Comment: The horrible truth about the badger cull
By Dominic Dyer
And so the results are in. At least, the ones we can actually get hold of.
Statistics, costs and opinions have been calculated about Defra's badger culls from last year. An independent expert panel will be meeting (or already have) to look at the aims of the policy, and whether they were met. Then environment minister Owen Paterson will decide whether or not to roll out the cull to other parts of the country.
Whether or not he'll take notice of those statistics, costs and opinions is another matter. But for the record, here's Care for the Wild's report on the badger cull.
To start with, Defra did all it could to blame badgers as being the prime cause of TB in cattle. In fact the vast majority of TB infections are between cattle, which are often housed in large numbers in sheds and moved around the country (over 13 million a year) with poor biosecurity, control movements and TB testing regimes.
In reality the poor badger has been the victim of industrial pollution on a huge scale from the most intensive livestock industry in Europe. It's the cattle which have infected the badgers with TB and despite claims from Owen Paterson that the transmission rate from badgers to cattle is 50% (a figure based on a mathematical model), the true level of TB transmission is likely to be far lower. And again, if cattle had been managed properly, the few badgers with the disease wouldn't have got sick in the first place.
We are then told by Defra that bovine TB is the biggest crisis facing the UK farming industry and unless we kill badgers it will end up costing the tax payer over £1billion over the next decade. In reality the level of compensation paid to farmers for cattle prematurely slaughtered due to TB runs to around £30 million a year, over £10 million of which is recovered by the Treasury as a result of the sale of TB meat into the food chain, without labelling or traceability.
Further, over the last year these costs have started to decline as the number of cattle slaughtered for TB has dropped by almost ten per cent – a result of tighter biosecurity, controlled movements and TB testing systems forced on the UK government by the European Commission.
Owen Paterson has also made it a key goal to demonise badgers by spreading false fears over the level of TB within the badger population. He regularly talking in the media of 'super excreters' exploding with disease and infecting cattle at a rapid rate. In reality, of over 11,000 badgers killed in the randomised badger cull trial by the last Labour government, only 1.5% had extensive, severe signs of disease.
This was the key reason why Defra would not test any of the badgers killed during the pilot culls for TB, as they knew the results would show a very low level of disease. In Wales where over 1,100 badgers were vaccinated against TB in 2013, none were removed because they were visibly sick with the disease despite being in a TB hotspot.
And then last month – oops – Defra announced that they had 'significantly overstated' the number of farms with TB over the last couple of years. The very ground on which the cull was built has crumbled from beneath it.
Then we come to the cost justification for culling over vaccination. In the run up to the badger culls in 2013, Owen Paterson did all he could to undermine the Welsh government’s badger vaccination programme on both cost and effectiveness grounds. He claimed that free shooting of badgers at night would be the most effective and humane way of removing large numbers of badgers at a much lower cost than trapping and vaccination.
In terms of effectiveness, we have now learned from Freedom of Information requests that in the initial six weeks of the pilot culls, only 24% of the estimated badger population in Gloucestershire and Somerset were killed by free shooting. The vast majority of badgers killed in both pilot culls were by government employed trap teams, with higher costs than the Welsh government vaccination programme.
And here's a shameful example of the government's tactics: when we revealed the 24% figure, Defra accused us of using 'misleading maths'. They claimed that it is more relevant to look at how many of the badgers culled were killed by either free-shooting or trapping.
This may have sounded reasonable in the media, except for one thing: the key stated aim of the culls was to "attempt to remove 70% of the badger population by controlled shooting". This was Defra's aim. And as we revealed, they didn't manage 70%, they managed 24%. In what world other than Defra's is this possibly misleading?
This brings us to the key issue of the overall costs of the pilot culls and a national rollout programme for badger culling. Since the end of the pilot culls, Owen Paterson has been desperately trying to keep the true cost from MPs the media and wider public.
This is understandable when you start to look at the astonishing figures which have emerged in the last few weeks. On 6th January Care for Wild released a report based on Freedom of Information requests, parliamentary questions and leaked documents, which estimated an overall cost for the pilot culls of £7.3 million, or over £4,000 per dead badger. In the days that followed, these estimates were backed up by the BBC and the police, who confirmed their costs for the badger cull pilot exceeded £2.5 million alone.
Any justification that was left for the disastrous badger cull was blown apart by these huge costs. It is now a fair assessment that a four year badger cull in Gloucester and Somerset would cost in the region of £20 million, but would only deliver around £2.5 million benefit to the tax payer in terms of reducing the spread of bovine TB. If, as Owen Paterson boasted to the Sunday Times in 2013, badger culling was rolled out to 40 new areas of England over the next 4 years, the overall cost could exceed £800 million.
David Cameron’s gamble to appoint Owen Paterson as environment secretary to deliver the badger cull has blown up in his face. Tory MPs no longer have confidence in the policy or the minister delivering it. What was a vote winner for the Tories in 2010 is now turning into political poison.
It's now widely anticipated that the independent expert panel reviewing the badger cull pilots will deliver a report which is very critical of the policy on cost and effectiveness grounds. This offers David Cameron the chance of a much needed U-turn on badger culling ahead of the next general election.
Maybe it's time he booked that Eurostar ticket and sent Owen Paterson to Brussels as our next European commissioner. He could then appoint a new Defra secretary of state who listens to public concerns on protecting wildlife, puts science – not politics – back at the heart of Defra policy-making and finds a new way forward in tackling bovine TB, which protects both the future of our wildlife and farming industry.
Dominic Dyer is policy advisor at Care for the Wild.
The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.