A survey suggests that about one in 10 Welsh livestock farmers has illegally killed badgers over the past year.
Researchers at Bangor University said about 10% of Wales’ 14,000 farmers had killed badgers in the 12 months preceding the study. For cattle farmers, the figure is higher at 14.5%.
The study also suggested that 6.7% of sheep farmers surveyed reported killing badgers, which the researchers branded “intriguing”.
“It may suggest a background level of badger-killing for sport, or that farmers have a collective sense of responsibility to control badgers, particularly in regions where sheep and cattle farms share boundaries,” they said.
The data was gathered from interviews with 428 farmers at five major agricultural shows and 12 farmers markets in Wales between June and September 2011.
A method known as randomised response technique (RRT) was used to compile the study, which uses a dice to allow respondents protection for answering sensitive questions truthfully. However, there is a margin of error of about 5%.
The full report was published in the peer-reviewed journal website, PLOS ONE on Thursday (17 January).
Paul Cross, from Bangor University’s school of environment, natural resources and geography, said policymakers should consider the results of the study in the wider debate on bovine tuberculosis.
“Intensive badger culling is one approach being considered by policy makers, in an attempt to control the spread of tuberculosis in cattle,” said Dr Cross.
“The only reliable data we have on the illegal killing of badgers comes from post-mortems carried out by vets on around 600 badgers, which showed that 98.5% had died naturally or from collisions with cars.”
Nick Fenwick, Farmers Union of Wales
“However, studies investigating the effects of badger culling on TB outbreaks in cattle have not factored in the prevalence of illegal badger killing, and its potential to spread disease.”
The debate over the effectiveness of culling badgers, a known reservoir of bovine tuberculosis, is intensifying among farmers, scientists and wildlife groups.
A badger vaccination programme is under way in Pembrokeshire after the Welsh government abandoned plans to cull badgers. However, DEFRA secretary Owen Paterson is determined to introduce a pilot badger cull in England this summer.
Nick Fenwick, Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW) director of policy, said the union “simply did not accept” the figures.
“The only reliable data we have on the illegal killing of badgers comes from post-mortems carried out by vets on around 600 badgers, which showed that 98.5% had died naturally or from collisions with cars,” Dr Fenwick explained.
“Only 1.5% showed suspicious injuries, and none of these were linked to farmers.
“That figure is based upon a solid scientific result gained by actually studying dead badgers and what killed them, whereas the figures published by Bangor University and others are based upon getting a bunch of people to roll dice and change their answers based on the number the dice comes up with.”
Dr Fenwick said the vast majority of farmers were “law-abiding” citizens. “About 20% of the UK badger population is killed each year by traffic, so if anything can be blamed for spreading TB by causing disturbance to social groups it is our traffic,” he added.
Responding to the survey, a Welsh government spokesman said: “There is no quick fix to tackling this disease.
“It demands a sustainable and long term approach and the application of a comprehensive range of measures including strict biosecurity, cattle testing and movement controls.
“Last year we vaccinated more than 1,400 badgers against TB and will resume vaccination later this year.
“Badgers are protected animals in the UK and the issue of illegally killing them is therefore a matter for the police.”