Culling badgers “can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain”, an independent group of scientists advising DEFRA has concluded.

The Independent Scientific Group on bovine tuberculosis has published its final report today (Monday, 18 June) after nearly 10 years of investigation in to the role badgers play in spreading the disease.

The report acknowledges that badgers do play a role in perpetuating the disease amongst cattle, but that a cull would have no worthy contribution and could make the situation worse.

For more articles and comment on bovine TB see our special report page at Bovine tuberculosis: FWi special report

For any cull to be effective it would need to be conducted over a very large area, such as the south west peninsula, require the complete eradication of badgers from that area and sustained for a number of years, said John Bourne, chairman of the ISG.

He added that it was made clear to the group by ministers at its inception nearly 10 years ago that any policy requiring the removal of badgers from large areas of land was totally unacceptable.

In its final report the group is also been critical of the current cattle policy and of DEFRA’s ability to implement a policy based on scientific findings and advocates DEFAR base future policy on tackling the disease spread between cattle with the introduction of a tougher suite of cattle controls.

“The objective of our work, outlined in this scientific report, has been to seek scientific truth and to provide clarity on the major issues that need to be considered for gaining control of cattle TB,” Prof Bourne said.

“We believe that in this Report Ministers now have sufficiently robust and extensive evidence to enable informed policy decisions to be made. They now have the sound science they require.”

“After nearly a decade of work we believe that we have fulfilled our original aims and are now able to provide a comprehensive appreciation of the overall problem.  Our findings will surprise some, and be unwelcome to others.”

He added: “Having shown that the main approach to cattle TB control should be rigorously targeted to cattle, we hope that the overwhelming scientific evidence we have provided to support this view, and the policy options we present, will enable the farming industry and government to work together in a constructive and cooperative manner to tackle this very serious disease of cattle which causes so much economic loss and hardship to cattle farmers”.

In a statement to the House of Commons on the ISG’s report DEFRA secretary David Miliband said:  “We know that the badger can play a role in maintaining disease in the areas where bovine TB is endemic.

“The Protection of Badgers Act 1992 allows the culling of badgers under licence for disease control purposes but, while the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) has been in progress, there has been a moratorium on issuing licences for culling of badgers for bovine TB. The ISG’s final report marks the end of the RBCT. We therefore need to decide next steps.

“The ISG’s report summarises the results of the RBCT. These show that small scale culling can increase levels of TB in cattle. The report also says that proactive culling as practiced in the RBCT can bring benefits but only if culling is sustained over a number of years and co-ordinated.

“The ISG are not convinced that it would be practical or economical to deliver a cull in this way, leading them to conclude that badger culling could not contribute meaningfully to the control of bovine TB in Great Britain.”

The report’s conclusions came as bitter disappointment to the NFU, but were warmly welcomed by the Badger Trust.

NFU president Peter Kendall said:  “I simply do not accept that the industry cannot devise a culling strategy that will reduce the reservoir of TB in badgers”, he said.

“Indeed, recent experience in Ireland, where a targeted badger culling strategy has reduced TB outbreaks in cattle by 42% in the last five years, confirms that culling can and does work, if it is carried out thoroughly and carefully.”  Mr Kendall has requested an urgent meeting with DEFRA ministers to discuss future policy.

Trevor Lawson for the Badger Trust said: “Killing badgers is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, doing far more harm than good.

“A less brutish approach to the small role played by badgers, such as electric fencing around farm buildings, might well yield greater benefits at a fraction of the cost.”