After months of speculation, Defra has finally announced that badger culling will be extended this year, albeit to just one new area in Dorset.
Natural England confirmed on Friday morning it had authorised a licence for badger control in Dorset, alongside licences permitting the continuation of culling for a third year in the Somerset and Gloucestershire pilot cull areas.
Dorset, which had been prepared as a reserve area in 2013, was one of the three areas that applied for new licences this year. The two others, understood to be in Devon and Herefordshire, have not met the licence conditions.
This is part of a wider package of bovine TB measures, including a ratcheting up of cattle controls that could see the introduction of compulsory post-movement testing for all cattle entering the Low Risk Area of England.
Defra is also consulting on changes to the criteria for future badger control licences such as reducing the minimum area for a licence, an approach it said was based on the latest scientific evidence and supported by the Chief Vet.
There is a ‘call for views’ on the best approach for controlling TB in non-bovine animals such as pigs, goats, and deer.
Natural England said a 4-year licence had been issued to a company in Dorset, which had met all criteria to allow badger culling to begin in the area for the first time.
As with the Somerset and Gloucestershire areas, the badger control licences permit operations to be carried out for four years of 6 continuous weeks of culling between June 1 and January 31.
Contractors in Dorset have been set a target of culling a minimum of 615 badgers and must not exceed 835 in the first year.
Fresh targets have also been set for Gloucestershire, between 265 and 479 badgers, and Somerset, where the minimum level is set at just 55 but a maximum of 524 can be removed.
Following the difficulties encountered in making accurate estimates of badger populations during the first year of the pilots in 2013, significant latitude will again be permitted in meeting these targets.
Natural England said it would ’keep under review all available evidence as to the level of the population and will monitor the culling operations’ and ’will if appropriate, provide further advice on the level of culling effort and badger removal required to achieve an effective cull’.
The start dates for culling activity within this period will be decided by the licensed companies.
There might yet be one final hurdle to overcome before culling commences in Dorset. Animal welfare campaigner Brian May’s Save Me Trust has said it will seek to challenge the decision to issue the licences in the High Court.
The package of measures announced by Defra also includes a range of measures intended to clamp down on cattle-to-cattle transmission, including proposals to introduce statutory post-movement testing.
This would apply to cattle moved (directly or via a market) from herds in Great Britain on annual (or more frequent) surveillance testing to all herds in the Low Risk Area (LRA) of England.
It would not apply to cattle slaughtered within 120 days of arrival at the destination herd in the LRA, while other post-movement testing exemptions are proposed, including:
Defra said post-movement testing would enhance the sensitivity of TB surveillance by detecting additional infected cattle missed during pre-movement testing and before they cause further disease spread.
"It would also strengthen our case for securing OTF status for the LRA of England between 2018 and 2025, which we believe would bring economic and reputational benefits for the English cattle industry and government," Defra said.
The consultation also proposes a 'more robust approach for dealing with TB breakdowns in the High Risk Area (HRA)'.
This would see all new breakdowns in the HRA, regardless of post-mortem or laboratory culture results, required to get through two consecutive short interval herd tests, read under severe interpretation, before restrictions are lifted.
Any further tests would be read under standard interpretation provided that no post-mortem or laboratory evidence of TB is found. This is the policy that currently applies in the TB Edge Area.
In line with this tougher approach the terminology would be changed to end the distinction between 'OTFS' and 'OTFW' in a bid to 'counter the perception that lesion- and culture-negative breakdowns represent false positive test results'.
Other measures in the consultation include:
In a move designed to address some of the difficulties encountered in the first two years off licensed badger culling and to remove some of the barriers standing in the way of new areas, Defra is also consulting on proposed changes to the licence conditions.
Farming Minister George Eustice said: “England has the highest incidence of TB in Europe and that is why we are taking strong action to deliver our 25-year strategy to eradicate the disease and protect the future of our dairy and beef industries.
“This includes strengthening cattle testing and movement controls, vaccinating badgers in the buffer zone around high-risk areas, and culling badgers where the disease is rife.
“Our approach of dealing with the disease in cattle and wildlife has worked overseas and is supported by leading vets.”
Chief Vet Nigel Gibbens said: “Controlling bovine TB is vital for our beef and dairy industries. These proposals to further strengthen testing in the low risk areas will provide additional protection to farmers in those areas, helping them to stay disease free.
“Maintaining strong cattle disease control measures, combined with culling wildlife where the disease is most prevalent, will help us to achieve further disease reduction on farms suffering from TB in the high risk areas.”
Defra outlined steps taken so far under the Government’s long-term strategy to eradicate bovine TB.
These include the introduction of tougher movement controls, more frequent testing and is supporting badger vaccination schemes in the ’Edge area’.
Earlier this year, Defra published a new online tool mapping the location of bovine TB incidents over the last five years, allowing farmers to make informed decisions when buying livestock.
The Animal and Plant Health Agency has also released epidemiological reports, providing cattle keepers and vets with a detailed analysis of the disease situation in local areas.
Meurig Raymond, NFU President, said: “Badger culling is an essential part of the Government’s 25-year strategy in areas where bovine TB is rife.
"While we are pleased that culling has been extended beyond Somerset and Gloucestershire we are very disappointed that more areas will not benefit from it this year. This is much slower progress than we wanted to see.
“We know there are many areas where the disease is rife that would benefit from badger culling and where farmers are prepared to play their part in the fight against bovine TB. The Government has repeatedly given a clear commitment to tackling the disease in badgers as part of its 25-year strategy.
"We expect that commitment to tackle this disease to be backed up with further roll out of culling to other areas where bTB is endemic next year and in the coming years.
“As this policy is rolled out to more areas in the years to come it is crucial that the model is looked at to ensure it is as simple and effective as possible and less vulnerable to disruption. We hope that the consultation that has been launched today on the licensing criteria will begin the discussion about how this can be achieved.”
“The launch of the cattle movement control consultation today will be welcomed by farmers in these areas who have been frustrated by the lack of progress on this. We will consult fully with all our members about this before submitting our response."
CLA Director of Policy and Advice, Christopher Price said: “Controlling the badger population is a vital part of the Government’s comprehensive 25-year strategy for controlling bovine TB. We strongly support the decision to licence the culling of badgers in these three areas.
“Farmers in Somerset, Gloucestershire and Dorset are living through a nightmare and we must do all we can to support them and prevent the spread of this terrible disease.
“We will support all measures that are necessary to deliver the strategy, and will respond constructively to the important questions raised in the consultations published.”
John Blackwell, BVA President and cattle vet, said: “BVA has always argued that to control and eradicate bovine TB we need a comprehensive suite of measures that tackles all sources of infection.
"In particular we welcome any proposals to extend and strengthen the tools we use to tackle bovine TB, such as improved surveillance and further cattle controls to halt the spread of TB northwards and eastwards. We also support greater attention being given to how the disease is spreading into non-bovines, such as pigs, goats and deer.
“On changes to the criteria for future badger control we will need to fully consider the evidence base for reducing the minimum area for a licence, given that the current criteria build on the Randomised Badger Culling Trial."
Rock star and animal welfare campaigner Brian May confirmed his Save Me Trust will challenge the lawfulness of the decisions to issue the badger cull licences by a Judicial Review in the High Court.
He said:“We are all hugely disappointed that the Government has decided to continue its cull policy, despite Natural England's Scientific Advisor branding the badger cull 'an epic failure’. The government should quit now, and save the tax-payer more fruitless expense”.
"The badger cull has been a disaster and has cost British taxpayers over £5,000 per badger, worse still, it’s certain that most of the murdered badgers are perfectly healthy, and free of bovine TB, but since the government has refused to test any of the dead badgers in the pilot zones, this cannot be proved.”
Claire Bass, HSI/UK’s Executive Director, said: “Both science and experience clearly show that pilot culls in Somerset and Gloucester have been an unmitigated disaster, so rolling this failed policy out to another area in England defies belief.
"In addition to being cruel and ineffective at controlling bovine TB, these culls will cost farmers and tax-payers a fortune – more than £5,000 per badger, most of whom will be completely TB-free."
Dr Toni Shephard, Head of Policy and Research at the League Against Cruel Sports, said: “This is a death knell for more than 2000 more badgers, the overwhelming majority of which will not have bovine TB (bTB).
"It’s also a death knell for common sense, as all the current evidence heavily suggests that bTB is predominantly spread between cattle, not from badgers to cattle. This is a stubborn policy which will not help farmers, will cause unrest yet again in rural areas and will waste huge amounts of public money, for absolutely no good reason."