Why are British badgers still threatened with slaughter?
A very useful article by Adam Spencer in the latest edition of the journal ‘Politics’ provides a handy summary of the history of ‘Bovine TB’ (bTB) policy and the issue of badger culling. Most importantly, it provides insights into why the systematic slaughter of thousands of wild animals is still a possibility, despite the considerable scientific evidence against its effectiveness and overwhelming public opposition.
The persecution of badgers under the guise of bTB ‘control’ started 40 years ago when a TB-infected badger was discovered. This circumstantial evidence has led to badgers being the number 1 scapegoat for the disease, despite the lack of direct evidence that badgers actually transmit the disease to cattle.
This has created a legacy of futile slaughter. The draconian badger culling strategy that followed Lord Zuckerman’s 1980 review was based on the assumption that badgers were a reservoir of TB-infection and ‘could’ (NB – not ‘did’) spread it to cattle. However, the 1986 Dunnett review found bTB had fallen across the country irrespective of whether culling had taken place. Spencer goes on to note that MAFF’s eye was taken off the bTB ball by the BSE crisis. Hence the lack of resources for testing and monitoring cows seems to have had the greatest impact on the subsequent increase in bTB.
Despite a generation of various badger culling methods, yet another review by Krebs in 1996 was once again incapable of reaching a clear conclusion over the effectiveness of badger culling. So an Independent Scientific Group (ISG) was set up in 1998 to oversee a new badger culling trial (the ‘RBCT’) which was supposed to finally settle the issue.
Interim findings published in 2003 found that the ‘reactive’ culling method established by the Dunnett review in 1986 actually caused an increase in bTB cases!
It raises the question of why farmers and MAFF officials were prepared to assume that badger culling was justified despite any direct evidence, yet for 15 years or so were able to ignore the evidence in front of their eyes that culling was making things worse. What kind of mentality allows such a twisted view of the world?
In 2006, the ISG concluded that a proactive culling method actually led to an increase in adjoining areas (29%) that outweighed the decrease in the culling zone (19%).
You would have thought that would have been the death knell for badger culling, rather than badgers. Yet the ISG were outraged when the subsequent Government consultation document went out of its way to distort the evidence to lead respondents to support culling, complaining: ‘… the scientific basis for any badger culling is neither accurately portrayed nor carefully explored in the consultation document’.
Despite the Government’s attempt to predetermine the outcome, the response was one of massive public opposition to culling – over 95% of the 47,000 respondents.
If science and public opinion are supposed to lead policy-making, then badger culling should be dead in the water. Yet following the ISG report, the Labour Government hesitated for a year before it ruled out badger culling completely, the new Coalition Government is clearly keen to proceed, and the Welsh Assembly’s cull has only been delayed by legal challenges by the Badger Trust.
One of the judgments in that challenge gives an insight into the underlying problems with policy-making that lead to cruel and pointless persecution of wild animals. According to Spencer: ‘… ministers had unlawfully failed to carry out a balancing exercise weighing the harm involved against the potential benefit of the cull’. Furthermore, the Welsh Government’s notion that a 9% reduction in bTB met the legal test of a ‘significant reduction’ in cases was basically laughed out of court.
In other words, the Welsh Government was oblivious to the suffering they were to inflict on animals and were happy to give into farmers’ demands regardless of the lack of evidence to support even the feeble predicted benefits. But, the big question raised for me by Spencer’s account is, why?
My own research into the politics of animal experimentation and policy conflict generally allows us to point to the following factors:
- Firstly, there is no dedicated body in Government to speak up for animals.
- Secondly, this is compounded by the absence of significant legal mechanisms to ensure that animals and their wellbeing are represented in the policy process.
- Thirdly, farming and agriculture interests have developed very close relationships with Government over the years, especially since 1945. On the other hand, animal protection groups are, to all intents and purposes, excluded from Government.
Lastly, there is clearly an entrenched mentality in sections of the farming industry and Government that see the persecution of wild animals as at best, a matter of moral indifference and possibly, as a desirable end in itself. Maybe it’s the sense of power they get from destroying animals with impunity? Practising sadistic cruelty to animals seems to be an aspiration for many social climbers, especially in rural areas.
Badgers and other wild animals are particularly vulnerable to persecution. A joint committee of animal welfare advisory groups has recently noted there is no such body to advise the Government on the welfare of wild animals harmed by human activity. It should be remembered that the Government tends to ignores progressive animal protection advice from the bodies that do exist. For wild animals, the Government doesn’t even have to go to the trouble of dismissing inconvenient advisors.
More recently evidence (pp. 29-30) has emerged indicating that increases in bTB in the surrounding areas following a proactive cull fade away, while the decreases in cases within the area are maintained. But at best the net decrease is less than 20% over 12 years, and achieving that insignificant figure requires a huge level of continuous slaughter and meeting other conditions that are practically impossible under the Coalition Government’s proposals. As the ISG noted in their final report: “we consider it likely that licensing farmers (or their appointees) to cull badgers would not only fail to achieve a beneficial effect, but would entail a substantial risk of increasing the incidence of cattle TB and spreading the disease in space, whether licences were issued to individual farmers or to groups” (p.170).
So for bTB, the real problem isn’t a reservoir of infection in badgers, but seems to be the much more toxic reservoir of cruelty and prejudice in farming and Government.