British Wildlife News, April 2016

I came across these stories (which I’ve abridged), reported by Sue Everett in the April edition of ‘British Wildlife.’

Carbon, Peat and Fresh Waters. Upland waters are getting browner, thanks to dissolved organic carbon (DOC) leaching from soil.  According to long-term monitoring undertaken by CEH, levels of DOC in upland reservoirs, lakes and streams have roughly doubled over the past quarter-century.  While degraded pear bogs are a significant source of this rising DOC, it is also suspected that declining levels of sulphur deposition from acid rain have more recently contributed to the increase.

Volunteer for Water. Clean water for wildlife is a nationwide citizen survey to find out about the extent of nutrient pollution.  Details are available at http://bit.ly/24MIK3H.

Natural Action on Flooding. A study (http://bit.ly/1prlF5F) caied out for the EA, has shown that strategic planting of trees on floodplains could reduce the height of flooding downstream by up to 20%.  [But how about] more attention paid to reversing some land drainage and thus restoring rush pastures, flushes and floodplain meadows as a means to slow down water coming off landscapes.

Chemicals and Cetaceans. Researchers from the ZSL have completed a major study of more than 1,000 stranded whales, dolphins and porpoises.  Many of the carcases contained high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s) though these were banned during the 1980’s.  most of the 300,000 tonnes of PCB’s produced in Europe are thought to be on land and not properly disposed of.

Managing Mammals. Concerning the future population size of beavers, wild boar and badgers as they have no natural predators.  With regard to badgers, Peter Cooper explores this theme in his blog of 7th March (http://petecooperwildlife.com) – ‘Are Badgers Over-Protected?’  I agree that it would be a good time to have a grown-up conversation on the species’ population and management.

Carbon Fields. A nationwide survey has revealed the huge store of carbon associated with UK grasslands. The study also shows however, that decades of intensive farming across the UK, involving high rates of fertilizer use and livestock grazing, have caused valuable soil carbon stocks to decline.  The team found that the largest soil carbon stocks were under grasslands that have been farmed at intermediate levels of intensiveness, receiving less fertilizer and with fewer grazing animals.  Synopsis at http://bit.ly/1RDOFjn.

Adverse Hold of Power of NFU Over UK Governments

Part of an article concerning the continuing adverse hold of power of the National Farmers Union over UK governments and the environment.

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2016/mar/23/has-the-nfu-presidents-farm-led-by-example-when-it-comes-to-bad-practice-in-the-countryside?CMP=share_btn_tw

George Monbiot, Wednesday 23 March 2016.

“It’s simple,” a civil servant at the government’s environment department, Defra, once told me. “When we want to know what our position should be, we ask the NFU [National Farmers’ Union].”

There are not many organisations in Britain – though this country is infested with lobbyists of every persuasion – with a grip on policy as tight as the National Farmers’ Union. Vast conservation bodies (the National Trust, RSPB and Wildlife Trusts have a combined membership of some 6 million) are locked out, while the NFU seems to get everything it wants.

It looks to me like a champion of bad practice. On one issue after another it has demanded that the protections for people, places and wildlife are diluted. And in almost every case it has succeeded.

It insisted that the agricultural wages board, which protected farm labourers against exploitation, should be abolished. The last government gave it what it wanted.

It lobbied for an exemption from the ban on treating flowering crops with neonicotinoid pesticides, that are ripping through our populations of bees and many other animals. Not only did the NFU succeed, last summer, but the government also gagged its own expert advisers, perhaps to prevent us from seeing that they had counselled against the exemption. The government also refused to reveal the basis on which the NFU had lobbied it, claiming, preposterously, that this was “commercially confidential”.

The NFU demanded a badger cull, though a £49m government pilot programme demonstrated that it was not only useless, but counterproductive. It won, and badgers are being killed at the cost of £7,000 an animal.

It insisted that there should be no cap on the amount of money a landowner could receive in farm subsidies – and won.

It campaigned, with the help of successive British governments, against the European Union’s proposed soil framework directive, which sought to minimise soil erosion and compaction, to prevent landslides and to prevent soil from being contaminated with toxic substances. Once more, it won, and for the first time in the European Union’s history, a legislative proposal was abandoned.

In January, just after the Christmas floods had abated, the environment secretary, Liz Truss, announced that she would allow farmers to dredge watercourses crossing their land, without regulation or coordination. This is a perfect formula for catastrophe downstream, as it speeds up the flow of water to the nearest urban pinch-point.

It was as if she had got together with her officials to devise the most perverse possible response to the flooding. In reality, however, it seems that she was simply responding to the NFU’s lobbying. As its president, since 2014, Meurig Raymond, explained, “The NFU has pressed Defra and the Environment Agency to enable farmers to undertake minor works for many years.”

But this is not the only influence the National Farmers’ Union has sought to exert over the state of our rivers: a state that is frankly shocking. Figures from the Environment Agency suggest that just 0.08% of rivers in England are of high ecological quality, while only 17% are judged “good”. One of the principal reasons is diffuse agricultural pollution: the constant seepage of slurry, fertiliser and pesticides from fields and farm buildings.

It’s hardly surprising, as the Environment Agency has more or less stopped enforcing. When I came across a severe case of pollution in a Devon river last year, and reported it to the agency’s pollution hotline, the only action they took was to produce a list of crap excuses for looking the other way. After I wrote about this scandal, I was contacted by one of the agency’s staff, who told me that, as a result of pressure from the government and the massive cuts imposed by Truss, the staff there have been instructed to ignore all reports of grade three and grade four pollution, which accounts for the great majority of water poisoning in this country.

This puts the government in a difficult position, as all rivers in this country – not just 17% – were supposed to have been in good ecological condition by the end of 2015, under the European water framework directive. The government is now in danger of a massive fine, which ultimately will come out of the pockets of taxpayers.

It has now published a consultation on diffuse water pollution. The NFU has made its position clear, objecting to the government’s proposal to “maximise reductions in diffuse pollution and benefits to the wider environment”. Instead, it says, protecting our rivers should be left to “voluntary measures”.

TB Outbreaks in Dorset Cull Zone Possibly Increased After Badger Cull

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/feb/19/badger-cull-linked-to-rise-in-bovine-tb-cases

‘Stop the Cull’ finds number of herds with TB outbreak, in Dorset cull zone and at its edge, increased after badger killing began.

Steven Morris, Friday 19 February 2016.

The government’s controversial badger cull has led to a rise in the number of cases of tuberculosis found in cattle in one of the programme’s key geographical areas, say animal rights activists.

Rather than the number of cases of bovine TB falling among herds in and on the edge of the badger killing area in Dorset, they have been increasing, it was claimed. The campaign group Stop the Cull suggests this was due to “perturbation”, referring to the way culling may disrupt badger social groups, leading probably to more widespread roaming (including migration into cull areas), and consequently the disease spreading.

The claims came as the government announced that Natural England had received 29 applications or expressions of interest from farmers’ groups wanting a badger cull in their area. Natural England said the various areas ranged from a total of 52 sq miles to up to 252 sq miles. The areas were in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Somerset, Wiltshire, Worcestershire and Cheshire. There has been no decision on the number of cull areas for 2016.

Stop the Cull, which has championed direct action against the government’s programme, has analysed official figures recording outbreaks of bovine TB in Dorset, where culling began in the autumn.

The precise location of the cull zones are not released because of security concerns, but the group believes its activists have accurately mapped the boundaries. Within those boundaries 14 herds are currently infected with bovine TB and the “breakdowns” or outbreaks began before the cull started. But 18 herds became infected after the start of the cull.

Around the edge of what Stop the Cull says is the zone, there are three continuing “breakdowns” that began before the cull – but eight that started afterwards.

Jay Tiernan, spokesperson for Stop the Cull, said: “Farmers were repeatedly warned by scientists that killing badgers could make the situation far worse for them. They ignored that advice and are now reaping what they have sown.”

Defra said it did not have the official analysis of the cull on bovine TB levels in Dorset but claimed investigation of the first culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire showed that perturbation had not occurred in these counties.

A Defra spokesperson said: “Our comprehensive strategy to eradicate bovine TB through tighter cattle controls, improved biosecurity and badger control, is delivering results and we are on track to deliver TB freedom to more than half of the country by the end of this parliament. TB poses a huge threat to our farming industry and has cost £500m over the last decade. However badger control in the south west has been successful and we are enabling it to take place over a wider number of areas.”

The government insists that the risk of perturbation has been reduced through the use of natural geographic barriers or introduction of measures such as fencing.

Chris Cheeseman, a badger ecologist and expert on bovine TB, warned that both sides – the anti-cull lobby and the government – cherry-picked figures to suit their case. But he added: “It is entirely possible that the apparent increase in herd breakdowns both inside the Dorset badger cull zone, particularly around the edge of the area, is due to the disruptive phenomenon of perturbation. This is where the disruption caused by culling to the badger population actually exacerbates the spread of TB among both badgers and cattle.”

Cheeseman argued that it would be impossible to determine the impact of badger culling on its own because there were many other factors, such as improvements in farm biosecurity, which could have an impact on cattle TB rates.

 

Badger Culling 2015: Where Are We Now?

Zoological Society of London information sheet.

http://www.zsl.org/blogs/wild-science/badger-culling-2015-where-are-we-now#.VhRQmDDrE6w.twitter

Badger culling 2015: where are we now?

by Rosie Woodroffe on

September 18th, 2015

For the ambitious civil servant, there must be no worse nightmare than a transfer to TB section. For decades, efforts to control bovine tuberculosis in Britain have been mired in uncertainty and controversy. It’s almost impossible to succeed, because the solution is guaranteed to infuriate somebody.

The TB problem is a genuine one. Frequent cattle testing keeps the disease more or less in check, but this testing places a financial and emotional strain on farmers which cannot and should not be ignored. Although most transmission to cattle comes from other cattle, badgers also help to maintain the disease. To many farmers, badger culling seems an obvious solution – but there are two major obstacles. First, badgers are among Britain’s most iconic species, protected by their own Act of Parliament, and beloved by many. Second, scientific evidence shows that badger culling must be all-or-nothing: virtually eradicating badgers from vast swathes of countryside would probably help to reduce cattle TB, but culls which are small-scale, patchy, inefficient or discontinuous have been found to increase TB rates in cattle. So, there can be no compromise: killing a few badgers may be more acceptable to the public, but it is likely to worsen the TB problem.

This last point may seem counter-intuitive; the underlying mechanism relates to the interplay between badger numbers and badger behaviour. Left undisturbed, family groups of badgers defend their territories against intruders: this behaviour also stops diseased badgers from ranging widely through the countryside. But culling disrupts this territorial system. Badgers which have evaded culling, and those which move in to exploit land vacated by culling, range more widely and mix more freely with one another, increasing the spread of disease. After culling there are fewer badgers, but each badger is more infectious to cattle because it is more likely to be infected, and because it ranges across more farms. Hence, only culls which greatly reduce badger density can be expected to reduce cattle TB.

Public affection for badgers is an important argument against eradicating them, but it’s not the only obstacle. Because badgers are nocturnal and forage alone, killing large numbers of them requires considerable effort and cost. To try to reduce these costs, the government sought to replace cage-trapping (the method which had been used for decades) with “controlled shooting” of free-ranging badgers using high-powered rifles and shotguns. In 2013, it initiated a test of the safety, humaneness, and effectiveness of controlled shooting within two “pilot” culling areas in Somerset and Gloucestershire. It stated that: “If monitoring of the humaneness, effectiveness and safety indicates that controlled shooting is an acceptable culling technique, then and only then would this policy be rolled out more widely”.

After two years of pilot culling, the government has indeed decided to “roll out” the approach to a new area in Dorset. So did the pilot culls show that culling was safe, humane, and effective?

Safety.

“Controlled shooting” raised a number of safety concerns, not least because the culls attracted considerable public protest. The prospect of demonstrators clashing by night with armed marksmen in remote rural areas was worrying to some. Nevertheless, beyond some “near misses” recorded in Gloucestershire, and some unpleasant interactions which must have been frightening to all involved, the safety of the pilot culls has not turned out to be an issue of broad concern.

Humaneness.

Rifles are widely used to shoot other wild mammals, but badgers’ low-slung shape and nocturnality make them a challenging target for a clean kill. The Independent Expert Panel which oversaw the first pilot culls noted that human victims of gunshot wounds are initially so shocked that they feel no serious pain for the first five minutes. The panel therefore reasoned that death within five minutes of shooting might be considered humane. Unfortunately, in the 2013 pilot culls between 7.4% and 22.8% of badgers were still alive five minutes after being shot. Efforts were made to improve humaneness when the pilot culls were repeated in 2014, but with little success: the equivalent figures were 4.1-18.6%. On this basis, the British Veterinary Association called for controlled shooting to be abandoned as a culling method. This advice was dismissed by the farming Minister, who stated simply that “we don’t agree”. Controlled shooting was once again approved for use in 2015.

Particularly worrying is the use of shotguns to kill badgers. The Independent Expert Panel cautioned that it had received too few data from the 2013 culls to be able to assess the humaneness of free shooting with shotguns, and called for shotgun use to be either discontinued or rigorously monitored. The government initially committed to close monitoring, but subsequently chose not to allow the use of shotguns for free shooting in 2014. Although there is consequently no evidence of the humaneness (or otherwise) of killing free-ranging badgers with shotguns, this activity was licensed in 2015.

Effectiveness.

Because changes in cattle TB take years to emerge, the government chose to measure the effectiveness of the pilot culls as the reduction in badger population size that they achieved. This makes sense because, as explained above, killing too few badgers increases cattle TB rather than reducing it. The government aimed for licensees to reduce the density of resident badgers by at least 70%. In 2012, when the licensees felt unable to kill the required numbers of badgers, the Secretary of State delayed the culls, saying that: “It would have been quite wrong to go ahead when [licensees were] not confident of reaching the 70% target and could have made the position worse.”

When the pilot culls took place in 2013, they conspicuously failed to kill the requisite number of badgers, taking just 37-51% in Somerset, and 43-56% in Gloucestershire. The annual culls were repeated in 2014, but there was no quantitative assessment of the population reduction achieved. However, simple calculations (detailed here) suggest that the aim of reducing badger numbers by “at least 70%” was once again missed by a mile. Nevertheless, the same aim was reiterated in 2015 when the government gave the go-ahead for a third year of culling.

However, the small print associated with the cull licenses tells a different story. To try to make sure that enough badgers are killed, each licensee is given a minimum number of badgers which must be killed within a single six-week period each year. Setting these minimum cull numbers is difficult, because badger numbers are very uncertain. The situation can be likened to a short-sighted person competing in a high-jump competition without their spectacles. The bar to be jumped has a specific location in space, but to the short-sighted competitor it appears fuzzy, with a location known only approximately. Scientists represent such uncertainty using a “95% confidence interval”. For example, the 95% confidence interval around the pre-cull estimate of badger numbers in the Somerset cull zone was 1,876-2,584, meaning that there is a 95% probability that the true number of badgers was less than 2,584, but more than 1,876. The minimum numbers of badgers to be killed in 2015 were derived from this lower 95% confidence limit – an approach which would normally have only a 1 in 40 chance of reducing badger numbers by “at least 70%” as planned. In the high jump analogy, this is akin to a short-sighted athlete hoping to jump over the fuzzy bar he perceives by aiming for its lower margin. While there’s a small chance that he’ll clear the bar, crashing into it is much more likely.

Figures from the Gloucestershire cull zone show the craziness of this approach. Although the 2014 cull missed its minimum target by 341 badgers (274 killed, when the licence required 615), the minimum number to be killed in 2015 (265) is insufficient to make up the difference, even if it is (conservatively but improbably) assumed that neither immigration nor births occurred since the 2014 cull was completed.

The government described the choice of such low minimum numbers as “realistic” since earlier, higher, targets were not met. They also described it as “precautionary”. It is important to stress that this choice is by no means precautionary in the context of disease control because, as the previous Secretary of State agreed, killing too few badgers risks increasing TB risks for cattle.

Beyond the pilot culls.

In setting up the pilot culls, the government stated that badger culling would be rolled out to new areas only if it was shown to be safe, humane, and effective. To justify this year’s rollout to Dorset it has ditched independent scrutiny, dismissed the veterinary profession’s views on animal welfare, and indulged in some statistical limbo-dancing to fix the figures on effectiveness. Its chutzpah would be comical, if it didn’t risk more dead cattle, more dead badgers, and more ruined farmers.

But there’s more to come. The government has also announced a public consultation on further watering down the requirements for culling licences. Restrictions on the maximum cull duration, minimum cull area size, and minimum percentage of accessible land were all put in place to avoid making the cattle TB problem worse. Now the government considers these necessarily stringent criteria “unduly inflexible” and proposes to relax or abandon them. Mysteriously, it states that: “these proposals are not expected to materially affect the benefits of culling on levels of bTB in cattle”, despite the wealth of scientific evidence to the contrary. You can read ZSL’s response to the public consultation here: ZSL bTB consultation response September 2015 (106.66 KB).

Proponents of culling point to the crippling economic burden of TB control, demanding that something be done about it. But the government’s own cost-benefit analysis predicted that culling would not protect enough herds to be financially worthwhile. Since then, the culls have proven much less effective than anticipated (reducing the likely benefits), and much more costly, with each badger killed to date costing taxpayers around £7,000. Additional costs have been borne by farmers themselves.

Scientists are advised to present the evidence but to leave policy recommendations to others. So: the evidence suggests that licensed badger culling is inhumane and costly, with limited expected benefits for TB control and a realistic prospect of detrimental effects. This view is shared by many independent scientists, including the chairs of three successive committees advising government on the matter. Proposed changes to licence conditions are likely to further reduce the benefits of culling for farmers, and increase welfare costs for badgers. I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about how these statements should inform policy.

I started by describing the difficulties of advancing an effective TB control policy. But, in fact, progress is being made. After years of steady increase, cattle TB rates are starting to decline. This change is not related to badger culling; it almost certainly reflects improved cattle controls starting to take effect. This decline is especially marked in Wales, where cattle testing has been most stringent; recently, further tightening of cattle controls has been proposed for England. At the same time, improved understanding of how, where and when badgers and cattle come into contact – including findings emerging from my own research group – should eventually help farmers to improve biosecurity by discouraging badger-cattle contact. Badger vaccination is also a promising tool, although there needs to be a better evaluation of its impact on cattle TB. Vaccinating badgers is already cheaper than culling, and investigations are underway to further reduce costs, both by involving volunteers, and by developing an oral formulation which does not require capturing badgers. Before the pilot culls commenced, a team of scientists (myself included) warned publicly that: “badger culling risks becoming a costly distraction from nationwide TB control”. It looks as though we may have been right.

Change Way We Test and House Cattle to Control Bovine TB?

This piece of research sounds quite plausible.  Much larger numbers of cows are now housed together than in years gone by.

http://www.wildlifeextra.com/do/ecco.py/view_item?listid=1&listcatid=1&listitemid=20213&live=0#cr

Change way we test and house cattle to control bovine TB, says new research.

According to new research, the culling of badgers will potentially reduce the number of Bovine TB infected cattle by just 12 out of a herd of 15,000. However, reducing the interval between TB tests on cattle by one month could reduce the number of sick cattle by 193.

The Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) research found that regular and frequent testing of cattle could eventually lead to the eradication of the disease, whether or not badgers were culled, and despite the current test being at most 80 per cent accurate.

Badger culling alone, however, did not lead to TB eradication in the study and is therefore thought unlikely to be a successful control strategy. The model also suggested that housing cattle in large sheds over winter could potentially double the number of infected animals in a herd, because under such conditions there is a much greater chance of TB being passed between cows.

This is the first large-scale model of TB in cattle and badgers that has included the possibility of the infection being passed in both directions between the two species. The model successfully mimicked the changing patterns of TB in the UK, including the changes seen after TB controls were reduced during the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2002.

Researchers Dr Aristides Moustakas and Professor Matthew Evans, of QMUL’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, used state-of-the-art computer modelling to understand how the interaction of different factors impacted on infection rates.

Such factors included the movement and life-cycles of badgers and cattle; how cattle are moved and housed; how frequently cattle are tested; different types of badger culling; and the infection rates between animals.

Dominic Dyer, of the Badger Trust and Care for the Wild, says: “This research is large-scale, objective, and takes into full account the possibility of badgers being responsible for bTB infections in cattle – yet still it concludes that the answer to beating this disease is to focus on the cattle. This is the message we at Care for the Wild and the Badger Trust, and many others, have been hammering home over the last couple of years, so maybe now the government will feel the need to actually listen.The role badgers play in spreading this disease has been massively exaggerated, and the impact of culling them has been completely misunderstood.“

“The fact that keeping large numbers of cows in winter sheds can lead to a doubling in the number of infected animals shows again the simple truth that bTB is caused by cattle spreading it to other cattle.

“The impact of more frequent testing simply highlights the issue that many infected cows are currently being missed, and are thus spreading the disease without anyone realising. Find the infection, you’ll beat the disease.”

Professor Evans says: “Of the available Bovine Tuberculosis control strategies we believe that how frequently cattle are tested and whether or not farms utilise winter housing have the most significant effect on the number of infected cattle.”

“TB is a complex disease and modelling it is difficult but we’ve successfully used our model to replicate real world situations and are confident that it can be used to predict the effects of various changes in the way we tackle the disease. Our modelling provides compelling evidence, for those charged with controlling Bovine TB, that investment in increasing the frequency of cattle testing is a far more effective strategy than badger culling.”

New figures from the Welsh badger vaccination programme also highlight a lower impact from badgers than had been expected. In 2014, 1,316 badgers were vaccinated and all were returned to the wild in good health. None needed veterinary treatment in view of poor condition, none were found to have visible TB lesions.

After three years of the five-year vaccination project, over 3,500 badgers have been vaccinated. None have been found to have visible TB lesions, no badgers have been removed and euthanised. Between June 2013 and April 2014 the Welsh Government undertook a road kill survey of badgers in the Intensive Action Area (ie high risk TB area where vaccination was taking place). Thirty badgers were collected and tested for TB, but only two were found to have the disease (early stage, no visible TB lesions).

Dominic Dyer adds: “A poll in the Gloucester Post showed that two out of three people are against the badger cull being rolled out across the rest of the country. But this figure would be much higher if people weren’t being given the impression that huge numbers of badgers are infected, and weren’t told that culling them is vital to beating the disease.”

“Huge numbers of badgers are not sick, and as we’ve been saying, and as this new research tells us, culling them is not vital, and in fact is not even useful.  Wales has improved testing and cut the number of animals slaughtered for bTB by 50 per cent – the answer is staring us in the face.”

Badger Culling Could Take 20 Years

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jan/07/badger-culls-will-take-20-years-to-eliminate-bovine-tb-says-environment-secretary?CMP=share_btn_tw

ABSTRACT.

Fiona Harvey, The Guardian. Wednesday 7 January 2015.

Culling badgers will not get rid of bovine TB in the UK for more than two decades, the environment secretary told farmers on Wednesday.

The controversial cull is part of a package of measures championed by the coalition government, including controls on the movement of cattle and better monitoring. But these are still unlikely to bring the disease under control for many years.

Elizabeth Truss, secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, said: “This government is taking action to deal with this disease. This is not something that can be achieved overnight. Our strategy is focused on eradicating it by 2038.”

She defended the cull, telling the Oxford Farming Conference: “It is not easy, but we will do the right thing even if the protest groups don’t like it. Our comprehensive strategy involves cattle movement controls, vaccination in the edge areas and culling where the disease is rife. We know from the experience in Australia where the disease has been eradicated, and in Ireland and New Zealand where it is being dramatically reduced, that this approach works.”

Truss also promised dairy farmers, the main victims of the bovine TB outbreaks, that the government would target more support at the dairy industry, including longer contracts with buyers, new capital investment for monitoring animal welfare and improving the energy efficiency of cattle housing.

Government Bodge on Badgers & Bovine Tb

http://journalofanimalecology.wordpress.com/2014/06/23/name-uk-government-animal-ecology-test-score-0/

Name: UK government. Animal ecology test score: 0

Posted on June 23, 2014 by journalofanimalecology © Andrew Byrne

Every now and again animal ecology findings make it into the news. Press coverage often focuses on cases where a species is on the edge of extinction, has erupted to plague proportions, or exhibits some quirky behaviour. One of the positive things about such coverage is that the public appreciates that animal ecology is a mature field of study that uses high-tech methods of data collection, cutting-edge statistical methods and mathematically elegant models. But all too often animal ecology stories are little more than a curiosity, chosen to fill the ‘And finally…’ slot. Occasionally animal ecology research influences government policy – something that has happened with the control of tuberculosis (TB) in cattle. However, this particular case is not a good news story – sound animal ecology advice is being ignored by the current UK government. The reason? A cynic might speculate that it is because following best animal ecology practice might lead to conclusions at odds with what the government seems unjustifiably determined to do.

I believe that policy should always be guided by the best possible evidence available. If I am offered policy based on science, or policy based on conjecture, anecdote and innuendo, I will go with the science-based view as long as it is ethical and humane. I suspect that such a position is considered rather extremist by the current, and recent, British administrations, but I consider it defensible.

Everyone I have spoken to on the issue of TB in cattle wants it eradicated. I have not spoken to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about it. This is perhaps a little surprising. I was a member of the Independent Expert Panel (IEP) appointed to assess the efficacy, humaneness and safety of the badger cull by the Secretary of State’s department – Defra. In retrospect, I think the IEP should have had access to the Secretary of State so we could present our findings and discuss them directly with him. He might have found it useful. I won’t agree to serve on such a government committee again without agreed access to the appropriate minister.

So what were the culls about? Previous research in England had convinced the government that a reduction in badger numbers of at least 70% would be sufficient to eradicate TB in cattle. But how best to achieve this? Gassing, trapping or shooting at night? Gassing was not an option since it was banned for being inhumane decades ago. So that left shooting and trapping. If badger numbers could be humanely reduced by 70% by controlled shooting then a workable solution to TB in England would have been found. So two areas were identified – one in Gloucestershire and one in Somerset – and planning for the multi-year pilot culls commenced.

The first job of the IEP was to devise methods to assess efficacy and humaneness. The methods needed to be robust to fraud by anti-cull protesters making the cull look less effective than it was, and by contractors returning badger carcasses shot elsewhere to make the cull look more effective. The IEP came up with the following method to assess effectiveness: hair traps were used to sample the badger population in the pilot areas, with individuals uniquely identified through genotyping. Hair samples were also taken from culled animals and individually identified with the same genotyping methods. The proportion of the original sample among culled animals gives an estimate of the effectiveness of the cull. Robust estimates of population size can also be obtained using our approach. The method does make assumptions, and we devised a suite of statistical analyses to check for biases and to estimate uncertainties. Once the cull was over, and all analyses were conducted, we were able to say with 95% confidence that the culls failed to deliver anywhere near the 70% target. The probability of either cull having achieved the requisite 70% or more reduction in badger numbers are similar to me – a middle-aged, overweight, unfit Brit – being selected to captain the Brazilian football team in the World Cup. Zero. The culls were not effective, and we can say that with strong statistical support based on the analysis of high quality data.

The assessment of humaneness is a little less certain, but was based on survival analysis with censoring of animals that were shot at. There is greater uncertainty around our conclusions of this analysis. However, we were able to conclude that it was highly improbable that the culls met Defra’s humaneness target of no more than 5% of badgers taking more than 5 minutes to die.

The IEP also made several recommendations on improvements to the way the cull is delivered that the government accepted. For example, we made recommendations on the way that contractors are trained.

So that was year 1 of the pilot culls. Year 2 is approaching. Given the success of the animal ecology methods used, presumably the government would continue to use these tried and tested methods? Methods that are hard to cheat. Methods based on mark-recapture analysis, which is arguably the most innovative statistical development in animal ecology in the last 25 years. Surprisingly, not, despite the IEP recommending it. The government has not announced exactly what they are going to do, but they will not use methods that allow the effectiveness of the continuing pilots to be assessed in year 2 in the same way they were assessed in year 1. Any results they do achieve will be incomparable. If one of my undergraduate students made such an elementary mistake in an exam essay they would be heavily marked down. A change of protocol half way through an experiment reveals such a limited understanding of the scientific method that I am tempted to speculate that the government no longer wants to know whether the pilots are effective or humane. They just want to cull badgers, regardless of whether the population or humaneness consequences can be assessed.

In addition to changing the protocols, there is to be no more independent oversight of the ongoing culls. So who will oversee the analysis of data and the interpretation of results? The same folk that have decided to change the protocols half way through the experiment? I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool Bayesian, but this is a case where I think I might be justified in working with a well-informed prior that the conclusions will be unlikely to stand up to scrutiny.

Government agencies are stuffed full of very competent scientists. Presumably the concerns that they must have raised are being wilfully ignored by government. I wonder why? I wonder if the government no longer wants to know the answer to whether their ongoing pilot culls will deliver the required outcome. I wonder if conducting the pilot culls is the easiest way for the government to look as if it is tackling the awful issue of bovine TB, even though a large body of animal ecology has concluded it is unlikely to be the solution in England? I fear we may hear that the second year is a success once it is over. But such a statement would be hollow.

Not all government policy can be based on science. Often ministers need to work out how to carve up funds. There may be no right or wrong answer on how to do this, and the decision may be based on who shouts loudest, or what seems ‘right’ given the minister’s philosophy. But when animal ecology – and more generally science – can inform a policy debate, scientific approaches must be used and scientific conclusions should not be ignored. The government’s decision to ignore best scientific practice has not been justified by the Secretary of State. I’d be surprised if he changes his mind. U-turns are seen as a sign of weakness. But what is incredibly sad about the whole sorry affair is we are missing an opportunity to assess whether the pilot culls that the government implemented can solve the dreadful scourge of bovine TB. The existing evidence strongly suggests that culling is not the solution in England, and that the ongoing culls were on course to add more evidence in support of this view. The government’s recent actions rob us of this evidence. And this means we will be delayed in solving the TB problem, that farmers will continue to carry the cost of this dreadful disease for years to come and that badgers will be culled without justification. The issue is not the badgers moving the goalposts as the Secretary of State famously claimed. It is the government. But why they have moved them to make it so easy to score an own goal in the fight against TB is beyond me.

You can download the IEP report here. If you want animal ecology to be relevant to policy, and not just a curiosity used by the media for a bit of light relief, speak up for it! Writing to your MP about it and being vocal on social media is an easy way to make an impact. If enough ecologists speak up for their field, future governments perform better in the use of animal ecology evidence.

Tim Coulson

Editor, Journal of Animal Ecology

(twitter: @tncoulson)