The badger cull, designed to control bovine tuberculosis, could be introduced in three new regions in England within a matter of weeks. All three are thought to be in the southwest of the country.
Following pilots in Gloucestershire and Somerset over the past two years – which have repeatedly missed targets, dismissed by scientists and labelled as ‘inhumane’ by many, Natural England are now considering applications from farmers for an extension to the programme. Despite the controversies surrounding the culls, many farmers insist that the badger population must be controlled to curb the spread of TB in cattle, and environment secretary Liz Truss MP has said that the government is “absolutely” pushing ahead with the cull.
Meurig Raymond, president of the National Farmers Union, said: “When you think of the costs involved, [farmers] are prepared to go ahead because they believe it is the only future they have to try and eradicate this dreadful disease from their farms in these particular areas. The pressure is on government to issue licences.”
Natural England was unable to comment on ongoing licence applications.
Professor Rosie Woodroffe of the Zoological Society of London, who worked on a landmark 10-year study of badger culling, said: “Culling only reduces cattle TB if badger numbers are greatly reduced over very large areas – and even then any benefits come at a cost of increased cattle TB on neighbouring land.”
“The 2013 and 2014 pilot culls highlighted the difficulties of killing enough badgers to be confident of benefits – none of the culls is likely to have achieved the government’s stated aim of reducing badger numbers by at least 70 per cent,” Woodroffe said. “So the possibility remains that such culling could actually worsen the desperate situation faced by TB-affected farmers.”
The 2014 Gloucestershire pilot failed dramatically, killing less than 50 per cent of the minimum number required. In Somerset, the minimum target was met, but Professor Woodroffe denounced that target as “rubbish” and “unbelievably easy”.
In April, the current badger cull lost the support of the British Veterinary Association. It said the shooting of free-running badgers at night had not proven effective or humane.
Professor Woodroffe is now running a vaccination trial in Cornwall, similar to the programme currently in place in Wales. “Vaccination has reduced infection levels of many other diseases, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t do the same for bovine TB,” she said. “We’re also tracking both badgers and cattle to understand how the two species interact. We’re trying to understand how, where and when the contact happens, and investigating which farm management practices might reduce the risks.”