Why the badger cull is not supported by science

Steve Backshall, BBOWT President, speaks out against the badger cull in Oxfordshire
Steve Backshall, President of the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust

Some assume that as a wildlife filmmaker I must be a naive bunny hugger who knows nothing of farming, and would oppose any animal cull on emotional grounds. However, I’ve lived much of my life on farmland; landscapes which even in their wildest corners need managing.

That management must be based on science though, and the badger cull is the exact opposite. I’m a Wildlife Trust president in one of the counties affected, Oxfordshire, and we’re appalled by the government’s abandonment of science in favour of political expediency. The randomised badger culling trial was carried out 1998-2007, cost nearly £50million and killed 11,000 badgers.

"We’re appalled by the government’s abandonment of science in favour of political expediency"
Steve Backshall
BBOWT President

Though many deplored it, the cull was good science, and had clear results. Every wild animal studied was a repository for bovine tuberculosis. It survives in the environment and in slurry for six months. Culling badgers can lead to a reduction of new cases of bTB in cattle, but shooting badgers leads to dispersal; remaining badgers wander, leading to an increase in cases of bTB on the fringe of cull zones.

The study’s progenitor (Oxford professor Lord Krebs) stated that a cull was not viable. Instead, we needed vaccination for both cattle and badgers, and universal improvements in cattle husbandry techniques. So that’s that then.

Well….no. In recent months we’ve all become experts in ‘R’ numbers, vaccines and transition rates. We’ve also got used to our leaders taking this science, jotting a plan of action on the back of a sweetie wrapper, using the bits that suit them and ignoring the stuff that doesn’t.

The Krebs report was junked. Since then the government have run scattergun ‘pilot’ culls, killing an estimated 170,000 by the end of this year; 35% of Britain’s badgers. There has been no noticeable impact on bTB in cattle. With animals showing no visible signs of TB, and only 4% of badgers infected, this is analogous to solving our current human crisis by wandering about the countryside taking out random people in the hope they might be carriers.

"The government have run scattergun ‘pilot’ culls, killing an estimated 170,000 by the end of this year; 35% of Britain’s badgers. There has been no noticeable impact on bTB in cattle."
Steve Backshall
BBOWT President

A live vaccine in cattle has been taken off the table, as it renders the produce untenable. However new developments (DIVA – a test to differentiate infected and vaccinated animals) may solve this. The badger vaccine is effective; so as pilot culls recommend trapping badgers first, why not give an injection instead of a bullet to the brain?

But these are complex, long-term plans, and the government needs to appear decisive to powerful farming lobbies now. So culls continue. They don’t work. Some may be illegal, and they show how little value this government places in conservation and your wildlife. We need to demand that Defra show their working, because the problem with badgers is not all black and white. 

Steve Backshall – President, Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust