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Pressing ahead on bovine TB

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SOME people subscribe to the conspiracy theory of government information management, which involves burying potentially awkward news, while others are more inclined to believe that it is simply a matter of the Whitehall machine being geared to getting everything off civil servants' desks by the end of each year. Either way, there is no doubt that the Government issued a large number of policy documents and statements on December 17, the day Parliament rose for its Christmas recess. Among them was a tranche of documents on bovine TB. These included:

▪ A summary of the results of government monitoring of the pilot badger culls in Somerset, Gloucestershire and Dorset in 2015, with seven separate annexes;

▪ Revised guidance to Natural England on the licensing requirements for the badger culls, along with a summary of responses to a consultation carried out by Defra last year on proposals to update that guidance;

▪ Advice from the Chief Veterinary Officer on the outcome of the culls in 2015;

▪ The outcome of a consultation undertaken in 2015 on postmovement testing of cattle; and

▪ A value for money analysis of the badger control policy.

In a statement, the Secretary of State at Defra, Elizabeth Truss, said that the Government's comprehensive strategy to eradicate bovine TB was ‘delivering results’ and that the low-risk area of England was ‘on track’ to achieve officially bovine TB-free status by the end of 2019. She said that badger control in the south west of England had been successful and that the Government would enable it to take place over a wider number of areas in 2016. Regarding controls on cattle movements, the Government planned to introduce statutory postmovement testing of cattle entering the low-risk area in 2016 to reduce the risk of importing TB-infected animals from higher risk areas.

The Government also published a report last month discussing lessons from a project started in 2010 to obtain a practical understanding of some of the processes involved in vaccinating badgers. However, in her statement, the Secretary of State indicated that, in view of the ongoing worldwide shortage of BCG vaccine and the need to prioritise vaccine use in people, the Government would be suspending sourcing of the vaccine for badger vaccination schemes in England until the supply situation resolved. This follows a similar decision by the Welsh Government in December (VR, December 5, 2015, vol 177, p 555).

The revised guidance to Natural England on issuing badger culling licences incorporates proposals put forward by Defra in a consultation document last August. These involved relaxing the rules relating to the duration of the culling period, reducing the minimum size of the culling area (from 150 km2 to 100 km2) and changes to requirements regarding land access (VR, September 5, 2015, vol 177, pp 214-215). The aim is to introduce more flexibility to enable culling in areas where it will be effective in reducing badger populations.

It is clear from Defra's summary of responses to the consultation that support for these changes was far from unanimous. However, while noting the wide range of responses, the document explains that the Government considers that no new compelling evidence has emerged to change its view that changing the licensing criteria could be helpful. It adds that experience of the third year of badger control in Somerset and Gloucestershire and the first year of badger control in Dorset helped to inform the decision to implement the proposals.

The report discussing the results of monitoring of the badger culls in 2015 concludes that the culls were effective in that, in all three areas, the number of badgers removed fell between the minimum and maximum numbers specified. It also notes that ‘all three areas delivered the level of badger removal required to be confident of disease control benefits and that the culls were carried out to a high standard of public safety.’ Regarding the use of controlled shooting as a culling method, where shooting accuracy was used as a proxy measure for humaneness, it concludes that the levels of accuracy achieved in 2015 were the same as those in 2014 and comparable to those in 2013, and that ‘The likelihood of suffering in badgers is comparable with the range of outcomes reported when other culling activities currently accepted by society have been assessed.’

Figures presented in the report indicate that about half of the 1467 badgers removed in 2015 were culled by controlled shooting and about half following cage trapping. The BVA continues to support targeted, effective and humane badger culling as a vital element of the bovine TB eradication programme. However, in April last year, it withdrew its support for the use of controlled shooting as a culling method on the grounds that the first two years of culling in the pilot areas had failed to demonstrate conclusively that it could be carried out effectively and humanely based on the criteria that had been set. Responding to the Government's announcements last month the BVA expressed disappointment controlled shooting would continue to be used; it urged the Government to reconsider its policy, and to extend badger culling using cage trapping and shooting only.

Defra's value for money analysis of the badger control policy has presumably been published in the interests of transparency. However, by including statements such as ‘The quantified benefits presented here are lower than those estimated in 2011. This is the result of numerous changes to the underlying assumptions’, and with some information having been redacted on the grounds that it is commercially sensitive, it highlights the uncertainties involved in estimating the costs of culling and is unlikely to convince opponents of the culls of the financial merits of the policy.

Perhaps predictably, the Government's proposals to introduce compulsory postmovement testing of cattle proved much less contentious than its proposals regarding the badger culls. The document summarising responses to Defra's consultation on postmovement testing indicates general support for the proposals and outlines plans for taking them forward.

Overall, the documents published last month indicate that the Government remains determined to press ahead with its strategy to eradicate bovine TB, using all the tools available. Elements of that strategy remain controversial. The documents released before Christmas will not change that, and will no doubt be pored over and argued about for some time to come.

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