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THE Government may be ‘strongly minded’ to include culling of badgers in the package of measures available for controlling bovine TB in cattle in England, but there are still quite a few hoops to go through before culling is introduced. This remains a sensitive issue, on which opinion is strongly divided, as reflected in the recently published summary of responses to the consultation on the subject which was held by Defra last September and, indeed, by the reactions to the Government's announcement last week that, following the consultation, and having considered the scientific evidence, it is still of a mind to proceed.
Clearly aware of the strength of feeling on this issue, but apparently equally aware that the current situation is unsustainable, Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State at Defra, sounded almost apologetic when announcing the Government's position on the issue last week: ‘I wish there was some other practical way of dealing with this,’ she said, ‘but we can't escape the fact that the evidence supports the case for a controlled reduction of the badger population in areas worst affected by bovine TB.’
As indicated in the consultation document last September, the Government hopes to introduce a system of licensing, to be administered by Natural England, that would allow farmers and landowners to cull or vaccinate badgers on their land. Culling would be at the farmers' and landowners' expense and subject to strict criteria. It could only be carried out in areas of high and persistent TB, over a minimum permitted area of 150 km2, and those applying for licences would have to make a commitment to sustained culling of badgers for at least four years. Farmers' groups would have to demonstrate that they could access at least 70 per cent of the land area in which the cull was proposed, and cage-trapping and shooting, and free-shooting, of badgers would be the only culling methods allowed (VR, September 25, 2010, vol 167, pp 465–466).
During the consultation, a number of concerns were raised about how the proposed scheme would operate, and Defra has now issued a further consultation document to clarify its proposals and address some of the concerns that were raised (VR, July 23, 2011, vol 169, p 85). Specifically, this sets out the criteria for issuing licences, and steps that will be taken to ensure that the culling methods will be effective and humane. It describes measures intended to mitigate the potential risks of spread of the disease as a result of perturbation of badgers' social groups both within and around the control areas, as well as measures intended to address concerns about the safety of the public and those participating in culls. It also discusses proposals for monitoring compliance with the licence conditions, changes in the incidence of TB in cattle, and the impact of culling on the local badger population. One of the conditions of licensing will be that culling should remove at least 70 per cent of the badgers in the control areas in the first year, and that the badger population should then be maintained at this level in each subsequent year. However, Defra says, the number of licences that will be issued each year will be limited and licences will also specify the maximum number of badgers that can be removed each year to ensure that culling ‘is not detrimental to the survival of the badger population concerned’.
It will be no mean feat for farmers to coordinate activities to meet the requirements of the licensing conditions and it is clear from the consultation document that committing to a cull would not be something to be undertaken lightly. The Government is keen that culling should be cost-effective and sustained and, to this end, participants would be requested to deposit sufficient funds to cover the costs of a four-year cull up front. For its part, the Government will pay for licensing and monitoring, and it also intends to make up to £250,000 a year available for grants to support farmers who plan to vaccinate badgers as part of the programme.
The BVA and the British Cattle Veterinary Association have welcomed the Government's apparent commitment to including a controlled cull of badgers in its TB eradication plans, having long argued that the disease cannot be tackled effectively in cattle without also addressing the problem in wildlife. They will be responding on the detail of the proposals but, in the meantime, have welcomed the recognition that any cull must be carefully monitored and humane. From a practical point of view, there is much to consider in the consultation document. As John Fishwick, the BCVA president remarked last week, an industry-led cull will be an enormous undertaking for everyone involved and, for the sake of cattle, wildlife and the industry, it will be vital to get the detail right from the outset.
Defra's consultation document and its summary of responses to its earlier consultation can be accessed at www.defra.gov.uk/animal-diseases/a-z/bovine-tb/