"Culling is inhumane and ineffective."
These were the conclusions in 2014 of the ‘Independent Expert Panel’ appointed by DEFRA (the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) to assess the humaneness and effectiveness of the previous year’s pilot culls of European badgers in England in the efforts to control the incidence of bovine tuberculosis [bTB] in dairy cattle herds.
The culls included ‘free’ shooting as well as cage-trapping and shooting in two areas with high bTB incidence in the south west of England.
It might have been expected that in concluding the policy was not only ineffective, but also inhumane that the culling policy might have ceased.
An unpopular policy
However, fast-forward to 2017 and these culls which have been hugely unpopular with the general public have been relentlessly pursued by the current Conservative Government at the insistence of the National Farmers Union [NFU] each year.
This is despite a 2014 ComRes poll, which showed that nine out of 10 people who expressed an opinion wanted the UK Government to stop culling badgers and instead combat bTB through cattle measures alone as had been done in Wales.
Instead, the culls have continued to expand.
In 2017, a further 11 new culling areas in England were introduced (bringing the total to 21 areas across eight counties in the south west, west and north west of England).
This potentially condemned more than 33,000 badgers to a premature death in 2017 alone either by shooting them whilst trapped in a cage, or by ‘controlled’ (i.e. ‘free’) shooting of free-ranging badgers in the field.
Adding insult to injury, it is not policy to test the badgers killed for the disease and the vast majority are likely to be healthy TB-free animals.
In 2015, 29,000 cattle were reportedly slaughtered due to the detection of bTB in herds.
In 2016 this figure had risen to nearly 40,000 despite the badger culls.
As well as this enormous loss of life, the financial costs have been vast for farmers and costs have also been passed on to taxpayers for an estimated £100 million annually.
bTB testing of cattle is notoriously inadequate with a considerable proportion of tests missing carriers of the disease (who may then go on to spread the disease to new herds) or generating ‘false positive’ results.
'Culling is necessary'
The NFU regards badgers as a 'significant wildlife reservoir' of the disease (although many other animals, domesticated as well as wild can also harbour the disease) and argues that their culling is necessary to control bTB in addition to other measures such as improved biosecurity and tighter controls of cattle movements around the country.
Speaking to the BBC news, NFU representative Phil Latham dismissed the nightly walks of volunteers with ‘Wounded Badger Patrols’ during the culls as 'a gross self-indulgence of people who are perhaps not aware of the history of TB'.
Whereas I’m sure many words could describe trudging muddy public footpaths late at night in the wind and rain whilst shots ring out in the surrounding countryside, I doubt that 'gross self-indulgence' would be among them.
One might hope that more attention might be paid to scientific research than history and numerous leading experts have condemned the continuation of the badger culling policy.
Prof. Alistair MacMillan, veterinary advisor for the Humane Society and an ex-DEFRA advisor, previously stated: "The science is unambiguous and the evidence is clear – the culling of badgers is absolutely causing suffering, and it will make no meaningful difference to the spread of bovine TB in cattle in the UK."
Also opposing the cull are celebrated naturalists such as Chris Packham and Sir David Attenborough as well as large conservation organisations including the RSPCA, RSPB, Badger Trust and the Wildlife Trusts.
Steve Trotter, director of the Wildlife Trusts has said: "Badgers are not the primary cause of the spread of bTB in cattle: the primary route of infection is cattle-to-cattle contact.
"The Government's badger cull is flying in the face of science.
"It should be putting more resources into speeding up the development of an effective cattle vaccine, amongst other measures."
Shrouded in secrecy
These deeply controversial and divisive culls have been shrouded in secrecy, with new culling licences only publicly confirmed within days of the killing commencing.
This lack of transparency has made it almost impossible to distinguish between legalised culling and wildlife crime by opportunists.
Being in a newly allocated cull zone, the countryside lanes - peaceful and quiet by day – took on a markedly sinister feel after dark, as farm and shooters’ vehicles, local lampers et al. all took to the lanes and fields in the vicinity of badger setts.
The darkness would periodically be punctuated by the sound of shots being fired, bringing with it the sadness and anger that another animal’s life had just been taken.
Against the killing
Yet it has been heartening to see how many opponents of the cull such as ‘Wounded Badger Patrol’ [WBP] volunteers, hunt saboteurs and other animal lovers from all walks of life – unsung wildlife heroes all of them – were willing to give up their time (not to mention sleep!) to play an enormous role in reducing the decimation of the local badger population.
Meanwhile, many locals have been entirely oblivious to the night-time havoc and butchery taking place in the countryside on their doorstep while they were asleep.
With incidents reported of intimidation and harassment of badger ‘protectors’ from individual farmers and lampers, reckless driving by shooters, and WBP volunteers’ car tyres being slashed to name but a few, you could be forgiven for wondering to what extent the culls really are a genuine attempt to reduce bTB or are just being used an opportunity to kill an otherwise protected species by those who simply take pleasure in killing wildlife.
The determination to not let anything or anyone stand in the way of killing badgers has been quite remarkable.
Did I mention fireworks being thrown at wounded badger patrols?
I’m afraid that too... and nor was it an isolated incident.
The ultimate losers of course have been the badgers who have the misfortune of having to live alongside humans and their ‘livestock’.
Images of dead badgers from cull zones around the country, whether bagged up in the back of a truck, shot dead in a bloodied cage or left in a pile on the ground have been both sickening and heartbreaking.
Badger setts have been reported as being physically destroyed, and at one farm the trouble was taken to cover the entrances to a sett with a mix of earth and broken-up asbestos.
It goes without saying these latter incidents are acts of wildlife crime, however by sanctioning a cull it would certainly seem to open the floodgates for illegal badger persecution, something for which Britain has a long and shameful history of.
Pause for thought
Regardless of the motives for the cull; whether political favour, bloodlust or as part of a desperate attempt to control bTB, the killing continues due to the dairy industry’s relentless demand for it and ultimately due to our continued consumption of their products.
Whilst this slaughter continues, for me it provides yet another reason - as if the farm animal welfare, environmental and human health concerns weren’t enough already - to eschew dairy products.
For tens of thousands of a native and otherwise protected wild animal to be killed in the last few years in England alone for the sake of our love of milk and addiction to cheese must give us pause for thought.
These are some of the unseen, unheard, and often forgotten victims of the dairy industry... these iconic and enigmatic wild animals deserve far better than that.