This week's note from Douglas Batchelor, Chief Executive
As predicted the government have issued a consultation document about bovine TB and badger control. In essence what the consultation proposes and seeks comment on is a policy of licensed badger killing in the hope that it could reduce the incidence of the disease.
Before going into some of the detail, it is worth looking at the crafty conflation of information that has gone into the whole bovine TB and badger debate.
Crafty conflation is a well known technique, often used in arguments and debates and frequently used by some politicians. First make a statement that is obviously true and secondly follow it up with a proposal seemingly linked to that first statement, which you are then supposed to accept because you accepted the first apparently true statement. For example, “you can’t spend more than you earn, nor can the country, and that is why we must cut government expenditure now.” What the government can and cannot spend is not at all the same thing as what an individual can and cannot finance in the way of spending. By their very nature governments have lots of choices, from printing more money all the way through to spending less or differently.
The proposals on bovine TB control and badgers are being similarly conflated. First the statement that bovine TB is a problem in the cattle industry that costs both government and farmers significant sums of money; undoubtedly true. Second a statement that badgers can suffer from bovine TB; also clearly true. Third, the observation that badgers with bovine TB can excrete infectious material which can infect cattle; also undoubtedly true, but then comes the conflation: ‘that’s why badger control by culling has a part to play in reducing the incidence of bovine TB in cattle’. That is much disputed and by no means proven.
The big problem facing those who want to kill badgers is that the results of earlier trials show that there is a very real risk that in adopting a killing policy they can actually make matters worse rather than better. When badger families are disrupted by killing and territories are vacated by killing, badgers start moving about. Some seek to move out of the areas where family hierarchies have been disrupted and others seek to move into the newly vacated territories. Scientists call this the perturbation effect.
If as a result of the perturbation, infected and uninfected badgers move from one territory to another and come into contact with infected cattle and or badgers, there is a risk that the disease will spread to new areas. The previous trials measured the effect and found that it was significant and that is why they said that culling could only work where the culling areas had clear natural boundaries to badger movement, such as major waterways or conurbations. Less well publicised was their other finding that badger culling led to a very significant increase in the local fox population, who also similarly move into vacated badger territories.
All of the above leaves the government and the farmers with a problem. Issuing culling licenses would only be defensible in law if they could reasonably conclude that it would achieve the clearly desired objective. And that is why they have already opted for land areas that have to be of a sufficient size (150 square kilometres), with clear boundaries (major natural barriers), and that have to have a sufficient number of participating farmers (over 70%) and where there is a minimum four year contractual commitment to a program of badger culling. That is why they have also had to make provision for issuing badger vaccination licenses around the culling areas, so that the badger killers don’t as a result of their actions make matters far worse for their near neighbours. Finally it is proposed that participating farmers pay the costs of culling, disposal and vaccination.
Once the industry realises what is actually being proposed, farmers are going to be up in arms. Farmers in the areas around a proposed cull are going to have to decide whether to apply for individual holding vaccination licenses and incur the costs of trapping and vaccinating in order to protect their cattle. The farmers inside the licensed cull area who are not going to allow a cull on their land are going to have to decide whether to vaccinate any badgers on their land and to whether to pay those costs or to run the risks associated with their cattle getting TB as a result of their neighbours’ culling actions. The people applying for licenses are going to have to decide whether or not they will pay for the vaccination costs on the surrounding areas and or the non participating farms in the culling areas to prevent objections.
Once people realise what costs and risks their neighbours’ actions could put on them, either through a bovine TB outbreak, or through having to vaccinate the badgers on their land as a protection I can see long queues of “farmer objectors” heading for the Defra offices and an almighty bust up in the NFU over what the policy should really be. Meanwhile, would be fox hunters will be cheering on the cullers who will be doing a great job of increasing the local fox population. What the shoots, shepherds and gamekeepers will say has yet to be seen.
As far as the wider public are concerned, the big issue is whether or not there is any justifiable economic or welfare rationale for a cull, particularly given the fact that badgers can be vaccinated against bovine TB. The economic modelling is full of ifs and buts and the cost benefits of culling badgers are highly questionable and depend on the willingness of those around the licensed culling areas to vaccinate the badgers on their land to offset the cost to government and industry of the perturbation effect.
The question that the Defra consultation ducks completely is, why not adopt a program of badger vaccination in TB hotspot areas, without culling? Vaccination does not work on already infected badgers, but over time those infected badgers will naturally die out and those vaccinated would pose no risk to cattle or for that matter to other wildlife. There would be no risk of side effects by way of perturbation and there would be no public outcry over the culling of wild, healthy badgers.
Given the current financial climate and the annual cost to the government and the industry of bovine TB (£63 million to the government and £30 million to the industry), it would have been wise to look at the economics of an industry and government funded £100 million program of investment in wild animal welfare by way of a bovine TB vaccination program for badgers in TB hot spots.
Sadly, instead looking to improve wild animal welfare, the badgers are being lined up as the victims of the current policy proposals. Management by death and culling is neither the best or the only answer to the bovine TB problem. Government and industry could choose to invest in the health and welfare of the nation’s wildlife and at the same time by the evidence of their own arguments for the cull, do much to improve the health and welfare of the farmed animals. Long term costs to government and industry could go down, welfare of wild and farmed animals could be improved.
The consultation sounds like a good opportunity to make good progress! Tell them what you think via their website.