Analysis: Is the badger cull in England working?

 In 2015, former Defra secretary Liz Truss claimed the badger culls were “working” and the chief vet had made it clear that Defra’s TB strategy was “delivering disease control benefits”. But anti-cull activists criticised Ms Truss for being unable to support her claims with scientific data.

Even though we are now into a fifth year of culling, formal statistical analysis has only been completed for the first two years.

So, what do the latest official statistics on the pilot culls reveal?

The pilot badger culls in Gloucestershire and Somerset began in the autumn of 2013 and they have just finished their fifth year, although Defra has not yet released the latest data.

We asked Defra to provide figures to support its claims that the culls are “working” to reduce TB.

The latest data on TB inside and outside the cull zones was published in September:

TB incidence rates have reduced since culls began

 

In the three years before culls began (2010-13)

In the three years after culls began (2013-16)

Herd breakdowns, cull area

Somerset

106

79

Gloucestershire

90

76

Herd breakdowns, buffer zone

Somerset

43

38

Gloucestershire

55

53

Herds under movement restrictions, cull zone

Somerset

27

13

Gloucestershire

31

18

Herds under movement restrictions, buffer zone

Somerset

9

6

Gloucestershire

13

6

Source: Defra

Conclusions

Researchers who carried out detailed analysis of the first two years of culling in the two pilot areas of Somerset and Gloucestershire said they had identified reductions in TB incidence rates in both cull zones.

But they concluded that with only two years of data, it would “be unwise to use the findings of this analysis to develop generalisable inferences about the effectiveness of the policy at present”.

Although these findings are consistent with findings from the RBCT, a time lag of four years was observed between culling in the RBCT trial and “measurable significant effects on cattle incidence”, they say.

NFU – “anecdotal evidence”

The NFU says there is “anecdotal evidence” from farmers that the badger culls are working to reduce cattle TB herd breakdowns.

NFU president Meurig Raymond has repeatedly stated that livestock farmers and vets on the ground are telling him that the number of TB reactors within cull zones has gone down – and many farms are going TB clear for the first time in years.

Anti-cull activists

But anti-cull activists, including the Badger Trust and the Humane Society International (HSI) UK, have questioned the NFU’s pronouncements on the badger cull. They insist there is no scientific evidence to prove the culls are working to reduce TB.

How, they claim, can the NFU or farmers make such claims when the former Labour government’s 10-year Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) – the largest scientific trial of its kind – showed that culling must take place intensively for at least four years to see a “net benefit of reducing TB in cattle of 12% to 16%”.

The NFU stresses that its statements are purely anecdotal and it accepts that culling needs to be carried out over at least four years before full scientific evidence is available to show a positive impact culling can have on reducing bovine TB rates in cattle.

Three key players have their say on whether culls are “working”

NFU deputy president Minette Batters agrees that it is too early to draw any definitive conclusions from the results of Defra’s badger cull analysis.

But Ms Batters argues that the findings “appear to support anecdotal evidence from farmers in the areas that culling is having a positive impact on controlling the disease in cattle”.

She says the union believes that the evidence after five years will demonstrate that culling badgers is having a “positive impact in controlling the spread of bovine TB in cattle in areas where the disease is rife”.

Dominic Dyer, chief executive of the Badger Trust, takes issue with industry claims that the culls are working. Mr Dyer met Defra secretary Michael Gove at the end of October to raise concerns about the policy.

He told the minister that the government had spent “the best part of £50m” on the culls, which he branded a “costly and dangerous distraction”.

He believes the government would have been better off using the money it has spent on the badger cull to explore “long-term solutions” to eradicate bovine TB, such as cattle vaccination and an oral TB vaccine for badgers.

For its part, Defra insists that badger control in areas where badgers are “an important factor in spreading disease in cattle” is an important part of its TB eradication programme for England.

A Defra spokesman said: “Bovine TB has a devastating impact on our farming communities and the wider economy and the UK has the highest incidence of the disease in Europe.

“We are taking action through our 25-year strategy, one of the most rigorous in the world, strengthening movement controls, improving biosecurity, vaccinating badgers when possible and badger control in areas the disease is rife.”

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