. They’ve made no attempt to check this as the cull has been progressed, refusing to test shot animals for bTB. The ‘revised figures’ coming out as they announce the abject failure of the cull to meet its targets looks like an attempt to change the success criteria retrospectively, rather than simply admit failure.
There is a simple reality here. The current government wanted to show the National Farmers Union they were doing something. A cull was politically efficacious. Yet doing it properly and effectively, by trapping and testing, vaccinating healthy badgers, culling the sick, was expensive. So they opted for the cheapest alternative; free shooting. Despite the likelihood this would not work, would not be humane, and could in fact exacerbate the problem. This was never really about helping suffering farmers. It was about politics.
Today or tomorrow the DEFRA Minister, Owen Paterson, will stand up and tell us all this trial has succeeded and will be extended, then rolled out to further cull zones over the next few years. Let’s be quite clear here. This will be a lie. They have never measured the data properly, and have no idea on the scope or extent of this cull. It’s been chaos from the start. An ‘omnishambles’ to borrow a term.
Ideally, Paterson and DEFRA would bring an end to this now. They can listen to the science, including the excellent DEFRA scientists who know this was a bad idea and said so internally. But there is such a fear of the NFU, and of being seen to carry out the dreaded ‘u-turn’, that this will not happen.
All we can hope is that brave landowners, be they farmers, the National Trust, or local authorities, will stand up to this nonsense.
One last point, anyone claiming that opponents of the cull are against farmers is lying. This cull will not help farmers. It will help nobody, apart from maybe a few Tories in the South of the country when it comes to fundraising.
UPDATE: So, the government have now made a statement and, as predicted, have claimed it’s a success regardless. They’ve claimed that the reduced numbers were known back at the start of the cull (presumably they just didn’t bother to tell anyone). In one of those stupid turns of phrase that a man will one day come to regret, Paterson has announced that the badgers “moved the goalposts” (I suspect that’ll be on his ministerial tombstone). Yes. Pesky badgers. How dare they mess up the finely laid plans to kill them.
Apparently, badgers are wild animals, and this makes them hard to predict. And yet the majority of ecologists and environmentalists were lining up to tell Paterson and DEFRA exactly these issues would occur before the cull started.
As funny as his statement is, the worrying comments come out of DEFRA and its chief vet. He has stated that a 60% cull will achieve disease reductions. This contradicts the ten year pilot done originally, and the stated principles of the trial. They are, quite literally, making it up as they go along. If the badgers started to move the goalposts, Owen Paterson and DEFRA have taken them down, packed them up, gone home, and insisted they were playing a different sport all along.
It’s now impossible to ignore the conclusion that the government is committed to pushing ahead with this cull regardless of any science, the facts, the failures, or the realities of the situation they find themselves in. That’s bad news for badgers, and bad news for farmers.
UPDATE 2: Of course, it could be that the badger population in that part of the country really has declined by 66%, but not purely due to environmental factors. Apparently sky news have a farmer recorded saying they have been illegally gassing badgers.
So if there has been a massive decline, it may be that some have been taking matters into their own hands. This would be illegal, but you can see the logic as to how the cull might inspire some to do this.