science journalist predicts U-turn on badger cull

Posted on October 19, 2012


Today (19th October), a long item was posted on titled ‘The great badger cull is dead in the water’, written by science journalist Michael Hanlon.

‘… Here’s a modest prediction. I am prepared to be proved wrong, but the tealeaves are definitely pointing my way for now. The proposed cull of badgers to curb the spread of bovine tuberculosis will not go ahead and the government is preparing for a colossal u-turn …

On 19 July last year, the then environment secretary, Caroline Spelman, announced that a series of trial culls would go ahead. This was, famously, seen as a ‘great day to bury bad news about badgers’ as it coincided with the grilling of Rupert Murdoch by MPs after the phone hacking scandal.

Since then, the arguments for, and against, badger culling have raged. My initial sympathies were with the farmers who almost universally support a cull. I strongly suspected that sympathy for poor old Brock may have had more to do with sentimentality than anything else. I knew that there is no doubt that bovine TB is a terrible disease and that it is on the increase – in 1996 there were 7500 reported cases and in 2010 30,000. I knew that there is no doubt that the bacterium Mycobacterium bovis can be spread from badger to cattle and that this is indeed happening. And I was fully aware that there is no doubt that if badgers in the UK ceased to exist the problem would be much reduced.

But since then I have changed my mind and so will, I believe, those who will finally decide whether the cull really will go ahead. What has convinced me is not the celebrity endorsement of the badger case by the Queen guitarist Brian May and others but by the science.

Five years ago a £50m experiment called the Randomised Badger Culling Trial was carried out. This was designed to find out once and for all whether killing badgers works. The findings were unexpected. Kill enough badgers and you reduce cattle TB incidence by about a quarter in the cull zones. Good news. But sadly badgers are not automata but twitchy and intelligent animals. Infected survivors were found to flee into neighbouring non-cull zones, causing an increase in TB infection by almost exactly the same amount as that original quarterfold reduction – a phenomenon called perturbation. The conclusion: culling is an expensive waste of time, quite regardless of the animal welfare issues …

The trouble is, it is now quite hard to find a scientist who agrees with this view. Last week, a panel of experts gave evidence to the media concerning the latest calculations. This was not a cherry-picked pro- or anti-cull panel, but represented a range of opinions.

Several things are clear. We do not know how any badgers you need to kill because no one has any real idea of how many badgers there are out there. The conditions of the cull are that 70% of the population is destroyed, but 70% of what? Then there is the awkward fact that the TB ‘epidemic’ may be at least in part a statistical artefact.

Dr Rowland Kao, a leading expert in the statistics of animal epidemics, points out that much of the alleged increase in cattle TB is down to a far more rigorous testing regime. Go looking for an infection more frequently and you will find more sick animals. Cows and bulls are moved around more than they were. “places with ‘new’ TB had an epidemic long before we thought they did,” he says.

The exact mechanism for badger-cattle transmission is poorly understood, and the way TB spreads through the badger population itself even more so. For a common indigenous species badgers are suprisingly mysterious animals. The ‘hard boundary’ idea is untested. Culling will reduce cattle TB a bit, everyone agrees, but not by much (even 16% may be optimistic) and it will cost a lot of money. Vaccination is probably a much better bet.

According to economist Professor John McInerney of Exeter University, it will cost £1.55m over four years to cull badgers in the proposed 150km2 area, but only a saving of £970,000 in reduced compensation from the taxpayer that would otherwise be paid to farmers of infected cattle. “Badger culling is not worthwhile in strict economic terms. Overall this is not a good deal for the taxpayer.”

The mood against the cull is hardening. Last week 32 scientists, including some of the world’s leading animal disease experts, wrote to the Observer denouncing the plans for a ‘mindless’ badger cull. These are not floppy haired sentimentalists but hard-nosed rationalists including Lord John Krebs, the architect of the original RBCT, past and present chief scientists, and Presidents of the Royal Society.

It is now hard to find a minister or scientist who both supports a cull and who will state unequivocally that it will happen, on the record. Time is running out – a in a few weeks the weather will turn, badgers will, like the pro-cullers this week, run to ground and the matter will become purely academic until the spring …

It would doubtless be unfair to assume that grubby political calculations such as these may have played a part in the decision to go ahead with the cull, but nevertheless it is tempting to conclude that we have here a classic case of policy-based evidence of the worst kind. My prediction is that despite all this they will back down and Brock is safe, at least for another winter and that the night-time peace of Gloucestershire and Somerset will not, after all, be disturbed by the peal of gunfire …’

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