An analysis of the ethics and effectiveness of culling, and a call to action for animal rights advocates everywhere.
The UK government has announced that the extremely controversial badger cull may be rolled out across the whole of England under new proposals. The cull was launched in 2013 as a result of the spread of bovine tuberculosis in cattle, the theory being that this was being spread by wild badgers. The emphasis must be on the word theory, since there is little evidence to suggest that this has been or will be an effective means to control the spread of bovine TB.
All the way back in 2011, Professor Lord John Krebs, who was the government adviser responsible for the scientific review into how effective badger culling would be for controlling bovine TB, concluded after trials and a review of the available evidence that culling would “not an effective policy.” He further remarked that: “You cull intensively for at least four years, you will have a net benefit of reducing TB in cattle of 12% to 16%. So you leave 85% of the problem still there, having gone to a huge amount of trouble to kill a huge number of badgers. It doesn’t seem to be an effective way of controlling the disease.” To this day it is still not known if, how, or to what extend badgers may contribute towards the spreading of bovine TB. After the largest study of it’s kind was completed, in his recommendations Lord Kreb stated: “The scientific case is as clear as it can be: This cull is not the answer to TB in cattle. The government is cherry-picking bits of data to support its case.”
Despite the architect of the government’s own sponsored studies advising strongly against the cull, describing it as “mindless,” the farming lobby managed to convince the government to act against these interests, and the cull took place regardless. The 2013 cull in Gloucestershire failed to achieve anything close to it’s stated targets, and Professor Woodroffe, a member of the group who conducted the 2011 trials, deemed it “very likely that so far this cull will have increased the TB risk for cattle inside the Gloucestershire cull zone rather than reducing it.” As a result of this failure the cull was suspended, since the government own independent assessment found that the trial culls were ineffective in both areas in which they were implemented. Prof David Macdonald, a badger expert at Oxford University and lead scientist on the board of Natural England said: “Revoking the licence was the right decision. Those facing this decision at Natural England should be congratulated on their dedication to following the evidence.”
However, despite this evidence and clear public opposition, the government decided to relaunch the cull in 2016, and in that autumn alone almost 11,000 badgers are thought to have been killed. Within these 11,000, only 1515 were infected with TB, and it is thought that some of these badgers may have caught TB from cattle, not the other way around. Despite the insistence of ministers that it had been effective, to this day there has been little data collected to suggest that this is the case, and the fact that the government has found it necessary to relaunch the cull a mere two years later should be evidence enough for anyone that both the 2013 and 2016 failed in their stated intentions. This news comes shortly after figures from December demonstrated that nearly 20,000 badgers had been shot in 2017, more than the tally from the previous four years combined. It is clear then, that the government’s answer to previous failings is to simply kill more badgers, without a meaningful investigation into alternative means of limiting the spread of bovine TB.
The government’s target is still to cull a full 70% of the badger population in England. There is barely a mention of the fact that if current trends continue, we would have a repetition of the cull every two to four years, regardless of how effective any given cull proves to be. If the government’s argument holds true and these previous culls are to be considered “successful,” it is not simply the case that they are attempting to succeed now where they have failed before, it is that culling this many badgers, this often, with this little impact on the spread of bovine TB is considered to be effective and worth repeating, with no indication of when, or if, it might come to an end. We must keep in mind, what is being argued is not that this will stop the spread of the disease, it is that culling 70% of badgers is a good trade off for a 16% reduction in bovine TB. What we all need to be convinced of then, is that nearly three quarters of an entire population in so many is a justified sacrifice to reduce the spreading of a disease to farmed animals by a mere 16%.
Many farmers and advocates for badger culling are willing to admit, when presented with this data, that culling is not as as effective as they would like it to be, but will insist regardless that it is an unfortunate necessity since no alternatives exist. This however, is very far from the truth. TB levels in the effected areas spiked just after the BSE and foot and mouth outbreaks, when a backlog of untested samples piled up and ordinary procedures were not followed. Elsewhere, better testing has proved extremely effective. In March 2012 Wales announced that it had scrapped any badger cull plans in favour of better testing and vaccinations, and in that same year the incidence of tuberculosis in cattle declined by a full 30% in 2012. Similarly, Scotland has been officially labelled “TB free” following their adoption of stringent sample testing and better containment procedures on farms.
Only in England, where we are consistently culling large numbers of badgers, is bovine TB still such a significant issue. This is why DEFRA’s own 2016 consultations resulted in the recommendation for enhanced bovine TB surveillance, disease testing, herd bio-security measures and cattle movement controls, with no mention of culling badgers as an effective means to reduce the spread of bovine TB. As the scientific team who performed the largest ever study of badger culling and bovine TB stated: “It is unfortunate that agricultural and veterinary leaders continue to believe, in spite of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, that the main approach to cattle TB control must involve some form of badger population control.”
The final defence for advocates of the cull is that despite the insistence of animal rights activists, badger culling is humane and badgers do not suffer. This argument is in direct contradiction to the findings of the government’s own appointed Independent Expert Panel, who described the culling as “inhumane” and “ineffective.” In their report, based on the available evidence they concluded: “it is extremely likely that between 7.4 per cent and 22.8 per cent of badgers that were shot at were still alive after 5 minutes, and therefore at risk of experiencing marked pain. We are concerned at the potential for suffering that these figures imply.” Badgers are killed either by cage trapping then being shot close range, or shot long-range at night with a rifle. Concerns about humaneness have been raised not just by animal rights activists, but welfare and conservation groups of all kinds, including the RSPCA and the Woodland Trust. Even if an animal is killed instantly, without pain, they have still been killed unnecessarily, and it is absurd to argue that shooting an animal is not harming them. Humane is defined as “causing the least harm possible,” since it is clear that alternatives do exist, we cannot reasonably argue that culling represents the option which causes the least possible harm.
Beyond arguments about validity, effectiveness or humaneness, what has to be at the centre of this debate is how we see ourselves and our importance in comparison to other animals. Even if we were extremely generous and assumed that culling 70% of the badger population is achievable and would be extremely effective, that badgers would die quickly and relatively painlessly, is culling 70% of all members of a native species really considered to be an acceptable loss for the protection of food animals? What is being discussed is not the impact bovine TB might have on any other animal or on the environment, it is purely on the losses which result because of the spread of bovine TB and the fact that the animals who contract it must be killed without the ability to sell their flesh for profit. The badger cull is not being launched to save lives, but to protect financial assets, since these animals are destined for slaughter at the end of their productive lifespan regardless.
After five years and tens of thousands of dead badgers, the questions we now need to ask ourselves are not about disease rates, modes of transmission or the kill methods, but about how much we are willing to sacrifice for beef and dairy, and how much we value our own taste preferences over the lives of the wild animals we share our land with. If we are willing to sacrifice not only the lives of the millions of cows slaughtered in the UK per year, but tens of thousands of indigenous wildlife as well, all so that we can enjoy a glass of milk and a steak ,what else are we willing to lose to protect the foods we enjoy? Is there even a limit at all? These are not rhetorical questions, they are ones we must all ask ourselves and that the government must be made to answer. If our wildlife policy is to be decided on the basis of commercial interests alone then that is a position they should be made to publicly defend.
For more information on how to oppose the culls, check out Stop The Cull on Facebook or Twitter, or visit to find your local saboteur group and get involved in direct action. If you’re not able to get out to any of the cull sites or don’t have the time, find your local MP and send them a letter or email expressing your feelings about the badger cull, a template is available here which might be of some help, though it is recommended you adapt and tailor it to your MP. If you are not in the UK you can still help by spreading the word on your chosen platform and encouraging others to do the same. If the cull is to be bought to a halt there must be fierce public opposition and international condemnation of these unnecessary and inhumane culls We must make our voices loud enough so that this time, they cannot be ignored.