Badger results may take until 2004
By Trevor Lawson
SCIENTISTS overseeing the governments controversial badger culling experiment have admitted to MPs that it could longer than expected.
Under pressure from Agriculture Select Committee, the Independent Scientific Group (ISG) said on Wednesday (15 November) it could be 2004 before they had useful results.
The meeting was the first major review of the experiment since the May 1999 when the trial that will determine whether badger culling reduces bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in cattle was already running two years late.
Professor John Bourne, chair of the ISG, said he was confident that the first stage of culling in all 10 areas of the trial would be complete by the end of 2001
“It might be as early as 2002 that we have some useful results”. However, he added, “Its more likely to be 2004.”
The reason for the uncertainty is that the scientists must have enough data to make reliable statistical assessments.
But revelations from Oxford-based scientist Dr Fiona Mathews have cast doubt on Professor Bournes most optimistic prediction.
Dr Mathews, who is also examining bTB in wildlife, wrote to the Committee to warn that the statistical power of the experiment may have been underestimated.
Dr Christl Donnelly, the statistician from the ISG, had said the experiment had a 90% chance of detecting a 20% reduction in bTB breakdowns within five years.
But Dr Mathews believes the chance could be just 50-60%, because not all badgers are being killed and the experiment is biased.
Under intense questioning from MPs, Dr Donnelly conceded that the trial might have to be extended until enough data were gathered to be 90% certain.
But the scientists will not know if the data are too weak until the end of 2002 at the earliest.
By then, 34.5 million will have been spent. MAFF would either have to admit the experiment had failed or carry on culling at a cost of 6.9m a year.
Dr Elaine King from the National Federation of Badger Groups warned: “As long as the Government is spending money on the trial, it cant afford to develop solutions to bovine TB which are acceptable to the public, wildlife friendly and practical for farmers.
“Thats bad news for farmers and badgers.”
Later, Mark Todd MP (Lab, Derbyshire South) and David Drew MP (Lab, Stroud) grilled agriculture minister Baroness Hayman over the safety of “farmers and punters”.
The Krebs experiment was delayed last year by the Health and Safety Executive, which feared that scientists dissecting badgers risked catching bTB.
Mr Todd asked why MAFF had then taken action to protect staff, but continued to sell beef which was infected with bTB into the human food chain.
The Minister insisted that all the evidence suggested that meat posed “no danger to human health”.
Mr Drew asked why farmers in his Stroud constituency had been told no-one was prepared to remove dead badgers from their farms.
Baroness Hayman said that a new element of bTB research into badger road casualties would also collect badgers from farms in trial areas.