The badger cull - fighting from within
In old films, you often see scenes where a train full of people is hurtling towards a cliff or a broken track. In some cases, the heroes are able to slam on the brakes and avoid the train wreck. In other cases, the best they can do is get as many people off the train alive as possible.
That seems an apt analogy for my time working for Natural England when the badger cull was initially rolled out. I wanted to stop it, and I tried to stop it – but I was a civil servant, not a government minister, and I didn’t have the power. When I knew I couldn’t stop it, I did what I could to save as many lives as possible, and I’m confident that I did that.
Now I no longer work for the government, I have focused on helping animals as much as I can, including joining my local badger group and becoming a trustee for the League Against Cruel Sports, an organisation with a proud history of defending badgers from persecution. With my inside knowledge and experience of the way the government works I believe I can help the League do even more to protect the animals we all care about.
By the time I retired in 2015, I had worked in the public sector for nearly 40 years, for organisations as diverse as the Metropolitan Police, the Welsh Office, the Audit Commission, the Countryside Agency and Natural England (NE).
There were many career highlights over those years (as well as, of course, some lowlights) but the things I am most proud of came during my tenure (between 2006 and 2015) as Executive Director of Science & Evidence with Natural England. I was instrumental in securing the extension of the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales National Parks. I led the creation of our network of Marine Conservation Zones. I was responsible for the designation of more than 40 Sites of Special Scientific Interest. And, best of all, in the last meeting of my working life, I was able to persuade NE's Board to support the licensing of the reintroduction of beavers in England, after a gap of more than 400 years.
Of course, there were less inspiring moments, none more so than dealing with a government determined to impose badger culling across England. My role at this time included leadership of NE's regulatory services, which, among other things, were responsible for wildlife licensing. Our job was to provide advice to Ministers and, whether or not that advice was followed, to implement their decisions. In doing this I had to struggle with a real clash between the policy I was being asked to implement and my values and views.
In resolving this dilemma, I took the view that I could do more good for wildlife by arguing the case against the policy from within than by leaving and raging against it from the outside. My team and I spent many long hours trying to get Ministers and officials to pay attention to the evidence on culling drawn from the Randomised Badger Culling Trials (RBCT) at the beginning of the century. In broad terms, the RBCT concluded that culling badgers would have no significant impact on eradicating bTB. In shorthand, culling doesn't work. So as well as being unethical it is also ineffective.
There is no doubt that badgers carry TB; but so do a host of other animals including dogs, cats, deer and rats. The question is not whether they carry the disease – it’s whether they are spreading it to cattle.
Most people don’t realise that bTB can live in soil for up to 12 months. If an animal that has bTB excretes, for example, then the disease will remain in the soil. As badgers live primarily on earthworms, they can then catch bTB because it’s in the ground. However, there’s a much bigger danger - cattle. If a cow is carrying bTB and excretes in a field, the disease is in their poo and in the ground – for a year. And what do farmers do with ‘muck’? They pick it up and spread it across their land – thus spreading the disease into new areas. So even if a whole herd of cattle is slaughtered to try and stop a bTB outbreak, if new cattle are then brought onto that land within 12 months, there’s a good chance that those new cattle will then pick up the disease that’s lurking in the soil. The cycle continues – with badgers nothing to do with it.
Most recently, there is some evidence, from France, that foxes may also be carriers. This is hardly surprising, given that a big constituent of the fox's diet is the earthworm, as it is for badgers and hedgehogs. The survival of bTB in the soil provides the missing link - from cattle to soil to earthworms to other mammals.
This is why the best way to deal with bTB is to restrict cattle movements, improve biosecurity and introduce effective cattle vaccination so they are immune to the disease – and thus can’t spread it.
Back in 2008, the Labour government asked for advice regarding bTB and at Natural England we gave our advice – culling doesn’t work. We said they should focus instead on developing vaccines. The Labour government didn’t cull badgers.
Then in 2010, the government changed hands to a coalition government. The Conservatives had a manifesto pledge to cull badgers. Over the next couple of years we worked with them and submitted our advice that a cull would not be effective in eradicating bTB. Eventually, Owen Paterson took over as Environment Secretary, our advice was ignored and it was decided to go ahead with the cull. We did our best - in fact, I was central to the only occasion that Natural England has even given formal statutory advice to the government – don’t cull. But we were ignored.
So, to return to my analogy, we now knew that the train was going off the side of the cliff. We now needed to save as many lives as possible.
It was at this point that I made the first of two decisions which were – and still are – controversial. But I stand by them. When we knew the cull was going ahead, there was a debate at NE – should we be the ones to license the cull operation? Our Board wasn’t keen, and we knew Owen Paterson didn’t like us. But because of my own passion for animals and understanding of the issues, I felt that if NE didn’t oversee the culls, then someone else would – and I believed they wouldn’t have the interests of the badgers at heart as we did. So NE took on the licensing role.
We did win some victories. Most significant among these was securing a limited pilot of the methodology to be followed and ensuring that this was, on most counts, close to that recommended by RBCT. Without this intervention, I believe there would have been no ‘pilot’ to test things out, they would have just got on with a much broader role out, with dire consequences. Many more badgers would now be dead.
We ensured that there would be a licensing regime, which could provide some measure of control over the culling operation. We prevented the use of a range of firearms, meaning that the cull was a little more humane than it would otherwise be. We helped secure the establishment of an independent panel to assess the efficacy, safety and humaneness of the culling operation. None of this would have happened it if hadn’t been for our work at Natural England.
During this time, Owen Paterson said that ‘free’ shooting of badgers would be allowed. This means that badgers feeding at feeding stations could be shot, rather than caged badgers only, which was done during the RBCT. I went on the BBC saying that there was no evidence to back free shooting as a humane method, as there was too much potential for both the wounding (and suffering) of badgers, as well as the risk of perturbation. The NFU called for me to be sacked.
The first cull was due to take place in Autumn 2012, but we insisted on a proper survey in the pilot areas, to support the setting of targets. The basis of the cull was that it could only potentially have an impact if a certain percentage of badgers in each area was killed. But we pointed out that no-one really knew how many badgers were in each area – therefore how could they kill a certain percentage of an unknown number? The cull was delayed and we helped to prevent culling taking place at all in 2012. Many more animals are alive today than would be if we had not stuck to the task.
Of course, in the end, culling began in 2013. At the end of this year, I was involved in another key decision, one which I know people don’t understand. Here’s what happened. The cull took place, but by the end of the allocated period, the number of badgers killed in the two cull zones was much lower than the targets. The government wanted to extend the time of the cull and keep shooting. At NE we were discussing whether we should say ‘no’.
We could have said no. It’s been reported in the media that some of our board members wanted to say no. But I took the decision to say ‘yes’.
For these reasons:
Firstly, if we had said no, I firmly believe that the government would have taken the role of licensing authority away from NE. It would have been given to another organisation who were very likely to be pro-cull. The badgers would have had far less protection if we’d lost control.
My thinking on this had basis – as mentioned previously, I had encouraged the government to set up an Independent Panel to monitor the cull. Their report said that the cull wasn’t efficient and wasn’t humane (primarily because of the free shooting). The Panel was abolished.
I also knew that if the cull was extended for longer, the number of badgers being shot would be low – by now it was November and they’d be harder to find. This turned out to be true. Very few badgers were shot in the extension period I therefore went for the lesser of two evils.
My predictions have been born out. Culling hasn't worked. bTB is still rife in the UK cattle herd and thousands of badgers have died in pursuit of this wrong-headed experiment. As the cull has been rolled out, it has steadily moved further away from the RBCT methodology. In 2018, the Government has said it will start reactive culling in low risk areas of the country. This flies in the face of all the available evidence.
The cull is ineffective. It is immoral. It is wrong.
So, do I regret my involvement in the early stages of this obnoxious policy? My firm belief is that without my engagement and that of others in Natural England, the policy would have been rolled out more quickly and with even less regard being paid to the evidence. More badgers would have died. There would have been no pilots and culling would have begun over much bigger parts of the country much sooner. The Government may even have resorted to gassing badgers. I am glad that I did what I could to prevent this.
Since leaving Natural England I offered support and advice to Brian May in his legal challenge to the policy in 2015. The challenge didn’t work, but we must not stop in our bid to halt this hideous slaughter of a beautiful, British animal.
As a trustee of the League, I understand that my part in this cull will be examined, and rightly so. So many people are out there protecting badgers in every way they can, not least joining wounded badger patrols nightly during the cull. Their passion for these animals is huge, and they are right to wonder if someone who was involved in the cull is a good ally. I assure you that working from ‘within’ was no easy task but I did what I could.
I am now free to point out the flaws in this cull, I have and I will continue to do so.
I am proud to be working for animals.