Tim Coulson, editor of the Journal of Animal Ecology, has hit out at Defra’s decisions to change the protocol for measuring the success of the pilots in the second year and to ignore a recommendation to have them independently monitored.
He suggested its actions were driven by its desire to push ahead with the badger culling on a national scale, regardless of the evidence coming out of the pilots.
Mr Coulson’s comments came as Defra’s chief scientist Ian Boyd reiterated his belief that controlling the disease in badgers was essential to ‘beat’ the problem of bovine TB.
Prime Minister David Cameron has also weighed into the debate, insisting he believes badger culling can play a part in controlling the spread of bTB in England.
Mr Coulson was a member of the Independent Expert Panel (IEP) that oversaw the pilot culls in Gloucestershire and Somerset last year, concluding they failed to meet their targets for both effectiveness and humaneness.
The panel recommended changes to the way culling was being carried out said the policy should not be rolled out more widely until the changes had been independently assessed.
Writing in his own journal, Mr Coulson said: “Sound animal ecology advice is being ignored by the current UK government.
“The reason? A cynic might speculate that it is because following best animal ecology practice might lead to conclusions at odds with what the government seems unjustifiably determined to do.”
He suggested the Government’s policy on the badger cull was based on ‘conjecture, anecdote and innuendo’ rather than ‘sound science’.
He said the Government had abandoned the ‘tried and tested methods’ used by the IEP last year to assess the effectiveness of the pilots.
“Any results they do achieve will be incomparable.
“A change of protocol half way through an experiment reveals such a limited understanding of the scientific method that I am tempted to speculate that the government no longer wants to know whether the pilots are effective or humane.
“They just want to cull badgers, regardless of whether the population or humaneness consequences can be assessed.”
He added that the lack of independent monitoring would undermine the credibility of any results that come out of the second year of the pilots, likely to take place over the summer or early autumn.
“So who will oversee the analysis of data and the interpretation of results? The same folk that have decided to change the protocols half way through the experiment,” he wrote.
“This is a case where I think I might be justified in working with a well-informed prior that the conclusions will be unlikely to stand up to scrutiny.”
“I fear we may hear that the second year is a success once it is over. But such a statement would be hollow.”
He said the ‘whole sorry affair’ meant ‘we are missing an opportunity to assess whether the pilot culls that the government implemented can solve the dreadful scourge of bovine TB’.
“The existing evidence strongly suggests that culling is not the solution in England, and that the ongoing culls were on course to add more evidence in support of this view. The government’s recent actions rob us of this evidence.”
Writing in his own blog Professor Boyd, Defra’s Chief Scientist, said recent statistics showing the national TB incidence rate at its lowest level for a decade were a ‘cause for hope rather than despair’.
He urged caution but said those battling against bTB also ‘need to sustain ourselves by celebrating success’. He went on to praise the dedication of the’extraordinary people’, including scientists and vets, who ‘lead the long, slow battle against this disease’.
“Without them, bTB will never be beaten. They are largely unseen by the public but they dedicate their lives and their careers to solving the bTB problem,” he wrote.
But he added: “The narrowness of some views expressed about the recent badger culls saps the morale of those on whom we are relying to get this disease under control.
“Badgers are not the problem; Mycobacterium bovis is the problem, and unless we are willing to fight this as a nation then this robust and cryptic little beast will beat us. But to beat it we do need to solve the problem of how to control its presence in badgers, which are themselves just another victim of its pathogenicity.
“The detractors will only get my attention when they start to talk in terms of solutions – truly practical solutions that really can be delivered and not pie in the sky ideas about single track solutions like mass vaccination.”
He urged the farming industry to be ‘realistic about the ways it will need to change’ to deal with the disease.
“But all our knowledge of epidemiology says that these green shoots are very unlikely to be sustained unless we also control the disease in badgers,” he said.
Responding directly to Mr Coulson’s comments, a Defra spokesperson said: “We will continue to monitor the effectiveness and humaneness of the badger culls closely to assess the impact of the improvements we are making following the Independent Expert Panel’s recommendations.
“We are currently assessing the best and most cost-effective methods of doing this.
“Scientific evidence such as the findings of the IEP will always play an integral role in developing our approach to dealing with bovine TB, which includes strengthening cattle movement controls and developing vaccines for cattle and badgers.”