The initial findings from the two pilot badger culls have, predictably, generated more questions than answers.
Opponents of the policy are already claiming the pilots have proved the it is neither practical nor effective, pointing to the low numbers shot in Gloucestershire, the apparent uncertainty over badger numbers and the costs involved so far.
But Defra Secretary Owen Paterson is remaining defiant, hailing the successes of the pilots and describing the parts that have gone less well as lessons to shape future policy. He appears as determined as ever to extend the policy to new areas next year, suggesting it is more a matter of ‘how’ than ‘if’.
Defra Chief Veterinary Officer Nigel Gibbens said he remained convinced that badger culling, when done effectively, can be beneficial in reducing cattle disease.
But he said: “We will have lessons to learn about how culling can be done effectively and before rolling it out any further we will have to think with the industry about how that should be done to get the best benefits. I think there is real need to take stock of what we have learned.
“It is a whole range of things, including how you go about it, where do you start, what’s the appropriate mix between cage trapping and shooting and what we have learned about the protestor activity because, you can’t deny it, it’s there.”
The pilots in areas defined as West Gloucestershire and West Somerset were established to test the safety, humanness and efficacy of controlled shooting by trained marksmen as a method of culling badgers.
The six-week pilots, covering areas in excess of 300sq.km, were monitored by an independent group of experts, who will compile a report for Ministers on how culling measured up in these three areas. Mr Paterson will then make a decision on whether to roll the policy out to up to new areas in 2014 later this year, or early next year.
With the six weeks up in both areas, Defra has released basic information available so far. It is not all bad.
Mr Paterson and Defra officials said there were no issues in either pilot with safety or humaneness, with the exception of one badger that returned to its sett after being shot in Somerset. He deemed the pilots a success against these criteria.
The question of effectiveness is much more open to interpretation. Under the licence conditions, the companies organising the cull are required to remove at least 70 per cent of badgers from the pilot areas to maximise the disease benefits for cattle.
Somerset has been granted a three-week extension by licensing body Natural England, while Gloucestershire has applied for an eight-week extension, which, if granted, seems certain to be challenged in the courts by the Badger Trust.
It is not, of course, quite that simple. The original licences specified targets of more than 2,000 badgers to be culled in Somerset, based on a population estimate of 2,400 from a survey in 2012.
In Gloucestershire, the original target was in excess of 2,800 badgers, based on a population estimate of 3,400.
So when Defra announced the much lower population estimates, based on fresh surveys taken just before the pilots began this year, Mr Paterson was immediately accused of ‘moving the goalposts’, prompting his now legendary remark that it was the badgers that moved the goalposts, not him.
Mr Gibbens admitted Defra was ‘surprised’ by the massively lower population estimates, which he insisted have been ‘crawled over by experts’, including Defra’s Chief Scientist Ian Boyd, to vouch for their robustness.
The estimates were based on a technique known as hair trapping to estimate how many badgers per set and a survey of sett numbers.
Mr Gibbens said: “It looks like moving the goalposts to suit us. But there is pretty good evidence populations went down a lot between one year and the next. When the expert group report they will say what they have to say about it but we have looked very hard to make sure those estimates are well-founded. What we really had got was a lower population.”
The fall in badger numbers has been attributed by Mr Paterson and Defra to a combination of poor weather affecting breeding and disease.
But badger expert, Rosie Woodroffe, from the Zoological Society of London, does not believe such a profound drop of in numbers is credible.
“You do not see 40 per cent drop in badger numbers due to weather conditions. It has never been seen at Woodchester Park or Wytham (where badgers are monitored by researchers),” she said.
The only plausible explanations, she said, were either ‘mass illegal culling by farmers’, which she said there was no evidence to suggest was taking place, or that one or both of the surveys was seriously out.
She suggested interference by protestors with the hair trapping process, which involved cage trapping badgers, could have skewed the figures.
The pilots will continue for four years. Mr Gibbens is adamant that even though Gloucestershire has clearly has not met its targets, both pilots must go on in order to maximise disease benefits in cattle.
“You can’t do one year of culling, then walk away. We have to see it through to the end, which means four years of culling over a big enough area efficiently enough to achieve disease benefits,” he said.
Despite the low cull figure, he says it is still ‘entirely feasible’ the Gloucestershire cull could deliver these disease benefits. He pointed out that three of the original 10 Randomised Badger Cull Trial (RBCT) areas achieved similar low numbers in the first year but ultimately ‘caught up’ and produced benefits.
“This doesn’t stand and fall on the first year. It is a four-year cull. The benefits cut in after three years and are maintained for at least another six,” he said.
But Prof Woodroffe said the pilots had shown it was ‘quite clear this is not an effective way to deliver a rapid cull of the type expected to deliver the benefits of the RBCT’.
She said the 30 per cent figure was ‘in the ballpark where we would expect there to be increased TB in cattle where badgers have been culled’, as shown in the reactive element of the RBCT.
In Somerset, however, Mr Gibbens’s advice is clear that the 59 per cent reduction achieved so far, allied with the extra badgers taken out in the extended cull period ‘will deliver clear disease benefits as part of a 4-year cull’.
Prof Woodroffe, a firm advocate of vaccination over culling, stressed that 59 per cent was ‘well short’ of the target and ‘can’t be called a success’. But even she acknowledged that, if the population estimates are to be believed and culling is more effective next year, ‘Somerset might, on balance, have modest overall benefits’ in disease levels.
Among the key lessons learned as far as the future of the pilots and possible wider roll out is concerned is that culling ‘may need to be longer than six weeks in future, enabling teams to adapt their approaches to suit local circumstances’, Mr Paterson said this week.
Mr Gibbens said there was ‘not much evidence to go on’ when it came to specifying the length of the cull period, beyond advice from the RBCT that culling was more effective if done quickly. However, he pointed out that the 100sq.km RBCT were much smaller than those covered by the pilots and it had become clear more time was need in these larger areas.
Mr Gibbens has advised that the period of culling ‘this year should be extended to achieve the earliest and greatest possible impact on bTB in Gloucestershire’. Previously, ahead of Natural England’s decision to to extend the Somerset licence, he advised that ‘further increasing the number of badgers culled’ in Somerset would improve the benefits already gained from culling there and ‘enable them to accrue earlier.
He said his view remained that the benefits of further lowering badger populations outweighed the potential negative impact of infected badgers roaming more widely as a result of culling.
He said: “In Gloucestershire we did not drop the population to the ambitious target we set in the timescale we set, so my advice is that the bigger gain is to reduce the badger population to stop the spread to cattle regardless of whether the longer period gives you marginal increases in TB due to perturbation.”
He also suggested it could be beneficial for culling to begin earlier in future years to allow as much time as possible to reduce badger populations, as well as permitting longer culling periods.
But Prof Woodroffe, who was involved with the RBCT, insisted there was clear evidence that ‘on average the longer culling went on, the greater the increase in TB in badgers’, as badger populations are geographically disturbed. She said culling needed to be done simultaneously and quickly to avoid the perturbation effect.
The RBCT culls were meant to take place over 12 days but when they took place over 120 days ‘TB levels increased by a factor of 1.7’, Prof Woodroffe said.
She said the two pilots should therefore not be extended this year.
“If it is not possible, with the resources and staff available, to cull such a big area so quickly, then these culls aren’t going to deliver benefits of the scale of the RBCT but will have detrimental effects on badgers and will undermine the benefits for cattle,” she said.
“They should take the opportunity to reassess, look at what they have learned about how to do it better next year, if they choose to continue,” she said.
The disruption caused by protestors in Gloucestershire in particular has exceeded expectations and appears to be partly responsible for the low number of badgers removed in that pilot.
Mr Paterson paid tribute to the local farmers and landowners undertaking the cull, often in the face of intimidation by a small minority who are determined to stop this disease control policy’.
Mr Gibbens said coping with protestors ‘is something we will have to consider’ in future culling policies. “We have got protestors coming in from different areas, they are not localThe protestors had a different impact depending on where you are. We will consider all of these things in the round,” he said.
The original intention was that controlled shooting would be the primary control method deployed in the pilot culls. With farmers bearing the cost, it was considered the most affordable option.
But as the pilots have gone, more caged trapping was deployed, as controlled shooting proved difficult in some areas due to a combination of difficult terrain, weather and the presence of protestors.
Mr Gibbens said: “We gave the companies a licence and said they could cage trap and shoot. Cage trapping to get badger numbers down is the right thing to do. This will be rolled up in the final assessment at the end of the day.”
Longer-term, Defra is in the early stages of researching whether gassing could be an option. Mr Gibbens said previous research had failed to find a humane method that would ‘consistently kill setts of badgers’. The big challenges to overcome were finding the right gas and ensuring gas penetrates throughout a sett, he said.
“The research we are kicking off now will look at both of those things – how you deliver what sort of gasses and how you get them through a sett. But we are not even past the experimental proof of principle yet,” he said.
There are no official cost figures available. But the extra use of cage trapping and apparent higher police costs in Gloucestershire – around £1m, double the original estimate, according to the county’s police commissioner – allied with lower-than-expected cull numbers potentially shifts the cost-benefit relationship.
Mr Gibbens said: “Our assessment will take into account the cost to farmers and the cost to Government. Farmers made a reasonable argument they could do it at lower cost. We will see what the upshot is.”
Prof Woodroffe, along other proponents of vaccination, claim when policing costs are taken into account, vaccination - estimated at £670 per badger in the Welsh vaccination project - becomes the more affordable option.
However, NFU vice president Adam Quinney said it was unfair to include the whole cost of policing protestors intent on disrupting the policy through illegal activities in any cost-benefit analysis. That, he said, was as much a civil issue as a judgement on the feasibility of culling badgers.
The final decision about whether badger culling is extended to new areas next year will depend on the findings of the independent monitoring group and, then Mr Paterson’s decision.
He has no intention of taking a step back now, despite the difficulties encountered in the pilots and the mounting calls for the policy to be scrapped.
So the focus – at least for as long as Owen Paterson remains in charge at Defra - will be on how to make the policy more effective in reducing badger numbers by taking on board what went right and wrong in the pilots.
For example, Defra is unlikely to make the same mistake of announcing one set of targets before the cull started and then revealing they had been significantly revised down once the cull had finished - a PR blunder that made an already politically-fraught policy appear more chaotic than it needed to.
The length of time permitted and methods used for culling and the threat posed by protestors will also be under close consideration.
But the future of the policy in England will not just depend on what Mr Paterson decides. To roll it out to new areas requires enough farmers in each one to invest in it financially and emotionally in the belief it will help keep them free if the devastating of bTB in their herds. In other words, it will need to be practical and affordable, as well as effective.
Mr Gibbens said: I am absolutely convinced that culling done effectively can be beneficial. But we will wait to see what the independent panel has got to say. We need to see what happens in those extensions and learn the lessons about the practicalities.
“But if we are going to reverse the TB epidemic we have got to push at all the disease transmission routes and badgers to cattle is one of them.”