Badger cull decision must be revisted, says former government chief scientist

Sir David King, the government’s former chief scientific adviser, is emerging as one of farming’s greatest allies in the bovine TB crisis. In an exclusive interview with FW editor Jane King, he promised to continue trying to influence Government and the public on the need for a badger cull

  • How would you sum up the repercussions of a no-cull decision on the future for the livestock sector?

This decision will have to be revisited. It is very difficult to see a viable milk industry, particularly strong in the south west, if we don’t manage the problem. We need an extensive cull in the hotspot areas now and work towards vaccination in the years to come. No cull could drive out the viability of dairy and livestock businesses.

  • Can you influence the situation from now on?

Yes I will try. I will continue to express my views to the media. Sometimes the scientific evidence needs to be put more clearly to the public before all the facts are fully understood.

Do we want sustainable farming in the UK alongside ecological protection? If we do, then we must take action. We need to work harder at explaining the arguments for a cull. This is not an anti-badger position.

  • Now it’s clear there will be no cull, what is your view of the strategy for the future?

I see a very real problem here. We have this disease spreading in cattle from Cornwall, Devon, eastwards and northwards, into Wales and across the country. It’s a badger-driven disease and, unless there is a badger cull, it is difficult to see how we can handle it.

I was very disappointed by Hilary Benn’s decision. I think funding for vaccines is a very good idea, but I’m interested to know what the Government timeline is for a fully-verified vaccine that can actually be deployed. The investment is good, but what do we do in the meantime?

  • What follow-up conversations have you had with the Government on this?

I haven’t spoken to Hilary Benn, but I have spoken to Jeff Rooker. Everyone know’s Jeff’s position. Jeff is staying in post, but it’s difficult for him.

  • In your own report you did not look at the practicalities of a cull, but do you have a view on it?

My advice was based on the science alone. But, based on the science, I concluded that since trials proved that cattle got TB from badgers, a badger cull was advisable.

The practicalities of a cull would always be an issue. The cull conducted with Krebs was impractical because it used traps to capture badgers. It was expensive and very labour-intensive. Enabling farmers to cull using humane methods would be the best way forward, although it’s important that we do leave some badgers in the wild.

We don’t want to destroy the entire population. I was pleased to hear about the co-ordinated plan by farmers in the West Country seeking cull licences. This is exactly what we were supporting with our work.

  • The badger lobby has been critical of your recommendations, claiming you considered 10 years’-worth of evidence in a day with a less expert team. What’s your view on that?

It’s a very silly criticism. No way could anyone describe the team as less expert. [His team included four professors, of ecology, immunology, epidemiology and veterinary medicine]. In terms of years in TB, the team had many more years’ experience than those people involved in the trials. It’s not the amount of time spent on the research, it’s about the expertise.

  • In your mind, did the Krebs trials show that a cull would work?

No one can read the Krebs trial and not think that a cull wouldn’t work. More than 50% reduction in cattle TB was achieved in culled areas over a four-year period. 

Sir David King’s main conclusions

  • Badgers are a clear source of infection for cattle. Reducing the density of badgers in areas where there are high levels of TB in cattle reduces the incidence.
  • Removal of badgers is the best option at the moment to cut the reservoir of infection in wildlife, but vaccination will be vital in the longer term.
  • The minimum overall area within which badger removal should take place is 100km2, although increasing the area would increase the benefit.

Source: Bovine Tuberculosis in Cattle and Badgers, report submitted to David Miliband on 30 July, 2007.