In a rational world, when you set up a pilot to test something, you conduct the pilot and then evaluate its success against pre-agreed criteria.  You then take your time to learn the lessons from the pilot and decide whether you do it again, do it differently or stop completely and try something else.

When it comes to badgers and bovine TB, we don't seem to be operating in a rational world.  Yesterday's reporting of how many badgers have been and still need to be killed and over what time period and whom, demonstrated how murky the pilot has become.

I wish the independent panel well in making sense of the results of the trial.

The key thing to remember is that these pilots were designed to test assumptions that the Government has made about the effectiveness, humaneness and safety of shooting free ranging badgers with a view to rolling out this method of culling across many other areas of the country.  Crucially, it needs to know whether it is possible to kill 70% of the badgers in a target area predominantly through free ranging shoot over a six week period.

One can only conclude from yesterday's reports that that the objectives of the pilot are changing.

I've written previously about the RSPB's position on the badger cull - we are against it.  But the point I want to make is that for the public to have confidence in government-led trials on highly contentious issues, then there needs to be extra vigilance taken to ensure transparency in reporting, monitoring and evaluation of any trials.  I am not convinced that re-negotiating the terms of the trial in public is a healthy thing to do as it breeds suspicion.

Earlier in the week the Guardian carried an article quoting an ex Defra employee who had been drafted in to assist the Somerset cull by increasing trapping activity.  Shooting free ranging badgers had been the preferred method of culling because it was cheaper than cage trapping.  So it would be interesting to know what difference this additional trapping effort has made to the cost of the cull.  

In addition, the latest proposal appears to be to extend the Somerset cull by a further three weeks (from six weeks) to enable the target number of badgers to be shot.   This appears to change the terms of the license that Natural England granted for the culls and change the objectives of the pilot (see section 5.28 of the government's policy on the pilot here).

Shooting less than the target number increases the risk of making the bovine TB situation worse by stirring up the badger population (perturbation).  The reason for limiting the culls to six weeks was because the science behind culling tells us that culling should be simultaneous across the cull zone.  Extending the shooting over a long period is known to increase the risk of perturbation, therefore making the TB situation worse!  Just to be specific about this the advice on the duration of culling came from Defra’s Science Advisory Council and Bovine Science Advisory Body (the Joint Group) and it was that culling should extend to ‘no longer than 4-6 weeks’.  So we do not see that extending the cull to 9 weeks can be based on science - something that the coalition agreement stated as the precondition for any cull.

We shouldn’t forget that there will be farmers just outside the cull zones who will no doubt be worried sick that they will be at increased risk of a devastating TB outbreak in their herd as a result of an ineffective cull. 

The big problem here is that Defra do not appear to have planned an exit strategy for a failing pilot – there is no plan B.  Defra were advised during the consultation on the cull that one key way of reducing the risk of making the situation worse was to vaccinate all of the badgers in a ring around the cull zone, using the injectable badger vaccine that was languishing in their toolbox.  I guess this should have been plan V.  Why they chose not to do so is just one of many unanswered questions on this issue.

Here are some more.

If estimates of badger numbers vary so much from year to year how can a cull ever be accurately managed?

If the weather can have such a significant effect on badger numbers overall does it have a differential effect on those infected with TB?

Why are the badgers being killed as part of the pilots not being tested to assess whether they were carrying TB?

What would be the police costs of extending the cull by a further three weeks and how will this be funded?

What are the crieria for determining whether the cull has been undertaken humanely? 

Will the data from the two pilot projects be published and available for public scrutiny?

As the pilot proceeds, I expect even more questions to emerge.  And here is one for you.

What do you think about the latest debate about the status of the pilot cull?

It would be great to hear your views.

  • Well after all the figures showing Badger culls are very unlikely to do any good now the scientists at Imperial College London say they are responsible for infecting 52% of cattle directly and indirectly.

    Completely different to those opposed to any cull would have us believe.

  • Thanks all of you for your comments.  The importance of the decision about the pilot cannot be over-estimated.  Next year NE is expected to be granted 10 more culls ie ten more areas where 70% of badgers will be killed.  If the pilot is inconclusive and there is no evidence that a reduction of incidences of bovine TB has occurred then a) the problem remains or may get worse and b) badgers will die for no good reason.  

  • Facts are movement due to F and M was nothing to do with massive increase in BTB as any outbreaks in Cumbria were soon cleared up as there was hardly any infection from Badgers whereas in the west country as we had infected Badgers even the more drastic movement restrictions failed proving in that respect Badgers whether we like it or not are responsible for spreading the disease.

    There is no practical way of protecting cattle feeding as mostly cattle are in fields that Badgers go into for worms.

    People love muddying the water so as to confuse-----no feeding organic or anything else has no effect and no----nor does the high production of modern cattle ,in fact rather the opposite as todays animals are fitter than those in the past and if anything withstand these diseases better but all TB respects in the human form no one just anyone's bad luck to get the germ from someone in close proximity.

    Vaccines do not seem practical for several reasons at the moment unfortunately and may not be until we clear out most infected Badgers seeing as it does not work on them.

    Think the only sensible solution although drastic is to gas the sett on farms that have cattle infected and in that way at least most disease free Badgers are left.

    I find it strange that supposedly wildlife lovers are happy to see the rspb cull anywhere it thinks it ought to so as to protect what it terms rare birds that may well number in the hundreds or perhaps even thousands and yet farmers have some breeds of cattle that there are not a hundred of that breed and may only be on one or two farms that if they got BTB could wipe out that breed,those wildlife lovers cannot understand the need to clear this disease up.

    Those same people also even fail to see it is imperative for Badgers and other wildlife to get this disease cleared up.

  • under the criteria set out in the licence the cull has demonstrably failed.

    it was not possible to cull the requisite number of badgers in the specified time period. this then brings about the end of the pilot cull and automatically ends the prospect of any further action of this type, because it cannot be done.

    of course if the entire idea behind the cull was to kill as many badgers in the target area as possible, then extending the cull duration to allow more to be killed, would be the way forward.

    though to extend the duration would also irrefutably demonstrate that the people in charge have absolutely no regard for the wildlife, their own scientific advisors, or indeed have any comprehension of science in the first place and that the whole thing was set up under false pretences and is a corrupt tissue of lies.

    we await their future actions to demonstrate which!

  • No, it isn't rational and never has been. The tragedy of this whole business is there are so many avenues to explore from keeping secure feeding to nutrition (has changes in what we feed cattle made them more vulnerable ?) to the huge issue of the tremendous increase in animal movements which hit so hard with Foot and Mouth in 2001. But they all require somebody to make an effort - so finding a scapegoat is far preferable. It is hard to imagine anyone who knows anything about the countryside and badgers seriously believing this cull could work: any  experienced rifle shooter would have predicted what has happened - shoot one and the rest scatter. Owen Paterson himself, being a countryman, will clearly know this. As for openness, I still haven't got over the marvellous FOI response from Defra that they wouldn't release communication between them and NFU because for the purposes of this exercise NFU was effectively a part of Government ? Or perhaps Francis Maud should classify the whole of Defra as private sector as surely it is little more than a wholly owned subsidiary of the NFU ?

    That's the entertainment - sadly, the serious bit is that whilst the badger cull is as much a sideshow as the forest sales fiasco in the meantime the critical and serious issues which will end up affecting millions of people, urban as well as rural, led by the growing impacts of climate change are so far down the agenda as to be almost invisible.