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Thursday 15th December 2011 | 12:49
Bovine TB is a terrible disease. Last year, 25,000 cattle were slaughtered in England and the Government estimates that its cost to the taxpayer will hit £1 billion over the next ten years. Labour’s approach in government was – and continues to be – led by the science which is why we spent £50 million on the cull trials. In the short-term we need to improve biosecurity measures, while investing in the vaccination that will work for cattle and wildlife. Any decision on a badger cull must answer 4 questions: Is it science-led? Is it cost-effective? Is it humane? And crucially will it work? Caroline Spelman failed to give convincing answers to any of these.
First, the science. Labour in government set up the 10-year Randomised Badger Cull Trial (RBCT) to see if culling badgers reduced bovine TB transmission. The final report of the Independent Scientific Group (ISG) which oversaw the study stated: “After careful consideration of all the RBCT and other data...., including an economic assessment, we conclude that badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain.”
The Government accepts the scientific evidence set out in the report of the RBCT. The nation's leading scientific experts met at Defra in April this year to have another look at that research and the follow-up data from the 4 years after the cull period. Caroline Spelman told the House on 14 December that if: ‘culling is conducted in line with the strict criteria identified in the RBCT, we will expect it to reduce TB in cattle...by an average of 16 per cent over nine years.”
On that figure we can agree. The trouble is that the RBCT used cage trapping and shooting of badgers while the new cull will use a method that has never been scientifically trialled to control bovine TB – the free shooting of badgers at night. The science also states that culling must be large scale and sustained. There is strong evidence that this sort of localised culling significantly increases TB risk in neighbouring herds, as badgers move out of cull areas and spread the disease, particularly in the first 2 years. The government hopes that vaccinating badgers in the peripheral areas will reduce this effect, but again, it has never been tested alongside culling.
Second, is it cost effective? Free shooting is cheaper, but it is not a silver bullet. Defra estimates it will still cost farmers £1.4 million per cull area. Ministers want farmers to form limited companies and to deposit the cash for each 4-year cull up front, plus a 25% contingency fund. The contingency is to protect taxpayers from bailing out the cull company if a farmer withdraws from the cull for some reason. Ministers are silent on how the money will be held, who will access it and in what event. What insurance will these new companies need to protect themselves from public liability? Similarly, the Government has yet to explain how Natural England will find the resources or staff to issue licenses and manage a cull given that they have shed nearly 500 staff since Defra’s disastrous settlement in the comprehensive spending review. The Government’s own impact assessment says that each cull area will cost £880,000 more than the benefits it delivers.
We know that Theresa May warned Caroline Spelman about the policing implications of the proceeding with a cull and she has won the argument that it should not start until after the Olympic Games. The Government has still not confirmed whether armed officers will be required to police any protests as the people carrying out the cull will have guns. Defra estimates the cost of extra police to deal with protesters is £2 million per cull area. If there are 10 cull areas licensed per year – as Defra rolls out the cull policy – that could rise to £20 million a year. Caroline Spelman says that Defra and the Home Office will share the costs of additional policing, but the Home Office will be far from thrilled at absorbing these extra costs when its budget has been cut by 20%.
Defra Ministers confirm that each cull area will save the taxpayer £2.9 million over 10 years. If the Government goes ahead with 10 cull areas from 2013, that will lead to a saving of £29 million each year, out of an estimated cost of £1 billion for testing and compensation over the same time period. A Parliamentary answer on 5th September revealed that the badger cull would lead to just five fewer herd breakdowns per year in each cull area. In 2010 there were 2025 confirmed herd breakdowns in England. Even after 2013, with 10 cull areas, the cull would prevent just 50 herd breakdowns a year, a reduction of just 2.5% in herd breakdowns. Farmers will look at those numbers very carefully to judge their cost-effectiveness before they decide to invest hundreds of thousands of pounds in the cull.
Third, is the cull humane? In 2010, 48 people were prosecuted for offences against badgers, and 29 found guilty. In February, the Government’s own specialist Wildlife Crime Unit stated: “If the culls take place then there is a very real danger of illegal badger persecution being carried out under the pretext of culling activity.” Badgers are low slung creatures, quite hard to shoot cleanly and there is clearly a risk of them being injured and suffering a slow and painful death.
The Government estimates that between 1,500 and 3,000 badgers will be killed in each cull area over 4 years, depending on the size of the area. This could lead to between 40,000 and 100,000 badgers in total being killed before 2015, depending on the speed with which the cull is rolled out. In early December, Defra announced it was going to undertake a national survey of the badger population. Surely, the Government should have commissioned the survey before giving the green light for the cull. How can we measure the impact of a cull on the badger population when we have no scientific baseline?
Finally will it work? In a letter to the Times on 13th July, 7 members of the original Independent Scientific group, who led Labour’s cull trials, asserted: “there is now empirical data on the cost or effectiveness (or indeed humaneness or safety) of controlling badgers by shooting...If the Government decides to proceed with this untested and risky approach, it is vital that it also instigates well-designed monitoring of the consequences.”
There we have it. The cull has no scientific basis, may not work and could make matters worse. It is bad news for taxpayers, bad news for farmers and bad news for wildlife. The government’s own document, published on Wednesday acknowledges, “it is a matter of judgment, not science, whether the farming industry can deliver an effective, co-ordinated and sustained cull.” After the Government’s own goals on forests, and circus animals, the badger cull could well make it a hat-trick.
Mary Creagh MP is the Shadow Environment Secretary.
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