Monday, 14 April 2014
Veterinary profession debates support for continued badger culling
Last year’s trial badger cull in Gloucestershire and Somerset was supported by the British Veterinary Association on the grounds of assessing whether the shooting of free-standing (as opposed to caged) badgers was safe, humane and effective. The trial was part of the UK government’s approach to gathering more information as part of its TB control strategy and this pilot cull was not intended to examine and links between the changes in badger population and the incidence of TB in cattle in the cull areas.
Last week the Independent Expert Panel (IEP) reviewing the trial cull, released it’s report which recognised that the cull whilst safe, failed significantly on the criteria of humane culling and effectiveness. Based on this report the UK government have decided not to roll out the cull to a wider geographic are but to continue it within Somerset and Gloucestershire and work on developing a humane and effective methodology.
Badger culling as part of the TB control strategy has always been contentious. Several years ago, the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) report initially stated that culling of badgers could play no part in TB control in cattle. However further evaluation of the RBCT data several years later demonstrated that in fact there had been a 16% reduction in cattle TB in the cull areas.
Based on this information recommendations were made that if badger culling were to occur, it needed to a) cover a large area, b) remove 70% of the badger population and c) to be performed over a short period of time (ideally 8 – 12 nights). For practical purposes last year’s pilot cull set the culling duration at 6 weeks and this was later extended further when the failure of the culls to meet targets became apparent. Based on the IEP’s evaluation the current round of culling failed on all of these targets, as well as failing to meet the humaneness criteria, set at no more than 5% of badgers taking longer than 5 minutes to die. This means that the current situation is that TB in badgers and cattle will likely increase because of the perturbation of badger social structure caused by the failed cull.
The Government has accepted most of the recommendations made by the IEP and aims to improve its approach to culls in the next round of culling, due to take place this year, in order to try meet the efficacy and humaneness targets. If these criteria are not met, evidence indicates that the two rounds of pilot culling will have created significant risk of increasing TB in badgers and cattle due to perturbation of badger populations.
Now though, the veterinary profession must evaluate the potential impact of last year’s cull, the failure to meet targets, and the potential damage already done by the impact of perturbation. The only way to mitigate this damage is to repeat the cull, and ensure the targets for efficacy and humaneness are met – but is this possible? Is it likely? Or will further, potentially ineffective culling just make the situation even worse for both cattle and badgers?
The role of the veterinary profession in difficult issues like this one is essential, but gaining a consensus can be difficult. The British Veterinary Zoological Society has always opposed the culls on scientific, ethical and welfare grounds, however the British Cattle Veterinary Association, and overall the BVA, supported last year’s pilot culls.
As a council member for BVZS and a member of the Ethics and Welfare Committee for BVA, the JMICAWE’s Heather Bacon has been fully involved in the current debate on the second round of culling. Speaking for the JMICAWE Heather said, “the issue of TB is a difficult one and requires a comprehensive approach. It is often stated that no country has achieved TB control without wildlife control, but it remains to be seen whether it is actually possible to control badger populations with the current approach, or whether this approach will worsen the situation. Up to 40% of farms within TB endemic areas have no history of TB reaction. It would be useful to investigate this issue further examining what biosecurity measures may be in place in these farms to confer protection in endemic areas. TB control is extremely complex and it is likely that further investment and research is needed into areas such as wildlife contraception, vaccination and cattle control measures.”
The BVA is currently considering it’s position on continuing to support the pilot culls and is soliciting membership views on the issue.